by Lexi Foldenauer
For a lot of international students, studying in America is a dream, and one that takes a lot of work and effort to make come true. Most do not know what to expect initially, as they have formed different perceptions of American culture mostly through the media.
Once here, it is tough for most to navigate things like where to live, creating a bank account, finding work, along with other basic necessities.
At Whatcom Community College, there are programs intended to help make transition to life in America a smooth one. In the International office in the Syre Building, Kelly Kester, International Programs Director, and colleague Ulli Schraml are hard at work to help students get adjusted.
Kester, who has worked at Whatcom for eight years, says the reason for the plural use of the word “program” in International Programs, is that they work both to recruit and host international students. The programs cater to incoming and outgoing students alike, and do some coordination for the ESL academic program as well, for those trying to learn English.
Bonnie Chan, 22 came to Whatcom about two years ago from Hong Kong, and said it was a hard adjustment at first.
“I was really nervous because English is only my second language,” said Chan.
After a few months of adjustment, Chan now feels more at home. She appreciates the people she has met in the International office.
“Sometimes you just walk in and talk with them,” she said. “They’re really helpful.”
This quarter, an estimated 140-145 students are involved in the programs, from 25 different countries.
“We are like parents or family for the students here,” Kester said about the level of support they strive to give each student individually. The feedback from past students has been “overwhelmingly positive” for the most part, he added.
“They really appreciate the people, place, and everything that is Whatcom,” said Kester.
Pearl Baimpwi, 29, is an international student at Whatcom, originally from Kenya. Before coming to America, most of her perceptions of the culture were based off of what she had heard or seen on television or word-of-mouth from family and friends.
“In Africa, we assume everything in the States is easy,” she said.
After four years in the United States, however, Baimpwi’s opinions have changed.
“Everyone is so individualistic here,” she said, which is a big difference from the small, close-knit farming community Baimpwi originally lived in called Ngong’, where people always have a close neighbor to count on.
Leaving the village, located 35 minutes away from Nairobi, the capital city, was a big transition for Baimpwi, she said.
“I guess I’ve had to grow up mentally,” said Baimpwi.
Part of her adjustment into American life, has come with culture shock and an occasional tinge of loneliness. Baimpwi says that even after four years, she is still experiencing culture shock, but realizes that it is all apart of the learning and growing process. Baimpwi enjoys life here and likes the city, appreciating the fact that it is clean and quiet, and people smile at you, she said.
In choosing to study at Whatcom, a big deciding factor for Baimpwi was the school’s willingness to help with paperwork that allowed her to study in the United States. Back home in Africa, Baimpwi was a healthcare worker for a Christian organization called YWAM. Baimpwi worked in clinics in third-world countries, where there were hardly limitations for healthcare workers, considering the scarcity of medical facilities close by.
“We delivered babies and gave shots, things like that,” Baimpwi said. “It was really cool.”
She hopes to get her master’s degree in nursing, and go back to work for the missions.
“I love it,” she said.
Arturo Camejo, an International student from Venezuela, can often be seen seated at the front desk in the International office, where he works part-time. He has been attending Whatcom for just over a year, and is enjoying it so far. Camejo recalled his first impression of Whatcom’s campus. He was particularly attracted to the soccer field on campus, because he’s a soccer player.
“It seemed gorgeous to me to play there,” Camejo said.
For most international students, the program can make the adjustment to life in America a bit smoother. Camejo commented that the program gave him time to prepare himself and learn more about American customs, such as what Americans find fun and how to be polite.
It is hard to avoid having expectations when going to another country, and most students will find that their experience defies their initial expectations. When he first came to visit the United States, Camejo initially thought that Bellingham would be more like the big cities he had visited prior, like Seattle or Los Angeles.
“It’s cool, it’s quiet. I really like it,” Camejo said about living in Bellingham.
In Venezuela, the average temperatures are up to 90 degrees—a big difference from the often rainy Pacific Northwest. Besides missing friends and family, Camejo finds himself missing the numerous beaches back home.
After his time at Whatcom, Camejo will continue on to Western Washington University to get a bachelor’s degree in sports medicine. He has not yet decided where to locate for a career, but said that his parents are both family doctors back in Venezuela, if he chooses to settle and work there.
The process for international students can be a lengthy one. Some students come from partner institutions, and others hear about Whatcom through a web advertisement or as a recommendation from an advisor.
Next, a student must apply with an international student application, including a bank statement proving they will be able to support themselves throughout the quarter. They must also apply for a visa. At an appointment at the United States Consulate in their country, a yes-or-no decision is made whether the student is able to get it or not.
The international students will be hosting their annual event, International Night, on February 25. Last year, the club had performances that ranged from Martial arts and a Japanese band to a performance by teacher Ben Kohn’s band. Dining (Ika) Adhikawati, international student and International Friendship Club member at Whatcom, expects the event to have similar performances this year.
“I think it was really interesting to see people actually dancing and performing from different countries,” said Ika, about last year’s event.
The event will take place from 6 to 9:30 p.m. in the Syre Student Center Auditorium.