By Elisa Espinoza
Since it was established in 1967, Whatcom Community College’s founder Harold G. Heiner had the purpose of internationalizing the school.
Heiner believed that by bringing in students from different countries and cultures, the college could achieve greater institutional diversity. Today, the International Programs staff works to preserve this legacy.Kelly Kester, director of the program, has been working at Whatcom for almost 17 years. Heiner hired him as an international student adviser in 2002.
“He was the unofficial director of the program,” said Kester. He remembered how Heiner would personally support the program and how invested he was in international education.
In 1988, there were only nine international students representing five countries. By 1998 that number had risen to 90 students from 22 countries, according to “Walking the Whatcom Way” by Heiner.
Today, Whatcom’s international program has evolved and grown. This spring quarter, the program is hosting 240 students from 27 countries.
Students from Asian countries are the most prominent within the international student demographics. Out of the 240 students, 62 are from Vietnam, 38 from China, 35 from Indonesia and 28 from Japan.
Students have also come from Spain, Ethiopia, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Haiti, Russia, Switzerland and others.
Whatcom reached a high of 360 international students in 2015, said Kester.
There’s been a lower number of students this past year with the end of a State Department program that granted scholarships to international students.
“This year we’ve been maintaining our numbers and the drop is slowing,” added Kester.
Sandra Kimura is an associate director for Whatcom’s international program. She’s originally from Vancouver, British Columbia and became interested in her field after seven years as an English teacher in Japan.
Kimura has been working for Whatcom for over 13 years.
The international program is marketed overseas. Whatcom works with partners and schools to help promote the program. The staff, including Kimura and Kester, travels to different countries to recruit students.
Kester travels seven times a year for at least two weeks at a time. On these trips, the team does presentations and talks to parents. Whatcom is promoted as a “safe and friendly community,” said Kimura.
The predominance of Asian countries within international programs is a common theme around the US. Student recruitment is mostly done in these areas because there they can find students who want to study in the US and who can also afford it.
“In other countries you don’t see the intersection of these factors as much,” explained Kester.
It is expected that the new convenient and safe housing will represent a draw for international students. Kester said the team is now starting to talk about strategies to market this new service.
Building housing for international students had been an ongoing conversation. “17 years later, we are finally realizing that dream,” Kester said.
Currently, a great number of students stay with host families or live in student housing out of campus, and others are able to stay with family or friends who live here, explained Kimura.
Housing is just one of the many factors the program coordinates. They also help students arrange other important things like their bank accounts and cell phones.
During their first days, students go through orientation and placement tests where their reading, writing, grammar, and oral skills are tested, explained Kimura. They also learn about the American education system and classroom culture.
English as a Second Language (ESL) classes play an important role in the students’ academic experience. Kimura said ESL classes are meant to prepare students for college level classes and provide a good English foundation.
The language barrier is a challenging factor for international students, but Kester has also seen that students are coming to Whatcom with stronger English skills.
From his traveling experiences, Kester said that young people are becoming more alike around the world. He attributes this to the way technology has connected us and reduces the “surprises” between cultures.
“Cultural shock is real but is less than it used to be.” added Kester.
Benedict Yeoh Keng Aik is a 19 year old student from Malaysia. He’s been studying at Whatcom for 10 months and he is getting an associates degree in arts and sciences.
Yeoh has been exposed to the English language since a very young age since his grandparents were English teachers. “I consider English my first language” he said.
“Because I’ve always been influenced by western culture I thought it would be easy for me and there wouldn’t be anything unexpected but a lot was different,” said Yeoh about experiencing cultural shocks.
In Asia, teachers are very respected. Yeoh wouldn’t walk out of class without excusing himself beforehand. He changed this habit when an instructor explained that he could go out as long as he wasn’t disturbing the class. “It felt weird to me,” he said.
Yeoh lives with a host family, and he’s also noticed other differences while living with them.“I grew up washing the plates with my hands and detergent,” he said and, his host family found this custom extrange and encouraged him to use the dishwasher.
Yeoh also explained how, in Malaysia, every toilet has a water pipe for people to wash themselves instead of using toilet paper. “Coming here and only being able to use toilet paper was very uncomfortable,” he said.
Yeoh plans to attend a 4-year university to get a degree in psychology.
“I knew I wanted to study psychology. If I were to study in Malaysia, there wouldn’t be as much opportunities and the education quality wouldn’t be as good,” said Yeoh.
After helping his friends with a statistics class, his peers recommended Yeoh to become a math tutor for the learning center. He prefers the term “subject tutor” since he teaches more than just math.
“I’m interested in helping others academically and in a personal level,” Yeoh said and added that he enjoys engaging in the community.
Yeoh said his mom made the right choice when she picked Whatcom as his destination. He grew up in a big city and he always wanted to experience living in the countryside. Yeoh enjoys Bellingham because it’s “a mix of being in a countryside and being in a city.’’
Yeoh likes being friends with other international students and also Americans.
“They are very tolerant with my different ways of thinking.’’ said Yeoh. “From my experience in Bellingham, I can say people are very welcoming.’
“I feel accepted even though I’m different,’’ he added.
Kester believes that Bellingham “is keeping pace with a changing world,” as he explained the way the diversity of food the city provides helps to alleviate the important cultural barrier of food differences the students face.
The program tries their best to break the barriers between international students and Americans, “We try to do things that encourage interaction,” said Kester.
For the past few years, the program has been bringing international scholars to be guest lectures each spring to promote international education. This year the program will bring a scholar from Vietnam at the end of May.
The international program also offers other activities outside of class for international students. They go to events like the Mariners games and the tulip festival, where they are able to meet other students.
Kimura said that student involvement on campus has grown over the years, and that brings different perspectives to Whatcom. They are involved in clubs and have built good relationships with the faculty, she added.
Joy Verna Kumala is a 17-year-old international student from Indonesia. She’s been studying at Whatcom since winter quarter of 2018, when she was only 15 years old.
She will graduate from Whatcom this quarter with an associates degree in arts and sciences.
Kumala works for student life, she is part of the Programming and Diversity board, where she helps plan events for the school, and she also works as an accounting tutor.
Kumala didn’t have many opportunities to be involved at the private school she attended.
“I wanted to get more experience and be more active,” said Kumara about her jobs and added that she also intended to get more pocket money to reduce her parents’ expenses.
Kumala graduated high school early in her country. Because of this, she was not allowed to enter higher education institutions.
Instead of waiting a year to attend a university, Kumala decided to study abroad. “I went to a transfer fair and I learned that I could go to Washington State and they would accept me,” she explained.
Kumala was drawn to Whatcom’s smaller classes.
“It’s just a really good place, it’s not too big but is not too small perfect for me,” she said.
Kumala explained how the teaching style in the US is very different from in Indonesia. “We don’t go through lectures, we just have our own office, we sit there and we work on our own work books by ourselves,” she said.
“We have to finish 12 books for each subject per year and each book would be 40 to 50 pages, we get to set how many pages we go through,” Kumala said, and added “My learning style had to completely change.”
Kumala has been studying in English since she was in first grade, so language wasn’t a barrier for her. “All of my textbooks were in English but I didn’t get to practice it that much,” she explained.
Kumala has been able to navigate through the cultural differences in a good way. “after a while I got used to it,” she said.
Kumala commented on Bellingham’s community. “People are very nice and warm” she said and added she realized this after visiting other places like Seattle, Portland and California. “People in Bellingham are more open to diversity,’’ she said.
Kumala said she has good relationships with other international students. “they are involved on campus, I have more opportunities to talk to them,” she said.
It is sometimes hard for her to connect with American students. “Domestic students are more likely to go to school just for class and go back home,’’ she explained and added that she used to have the same routine back in Indonesia so she understands them.
“Sometimes domestic students think all international students have rich families and that is not true for all of us,” she said and explained her parents work hard to afford her studies abroad.
“I realized that I’m paying three to four times more than domestic students,” Kumala said, and added that the numbers increase considerably if you intend to transfer to a university.
Kumala wants to major in business but she’s not planning to obtain her degree in the US. “I want to transfer to a university in Asia, I was thinking maybe Korea, Japan or Taiwan,” she said.
Kumara is happy with her experience at Whatcom.
“I got to practice my English, I learned about other people’s cultures, and I grew from the experience,” she said.
Most universities and colleges worry about international students as they help to fill desks and for the amount of money they pay in tuition, Kester said
“Whatcom has always done a good job at seeing international students not only for their enrollment but also for their value that they bring in the classroom and into the community” he added.
Kester thinks that recently “the US has got a perspective that looks more inward.” He believes the perspectives, conversations and relationships the international students bring into campus are particularly important these days.
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