On May 27, Yale will unleash thousands of graduates onto the world. But four years ago, the world unleashed many of these same students onto Yale.
For many of Yale’s international students, graduation presents a unique set of challenges and opportunities as they try to balance their culture and homes with their new American educations.
Tetsuji Okamoto ’02, an international student from Tokyo, said he will take his newfound knowledge and education back to the country he loves next year, working and living in Tokyo.
“I felt that I could make a bigger impact in Japan after receiving my education here at Yale,” Okamoto said. “Unlike the United States, Japan is a very homogenous society and people see the world in similar ways. I felt that after experiencing the diversity here at Yale I could make a big difference.”
Despite all he is looking forward to about returning home, however, Okamoto said it will be difficult to leave behind all the friends he’s made in America.
“The most difficult thing is saying goodbye to all the friends I made here at Yale,” he said. “Graduation may be the last time I will see my friends — even the closest ones.”
Regardless of being far from friends made here, Siao Fan Choo ’02, who is from Malaysia and has taken a consulting job in Singapore, said the chance to be close to her family again compelled her to return abroad next year.
“Singapore is not exactly home, but close enough,” she said. “I miss my family and these few years abroad had actually brought us closer together, and I just hope to be nearer to them so that I can see them more often.”
However, Choo said she was not concerned about limited job opportunities and lower wages. Indeed, these concerns have motivated some international students to remain in the U.S. to pursue careers.
Alexandra Redding ’02, who lived in France for 13 years before coming to Yale, will be doing business research in Washington, D.C. next year.
“It’s much better and easier to start a career in the U.S,” Redding said. “The job market is better, the economy is better. My prospects of starting a career are better overall.”
For American students who grew up here but whose families are now living abroad, the choice to remain in the U.S. seems more natural.
Alvin Kwok ’02, who moved to Beijing with his family during his senior year in high school, will attend medical school in the U.S. in the fall.
“I’ve lived abroad, but this is where I grew up,” Kwok said.
Down the road, however, most international students see lives abroad in their futures.
“I would like to go back abroad eventually,” Redding said. “If I did have a family one day, I think I’d like to go back to Europe.”
Kwok said that although being moved around so much as a child was difficult, it has made him more open to the possibility of living abroad.
“I’m not as afraid as I might have been,” he said.
The decision to come to school in the United States was all about freedom, international students said, praising American higher education for its encouragement of exploration and learning in non-academic ways.
“The college is a much better system in the U.S. than in Europe,” Redding said. “You don’t have to choose what you want to do right away. The U.S. college system leaves much more room to explore. Also, there’s more emphasis on campus life, and you can grow in other ways besides academic ones.”
Most international students said they believed the challenges they faced as freshmen were no different from those faced by most students — international or not.
“There were no big challenges of studying in the States,” said Okamoto. “I feel that my problems were similar to other students who came from high schools in the States — problems such as living by myself, not doing my laundry, bad dining hall food, etc.”
Others however, mentioned the emotional strain of being so far from family, as well as logistical challenges of going to school so far from home.
“I remember carrying all my stuff in first semester freshman year,” said Kwok. “Moving in was very difficult, not having your parents here to help. Finding places to store your things was hard. So were vacations.”
Like many students spending time away from home for the first time, some international students suffered from homesickness their first year here. However, not being able to go home for breaks made the homesickness worse for international students, said Shafaq Islam ’02, from Bangladesh.
“The first year I was really, really homesick,” Islam said. “Going back home during the winter wasn’t really an option financially, and it was hard knowing I couldn’t go home for nine months.”
It seems it would be easy for new international freshmen to be overwhelmed and culture-shocked, but Islam said that culture shock was not really a challenge he faced.
“I kind of knew what to expect because American culture is so pervasive,” he said. “But being here immersed in it was completely different. In the beginning there was some culture shock, but it faded away in the last few years.”
Okamoto said that while he had little problem adapting to American culture, he often had to explain Japanese culture to Americans.
“I have found that many of the students at Yale have no idea what it’s like living in Tokyo,” he said. “They are surprised that we have McDonald’s and Starbucks. However, most students have showed interest in hearing about my life back home.”
But many students mentioned that being in the U.S. has taught them more than American culture. Islam said being immersed in another culture has changed his perspective on his own.
“Back home, my culture was just something I took for granted,” he said. “But once I stepped outside it, I learned to appreciate it more.”
Islam’s sentiments were echoed by Okamoto, who said Yalies’ pride in their backgrounds has led him to embrace his own.
“I have come to respect and love my country more,” Okamoto said. “At Yale, people seem to be very proud of their nationality, religion, beliefs — much more than my Japanese friends back home.”