Demi Vitkute from Lithuania studying at Columbia University just won $100 for sharing her thoughts about making American friends as an international student.
Demi won $100 as part of our microscholarship program. Each semester we award six microscholarships, each worth $100 to six different international students. To see our past winners and to learn more, please click here.
For microscholarship #6 we asked the question: Do you find it easy or challenging to make American friends? Why or why not?
Demi was selected as the winner! Please read her essay below.
I graduated from a small, inclusive boarding school in Connecticut with a large population of international students. Only coming to college in Boston with a small population of international students, I realized how sheltered I was from people’s ignorance or lack of knowledge about international students.
The first week of college I went to pick up my clothes from the drier in the laundry room. There was a young woman there. I introduced myself. She seemed confused.
“Where are you from?” she asked when she heard my voice. How did this come into a conversation?
“Lithuania,” I responded.
“Oh, so are you an exchange student or something?” she asked.
“No, I’m an international student,” I said.
She didn’t know what the difference was. Scenes from movies like the American Pie of hot, passive exchange students, who barely spoke English came to my mind. I found the encounter odd, but I didn’t know that many more were to follow.
“Where are you from?” was always the first question that American students asked me. But sometimes it sounded more like “Why are you here?” because they were not actually eager to find out about Lithuania. Sometimes “How’s your transition going?” followed as if I had to go through some sort of transition.
Guys exotized my accent and found it “hot.” Some students and even professors were at disbelief that I was majoring in journalism in English, which was not my native tongue. I was told I had to lose my accent as if it were a symbol of intellectual inferiority and it would prevent me from finding a job. I didn’t want to speak in class. Some professors asked me to talk about the “regional” politics, like Russia’s invasion of Crimea, Ukraine, as if I were a representative of not only one nation, but the entire Eastern block. I watched a Chinese student who was majoring in journalism drop out of college and go home. She couldn’t handle the pressure. I was terrified.
I was used to hearing sentences like these:
“In America we–”
“Oh but she wouldn’t understand because she’s not from here.”
“Do you know what a state’s attorney is?” even one Ivy League student asked.
It seemed to me that people just thought of international students as some aliens who had fallen from a sky.
I was lucky though because I became best friends with my roommates and residents from my floor my freshman year. They saw me as an individual, as a friend. Not as their Lithuanian friend. Sometimes I’d come from class and cry to them about a comment that was made. Even though they were American, they understood me.
There lies an assumption that it is difficult for international students to be friends with Americans due to our differences. But it is important to emphasize the similarities, learn from our differences, and remember that we are humans first.
I also found a community of mostly international students who were compartmentalized into different labels based on their nationalities or ethnicities. We gathered together and talked about the misconceptions, finding strenght in one another.
As freshmen in college, students are very vulnerable, but international students are even more so because of all of the change that they have to go through. My American and international friends encouraged me every day and stood by me. So did some of my exemplary professors.
I guess what this “transition” meant to me was learning how to stand firm on my own two feet and stand up for myself.
My freshman year I didn’t complain about professors being unfair because I was afraid to use my voice. I silenced myself. But now as a graduate, who’s about to start Columbia University’s School of Journalism, I know that I can not only use my voice for myself, but for others, too. And oh, what a voice we have, international students, the one that transcends across oceans.