Crossing borders

When deciding upon a place to go abroad, whether for a semester or a year, most students choose their destination with extra care.Students from other countries do the same when they come to the States.  So, why UVM?”What usually happens, particularly in the past several years, students who have been here before go back and talk about University of Vermont to their friends,” Amy Corwin, assistant director for International Student and Scholar Services for the Office of International Education, said.The people of the Living/Learning Center, where exchange students are housed, are very supportive, she said.”UVM has developed a really great reputation among our exchange students in terms of not only being a beautiful place to come, but the fact that it’s very friendly,” she said. “They get to know students really well, and they just have such a fantastic experience that they go back [home] to share.”Francis Ayombil, a second-year graduate exchange student from Ghana doing research for the medical school, said he received a scholarship to go to one of many different states.”My decision was based on my research work as a biochemistry grad student,” he said.Ayombil, who lives in Caribbean House in the Living/Learning Center, said he did not expect to like it here, but he was proven wrong.”I thought I would not be having fun,” he said. “But the people around [here] are easygoing, and so far everything has been good.”He said he has not returned to Ghana since August, when he arrived in Vermont, and has since experienced his first snowfall.”Before I came here, one of my concerns was whether I could survive the cold,” Ayombil said. “But the snow is beautiful.”Double majoring in modern languages and business administration, French exchange student Dila Akbek said that she doesn’t really miss home.”I love it here,” she said. “If they told me, ‘You can’t go back, you have to stay here,’ I wouldn’t mind.”Over the course of a year, there are about 75 exchange students at UVM, Corwin said.”In the fall, we get anywhere from 50 to 60 [exchange] students,” she said. “In the spring, we have a few that leave and a few that come in, and that is usually from 15 to 25 students.”However, these numbers “have been on the rise for the last five or six years,” Corwin said.”We’ve had a significant growth in our exchange student population,” she said. “In fact, we’re going to have another little period of growth starting next fall.”Akbek, who is working on cross-cultural projects with Americanized international students, said she feels that UVM should work not only to recruit more international students but to make UVM more friendly to students of international backgrounds.”We need to initiate more projects [for international students],” she said.For Ayombil, one of the many cultural differences that he has noticed between here and Ghana is the custom of introducing people, he said.”In Ghana, you don’t need to introduce me to your friend – you can just talk to anybody randomly, anytime, anywhere,” he said. “But here, it is different. Once you talk to some stranger on the street, they’re like, ‘Who is this guy? Why is he talking to me?’ and they begin to be suspicious of you.”Having friends of a different sexual orientation was a huge culture shock as well, he said.”I never had gay friends [before coming here],” he said. “Being gay is not accepted in Ghana. Anybody who shows tendencies of being gay has to suppress it. But to come to a country where people openly say ‘I’m gay,’ it’s like … wow!”He said this has changed his perspective on those of differing sexual orientations in general.”It has helped me in so many ways to view a sexual orientation as just a sexual orientation,” he said. “It has nothing to do with how you really interact. It’s just a preference.”Besides having trouble figuring out how class schedules and meal plans work, just as any new student would, one aspect Corwin sees many exchange students struggling with is using and acquiring the English language, she said.”With the exception of students who grew up speaking English their whole lives, in the first couple days – or months, actually – [the biggest problem] is dealing with expressing yourself in another language and understanding what people are saying when they’re talking very fast,” she said.Before coming to UVM, Akbek, who speaks five languages and is working on her sixth, studied abroad in Germany, so she did not experience a huge culture shock.”I had a couple friends studying in the U.S., so they had already told me what I [was going to experience],” she said. “My culture shock was to see that what they were telling me was really happening.”Although she had to adapt to the comparatively less healthy food of the States, Akebek said her overall experience has been enjoyable.”Vermonters are very welcoming people,” she said. “UVM is really great.”