By Jeongyoon Han
Header image: Junior Cecelia Zhang and senior KayLee Steiner play the violin in the orchestra room.
Freshman Grace Lu (卢一泠) turns on her phone and gets a notification of a message from We Chat, a Chinese social media app. It’s a message from her mom. Grace scrolls up in the conversation thread to look back at some old messages, including one from her three-year-old sister: “I miss you.”
After all, the last time Grace saw her sister in person was in August, when Grace left for the U.S. to attend MPH. Separated by 6,844 miles, Grace, 16, is taking every opportunity to show her family and friends at home her new life.
And for Grace, there is much to show: volleyball games, school life, new friends. Her time in the U.S. has been a landmark moment in life, as she and 18 other international students have had to embrace all aspects of American culture, which, for some, has been a mix of everything: exciting, fun, awkward, and sometimes, even intimidating.
“Actually, in the first month of school, it was really difficult for me,” Grace said.
Wei Gao (高薇), MPH International Student Coordinator, said the transition is a universal issue for all international students, from adjusting to education and lifestyle, to a new language and new friends.
“Not just the language, not just the culture, but a lot of the time [there] are issues they have to face independently that not everybody has to face at MPH,” Gao said.
Grace said one of the biggest changes she has had to make is adjusting to the American educational system. In China, there is a great emphasis on standardized test scores.
The culture and philosophy of teaching differs even further between the two countries, particularly in the degree of class discussions and how often students have the opportunity to voice their opinions.
“In China, we always are silent in class. But in an American class, you always need to talk,” Grace said. “In China, when you disagree with others, it’s a little bit rude. But now I think in America it’s pretty different and they can say something they want when they think.”
Gao agrees that American schooling allows international students the freedom to formulate their own thoughts.
“The American educational system gives the students a sense of ‘Yes, I can be who I am, and I can speak out what I think,’” she said. “I guess that’s why, I mean, people are coming here, thinking they can get a better environment for their pursuit and knowledge.”
The numbers show that many foreign students find American schooling appealing. According to the Institute of International Education (IIE), 46 percent of the 73,000 international students enrolled in American high schools in 2013 were Chinese. American colleges are even more popular among Chinese students: the IIE found that from 2013-2014, 31 percent of the total 886,052 international students were from China.
Junior Cecilia Zhang (张意昕), who is in her first year at MPH, said, “For high school education, I didn’t think U.S. education is better than Chinese, but for colleges, I mean, obviously U.S. is definitely way more advanced than Chinese colleges.”
Equally important, Cecilia simply wanted to surround herself in a completely new environment.
“I just wanted to experience a different lifestyle. The reason why I came here is I just wanted to see different people,” she said.
The transition to living with an entirely new family while attending an American school takes up much of the students’ time, so keeping in touch with parents has been the least of some students’ concerns. Even with technology that allows students to message, video chat and call their parents instantly, students don’t feel the need to stay in daily contact with them.
Some follow a schedule: sophomore and first-year MPH student Ennis Yu (余秋宏) Skypes his parents every other week. Cecilia used to call her parents every Friday, but now only calls them once or twice every two weeks to let them know how things are going, and to tell them all of the new and exciting activities she is participating in.
For example: Cecilia began playing the violin the summer before coming to MPH, and now takes private lessons once a week. She joined the MPH Orchestra and Band as a violinist and pianist, respectively—the first time she has ever been part of a school music ensemble. Back in China, music education in schools is mostly limited to chorus.
Students have also taken advantage of Syracuse’s cold winter weather. Cecilia, who had never seen snow in China, joined Ski Club, and the international students have gone ice skating numerous times.
But in their new American lives, the international students unsurprisingly have some road bumps in the way. What’s been most worrisome for many of them has been fitting in the MPH community. Some international students, including freshman Iris Fan (樊宣伯), have become self-conscious in their speaking skills.
“At first, you have to think of what you want to say,” she said. “And then you have to translate it in English, then you have to organize it, and adjust the position of words and grammar, and then you can say it.”
The concern over saying things correctly in English has made some, like Iris, Grace and fellow freshman Angela Chen (陈志敏), feel more reserved.
“I really don’t want to talk [in class],” Grace said. “It has become really difficult for me. When I was in China, I almost know everyone in the school… I make friends with everyone, can talk with everyone. But now, I… just know limited people in MPH. I think it’s a big change for me, for my personality. From before, for me, it’s more outgoing, but now, I’m so quiet.”
Gao, who also teaches Chinese at MPH, agrees that changing schools and having to make friends when English isn’t their first language can impact international students’ personalities.
“You were one person in China, how your friends and families look at you,” she said. “But now when you are in a new environment, all of a sudden, it’s not the same anymore. You’re not funny anymore, your laugh isn’t appreciated, your joke isn’t appreciated anymore.”
However, for some, including sophomore Vivian Liu (刘敏嘉), making friends is no more than simply stepping out of one’s comfort zone.
“I think I’m good at making friends; when you meet people you have to be open-minded and be brave. You have to go up to them and say hi,” Vivian said.
Despite the stress that comes along with adjusting to an American school and lifestyle, most of the students agree that the study-abroad experience is worth it.
“The pressure here comes along with fun and experiencing lots of different things, so I just overlook the pressure,” Cecilia said.