Defining Safe: Navigating Northwestern as an international student

Margot Amouyal, Reporter



Three international Northwestern students from different countries discuss their experiences with culture shock. Topics covered include their adjustment to academics in America, understanding of linguistic differences and reflections on the accuracy of American movies.

HERBERT BOTWE: I was like, “I want to be part of NASA. I want to explore space.” Then he said you had to be a citizen of the U.S. before you can be employed at NASA. Then he said, “welcome to America.”

MARGOT AMOUYAL: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Margot Amouyal. This is Defining Safe, a podcast looking at the intersection of identity and student life at Northwestern. Today, I talked to first-year international students navigating college life in the States and some of the ways they’re building community together in the process.

MARGOT AMOUYAL: The voice you heard at the beginning was McCormick freshman Herbert Botwe. He’s from Ghana and came to NU to study computer engineering. I talked to Herbert about how he felt when he first heard he had to be an American citizen to work at NASA.

HERBERT BOTWE: I think I was fine with it. Yeah, it is sad sometimes. I think the government can grant exceptions to really exceptional people. So I guess I have to be part of the exceptional group if I want to work at NASA.

MARGOT AMOUYAL: Hebert is one of 5,500 international students at NU. In the class of 2025, Herbert’s year, 80 different countries are represented and more than 10% of the class identifies as international. While all the international students I spoke with hold different identities and come from varied backgrounds, one commonality appeared: they all felt that American movies and TV shows shaped their expectations of American college life. Herbert, for example, was shocked by how different the United States is compared to its media depictions.

HERBERT BOTWE: I was thinking with the U.S., everything would be easy. They allow everybody to enjoy life. I see it on TV all the time. College people are always having fun and stuff. When I was coming to Northwestern, I was thinking it would be the same when I got here. I’m always at the library, and you have exams every two weeks. It wasn’t like that in Ghana. What I like about this, though, is I enjoy classes. Even if you get stressed, you enjoy what you are doing. So it makes life bearable.

MARGOT AMOUYAL: Beyond adjusting to a college experience that was different from what he expected, Herbert said there were cultural practices on Northwestern’s campus that he had to adjust to, like asking other students what pronouns they use during introductions.

HERBERT BOTWE: In Ghana, nobody talks about pronouns, nobody talks about gender and my voice. Over here, everyone is like, “You have a voice. You can say what you want.”

MARGOT AMOUYAL: Herbert remembers the first time another student asked him for his pronouns.

HERBERT BOTWE: Before school started, I joined the Summer Academic Workshop. I was in Ghana then. So that was when everyone was like pronouns. I did not know anything about pronouns. I had to add it to my Zoom, and I put it there. That is where I heard about it. And I think I was cool with that.

MARGOT AMOUYAL: Ultimately, Herbert says he’s really enjoying his experience at NU.

HERBERT BOTWE: Evanston is like, it’s even better than I imagined. And I’m really happy to be here.

MARGOT AMOUYAL: I also spoke with Weinberg freshman Sirin Jitklongsub, an international student from Thailand. Sirin said she experienced a lot of culture shock during her first few weeks at NU.

SIRIN JITKLONGSUB: I remember, this is a very tiny, little moment, but I thought it was pretty cool. I was literally just standing in line trying to get a free T-shirt or something. Then, this person in front of me turned around and was like, “Hey, what’s your name?” and I was very taken aback. In Thailand no one would randomly turn around and say, “Hey, what’s up, what’s your name?” That’s not something I am usually used to. I didn’t know it was that easy to go up and talk to people.

MARGOT AMOUYAL: Another adjustment for Sirin has been handling the difference in collectivist versus individualist cultural values.

SIRIN JITKLONGSUB: I think it’s because America is more of an individualistic society. It encourages people to stand up for themselves. It encourages people to be individual and be independent. Whereas the country I am from, Thailand, it is a collectivist culture. It emphasizes more on the collective and putting the good of society and the group ahead of your own needs and head of your own wants, and if you do not conform to that, then that is a problem.

MARGOT AMOUYAL: Sirin also reflected on the mentality of American college students. Many view college as their first foray into adulthood.

SIRIN JITKLONGSUB: I really get the feeling that here when people get to college, it is their first moment of freedom because they are away from home. A lot of them are adults now and can do what they want. I can see that reflected here. Whereas, in Thailand, even if you go to college, you are still living at home most of the time. For a lot of people, it is not as big of a “Oh my gosh, this is freedom. I’m going to do what I want.’’ There are still a ton of rules in place, and they don’t treat you fully like adults still. They make you follow a lot of rules. You have to wear uniforms and what not.

MARGOT AMOUYAL: But Sirin said she’s found the American college experience to be pretty similar to its media representation.

SIRIN JITKLONGSUB: The American media does portray college, to me I feel, a lot of it has been accurate. Obviously, it is not like Pitch Perfect where people are in a cappella riff-offs or whatever but a lot of the experience is similar to what I would have expected, which is why I always say to my friends a lot I feel like I am in a movie.

MARGOT AMOUYAL: While Sirin has seen many media depictions of the American college experience, she still sometimes hears cultural references she doesn’t understand.

SIRIN JITKLONGSUB: Words I don’t feel like should be a word. I remember this one time there was a party but it was a party during the day. So they were like, “Oh, it’s a darty.” I was like why do you have to make a word out of something that doesn’t need to be a new word. You can just call it a party that happens during the day. It’s just those little things.

MARGOT AMOUYAL: Sirin also has experienced the opposite. Sometimes, she feels like she’s not able to make references from Thai culture because others won’t understand them. One thing that helped was making friends who are also international.

SIRIN JITKLONGSUB: Finding the international community here has been so helpful. Even though you don’t share the same culture, you share the experience of not being from this culture. It’s just this big mixing pot. It’s so heartwarming. In a lot of ways, we understand each other in ways that we wouldn’t be able to relate to a lot of American kids.

MARGOT AMOUYAL: The international student community has several organizations here at NU, like the International Student Association, or ISA. ISA organizes activities for the NU community and for international students, including discussions about global issues, social bonding events like retreats and formals, volunteer opportunities and coffee chats. Students can also form friendships with international students outside the context of ISA events. Sirin’s friend group, for instance, developed naturally and includes students from nearly every continent. How were they able to do this? Well, according to Sirin, she said her friends are very friendly and open to new experiences, enabling them to form meaningful relationships with classmates from around the world.

SIRIN JITKLONGSUB: The reason that these people get along so well with and have so many international friends is because they don’t give as much emphasis as to what culture you are from. Their main focus is on what kind of person are you and do I like hanging out with you. That’s all they care about, which is really nice.

MARGOT AMOUYAL: And cultural background isn’t the only social barrier. At a school where the median student’s family income is nearly $200,000 per year, and only 3.7% of the student body comes from the bottom 20% of the income distribution, navigating the University as a lower-income student can be really challenging.

SIRIN JITKLONGSUB: You need to be a certain level of wealth to be able to attend this school, especially without financial aid. So a lot of them came from exactly the same background. They went to prep schools, or whatever. They did this sport. They went on holidays. They are able to make friends with each other really quickly because they really relate to all aspects of their lives and a lot of international kids who are here, you know, on scholarship or financial aid, that’s just another level that we can’t relate to.

MARGOT AMOUYAL: NU says it maintains a need-blind admissions process for U.S. citizens and permanent residents, but it’s currently facing a lawsuit for allegedly colluding with 15 other U.S. universities to illegally reduce student financial aid. When it comes to international students, the University describes itself as “need-aware,” meaning an applicant’s ability to pay may factor into their admission decision. According to NU’s Office of Undergraduate Admission, “international applicants requesting financial aid are evaluated as a separate group” due to their “limited funding.” Once admitted, NU does offer international students financial aid.

MARGOT AMOUYAL: Sirin’s advice to incoming international students? You’ll find your people.

SIRIN JITKLONGSUB: I would say, first of all, don’t be intimidated. You’re going to feel you’re going to feel different. You’re going to feel like “Oh, like, am I gonna to be an outsider,” like, “I don’t fit in here.” You will find your group. You will find a family here that you will be able to connect with. You will find your support system.

MARGOT AMOUYAL: And for Sirin, a lot of that support system has been other international students.

SIRIN JITKLONGSUB: During March through the Arch, for example, everyone had their family there saying goodbye to them. We didn’t have our family there. But it felt really nice to look around and realize that yeah, we have each other. We’re gonna be each other’s family here.

MARGOT AMOUYAL: The last person I spoke with was McCormick freshman Khalid Siraj, an international student from Saudi Arabia. I asked Khalid how his experience at NU compared to his initial expectations.

KHALID SIRAJ: Upon first arriving, I will say that a lot of what I watched on TV turned out to be very accurate and I didn’t expect it to be. What I watched was really different from what home looks like. The way people are biking in the park, the way the streets are laid out, the trees. The houses, how they look. That was the first culture shock.

MARGOT AMOUYAL: The second culture shock came when he got on campus and started trying to meet other Middle Eastern international students.

KHALID SIRAJ: It took me two weeks to meet the first Arab student. The first Arab friend. Other than talking with my family and friends, I haven’t spoken Arabic since getting here. So that was a meaningful experience.

MARGOT AMOUYAL: And it’s not just a language difference. Khalid said there have been subtle differences in communication styles across different cultures.

KHALID SIRAJ: Small talk is a very big thing here. I can’t really wrap my head around it. But it takes a while to actually penetrate that first layer of small talk because, at least for the first quarter, because you’re meeting new people all the time, so you’re always introducing yourself, giving the same details.

MARGOT AMOUYAL: Khalid said humor is very important to him and can be difficult to translate.

KHALID SIRAJ: There was a huge shift from when I went back to when I am here. I remember reading several years back an article about how when someone learns another language, or if they can speak more than one language, they have different personalities based on the language they’re speaking. I really felt that when I went back home. When I started to again speak Arabic more freely with my family and friends, I felt like part of myself that was concealed for about three months while I was here came back to life. My mom calls me a comedian. I make a lot of stupid jokes. I don’t know. Just more outgoing. It might be because of where they grew up because they have their childhoods associated with that language, so maybe they know or are used to being funny with it. I think that is what it is for me.

MARGOT AMOUYAL: And, in the spirit of Winter Quarter, Khalid offered his take on the Windy City weather — something international and non-international students alike find difficult adjusting to.

KHALID SIRAJ: I love the snow. I am really enjoying the cold. This might seem like a weird thing coming from someone who lives in a very warm and humid place, I’m actually really enjoying this even though a lot of people seem like they’re annoyed.

MARGOT AMOUYAL: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Margot Amouyal. This episode was reported and produced by me. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Will Clark, the digital managing editor is Jordan Mangi and the editor in chief is Isabelle Sarraf. Make sure to subscribe to The Daily Northwestern’s podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud to hear more episodes like this.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @MargotAmouyal

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