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A closer look: Diversity at Miami University

By Olivia Braude, Senior Staff Writer

Part One

The waiting game is not one Phuong Dang, a Miami University junior, likes to play. In her native Vietnam, she is not accustomed to standing in line for things.

"We don't like waiting," Dang said, thinking back to the big city where she spent her childhood.

Dang realized quickly after arriving at Miami that waiting, and thus patience, were two things she would have to learn, especially if she was ever going to get a meal around campus.

The first time she went to a dining facility, she hopped in line, stood for a few tedious minutes then decided she had had enough. It was only the persistent grumbling in her stomach that caused her to return and finally get a meal.

According to Dang, in Vietnam servers come to the tables, even in small restaurants, to bring the customers their food.

"People really treasure their time," Dang said of the Vietnamese. "They don't want to spend a long time waiting in line."

That is just one of several adjustments the more than 1,200 international students enrolled at Miami may have to make when starting college in a foreign country. For some, like Dang, who had never been to campus before beginning her freshman year, the differences are numerous and the changes can be difficult.

For others, like Ke Wang, a senior from China, the transition required less effort.

"I didn't even look at schools in China," Wang said. He had spent time traveling throughout America, visiting major cities and universities, before settling on the idyllic red brick, tree-lined Miami campus.

He said he does not regret the decision and has found making friends easier than expected.

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What he found most challenging, however, were the academics.

"As a student majoring in mass communication, there are too much contexts that I have to know," Wang said.

By contexts, Wang said he meant a history of American film and television. Professors often refer to old "classics" that Wang has never seen before. Other students understand what the professor is describing, but Wang is at a loss because American "classics" are just that - classic to Americans.

Academics also proved a struggle for Dang, who did not know the Farmer School of Business required separate admission, and that she had not been accepted.

Eileen Rintsch, a first-year from Germany, deals with her difficult science classes by recording them.

"They just use words that I've never heard in my life," said Rintsch who has been learning English in Germany since third grade, but gets tripped up on the scientific words she is hearing in classes for her zoology and environmental science majors.

Magda Orlander, a sophomore, agreed the academic environment at Miami is different from what she was used to in Luxembourg, but posits that the differences are good.

The freedom she has to create her schedule and change her major contrasts with the less flexible options she would have had if she attended school in Europe.

Dang from Vietnam and Rintsch from Germany both commented on the inflexibility of coursework in their native countries.

"High school students in my country have to know exactly what they want to do in university," Dang said.

Although, to obtain their student visas, Dang, Wang, Rintsch and Orlander said they had to tell the immigration officers at their respective embassies exactly where and what they would be studying.

Student visas, according to the United States' State Department, are required for citizens of a foreign country to enter the United States for prolonged study. The visas last the duration of study, but once international students graduate they must either reapply for a visa or return home.

"It's a complicated process," Wang said.

He said the center where he had his interview was located in Beijing, about 500 miles from the city in which he resides. He thought the consulate who interviewed him confirmed or denied visas based on his mood, not on the content of the interview.

Dang agreed the interview process is troublesome - an American sits behind a glass screen while officials from the student's country review his or her files. There is no chit-chat to calm the nerves of the eager student standing on the other side; it is all business and quite intimidating.

"A lot of students from my country fail because of the interview process," Dang said.

But, the visa process is the first of many hurdles international students must overcome to study in the United States. Once they do arrive, they find not only academic differences, but often staggering social and cultural differences.

Part Two

Orlander said she misses the fresh fruits and vegetables from Luxembourg markets and eating food with few preservatives.

"Dressing doesn't have to be refrigerated here," Orlander said, "Why don't I have to put mayonnaise in the refrigerator? What's up with that?"

Wang misses traditional Chinese dishes, especially spicy ones which he cannot seem to find here.

"When I eat food that they mark spicy here, all I can taste is vinegar," Wang said, his hands raised in exasperated defeat.

Another difference is the American drinking culture. Orlander said people drink all the time in Luxembourg, but it is not as big of a deal as it is at Miami, where students seem to be drinking just to get drunk.

Dang was not even aware that she, as an 18-year-old first-year, would not be able to enjoy a drink at the bar until her roommate explained why, after a night out, she had black x's on her hands, identifying her as a minor.

Rintsch said she was also surprised by the drinking culture coming from Germany, where the legal age is 16. Not being much of a drinker herself, adjusting to the 21 age-limit has not been too difficult.

But, it has been difficult to get used to the general friendliness of the Miami students, Rintsch said.

"You're sitting somewhere and someone just comes up to you and talks to you. You would never find that in Germany," she said. "It's not that we're cold or anything, it's just that we have a friend when we talk to them and call them all the time; it's just really close friendship."

Here, everyone is a friend, she said.

Orlander, too, felt that people may seem ruder in her country, but the friendships are more genuine. And, even though most domestic students are friendly, she is not sure how often that friendship is directed toward the international student community.

"I genuinely think that there are people on this campus who will go through their four years of college without speaking with international students," Orlander said.

Rintsch said people in her classes are always willing to help her if she does not understand something, and Wang said that most students in his classes are nice, but all of his close friends are Chinese.

Orlander suggested international students tend to have international friends because of the language barrier. Translating before speaking is a "mental workout" that native English-speakers might not realize.

"You have to have the patience, especially with new international students here who may not have the language ability," she said. "They're still learning and it's hard."

Orlander grew up speaking English and, unlike most international students, did not have to adjust to life in a country with an entirely different language. She did not have a lot of the difficulties adjusting that she said most international students have.

"I pass. I don't have an accent, I blend in. But I think that's problematic in and of itself - the whole idea of passing - it's an advantage in this environment, though."

Dang said her only gripe with her time at Miami is that she is commonly assumed to be Chinese, not Vietnamese.

"I feel like most people see Asian people as Chinese, because there is a lot of Chinese students, obviously, but like not every Asian student is Chinese," she said.

Dang said she would prefer people asked her where she was from, rather than assuming.

"I'm open-minded about things," Dang said. "I know that culture is like not one day, two days learning, it's like a whole long process about learning. Anyone wanting to learn about my culture, I'm willing to share."

As the Secretary of Diversity Affairs for Associated Student Government (ASG), Orlander sees this "disconnect" between Miami domestic and international students, and one of her main goals is trying to bridge the gap.

"When you come to an environment that is as homogenous as the one is here and you're different from the domestic students, there's going to be that disconnect and it's part of the work that we're doing in the student community," she said.

Although the experience for an international student may be different, riddled with hoops to jump that US-born students will not have to face, there is a reason Miami enrolls hundreds of international students each year.

"[Miami] has become a part of me," Wang said.

For him, Dang, Rintsch, Orlander and the thousands of other students who come to Miami from 72 different countries, life at Miami has been an adventure as unique from one another's as from the students who were born in The US.

"It's been a journey," Oralnder smiled, "and I love every second of the way."

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