International perspectives converge at Whatcom

DSC_0006Story and Photo by Taylor Nichols


Whatcom Community College’s campus has become more diverse over the years, and much of this is owed to the International Programs.

“[Diversity] prepares domestic students for the new world,” said Ulrich Schraml, one of the associate directors of international programs.

Aside from benefiting domestic students, and the campus, the international programs provide new opportunities for the students who come here.

“There are 210 international students here on campus, and they all have their unique story to tell, another perspective and another world view that they bring here on campus,” said Matt Hofer, a student from Switzerland.

Schraml said that this quarter students from over 30 different countries are attending Whatcom through the international programs, and plan to stay in the U.S. anywhere from a few weeks to the day they graduate from a four-year university.
While community college may not be the first thing that comes to mind when imagining studying abroad, there are many reasons why a student might choose one over a four-year university.  “I chose community college because it’s smaller and more comfortable,” said Sonia Herman, an international student from Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. “It’s easier to [adapt].”

Herman said she likes learning about different cultures and meeting new people with different backgrounds. “It’s not only American culture I can learn [here],” Herman said. “I love that part, it just makes me smarter.” She also said that she loves her host family, and they’ve helped her learn the language and adapt to the culture.

Michael Sibarani, another student from Jakarta, said his parents wanted him to come to Whatcom because there are many Indonesian students currently attending the college.

Hofer came to the U.S. as an exchange student just after he turned 18. He went to Sehome High School, then Lynden Christian High School before attending Whatcom.

“It had always been my biggest dream to be a high school student in the US,” said Hofer. This dream was born when he took a road trip around different parts of the U.S. with his family in 2000.

Living in a different country like the US can bring on different challenges and difficulties for anyone.

Herman said that the biggest drawback to living here is the weather, which is extremely different than that of her country. She also said when she’s panicking, she starts speaking Indonesian. “When I’m stressed, it just can come out of my mouth,” she said, laughing.

“I don’t really know the rules, because I drive and sometimes I run red lights,” Sibarani said of the drawbacks of living here. “It’s so different in my country.”

Sibarani said he likes living here because he can be independent. “I never cooked when I was in my country, I never woke up by myself or did dishes,” he said.

He also said he likes that Bellingham is quieter and people are friendly, because in Jakarta there are more people and traffic jams and it’s busier.

One of the main differences Sibarani noticed in the US is that people tend to not care what they look like and what other people think of them as much as they do in Indonesia. “Some people have tattoos when they’re under 18, and in my country it’s really hard to get jobs with tattoos if you’re under 18,” Sibarani said.

Hofer said that life in the US didn’t seem all that different than in Switzerland at first. However he experienced the biggest culture shock when he returned home after one year.

“I found I’d changed a bit and been a bit Americanized, and suddenly I saw things we did back home through new eyes,” Hofer said.

Something he saw differently was how people interacted. He went to a grocery store in his hometown and found he missed the small talk that people often make in Bellingham.

“To me it felt like something was missing, there wasn’t the interaction,” Hofer said.

School systems and experiences vary, sometimes drastically, from country to country.

Herman said schooling in Indonesia is more difficult and covers harder subjects, like calculus, which is a high school requirement.

Sibarani’s take on school was a bit different as he went to a military high school in Indonesia. He said they were allowed to smoke in class and got to play with fire, among other things. “We had no rules,” he said.

He likes Whatcom because it’s not that big, but there are a lot of buildings that provide students with places to do a lot of things like practice music or where clubs can meet. He is part of the Music Club, Business Club, and the International Friendship Club.

Hofer said that in Switzerland post-secondary school is a lot more focused than in the U.S. Instead of getting prerequisites out of the way in the first years of college, students take more specialized classes in subjects like law and medicine.

Different government systems, poverty rates, and trends in countries set them apart in terms of the problems each country faces.

Hofer said the issues Switzerland is facing are similar to the ones the US, but they aren’t struggling with a $16 trillion debt.

He believes the media uses sensationalism “to fill the time slots [and] to feed the news hungry” audiences which contributes to the system being “broken.” He also said that in American politics, facts have often been substituted by emotions, “and with an emotionally charged climate it’s really hard to make progress.”

“The government system here is not that bad, and people complain about it, but nobody dies of hunger here,” Herman said. “People need to realize it; they need to put more effort in than just complaining.”

Sibarani said something that he finds annoying in the US is that a lot of people like going to parties and using drugs. “I’m bored with those kinds of things,” he said. “Sometimes people go to parties and are just drinking all the time and they don’t go do good stuff or interesting stuff.”

One of his favorite parts about the U.S. is all of the rules. “People can buy guns here easily, but you can’t shoot people easily,” he said. “They really care about human rights, but the rule I don’t like is that it’s really easy to sue people.”

He said that in Jakarta, it can take paramedics and police officers more than an hour to arrive and provide aid to those in need after receiving an emergency call, because of all the traffic jams.

Herman said she missed the beauty of her country the most, especially Komodo Dragon Island and Chandi, which she said was a sort of Buddhist historical building she loves to visit.

“I just miss the foods,” Sibarani said.

Hofer valued similar opportunities in his stay in the US.  “I’m kind of torn between the two continents, two countries, two families and the two circles of friends I have,” he said.

In each country there are many different opportunities available. Herman said that some of the opportunities she gets here that she wouldn’t necessarily get at home included making friends with people from different countries, and the experience of being immersed in American culture.

“There are a lot of things we all still need to learn,” Herman said, “and all the things I get [to experience] here makes me realize how big the world is and how wonderful it is.

Hofer said that the best part of his stay here in the US has been the memories and relationships he made. “The most priceless aspect of my American adventure is the friendships and the social connections,” he said.

One thought on “International perspectives converge at Whatcom

  1. It’s great to hear from so many of the international students! This is excellent reporting. (By the way, who is the person in the photo?)

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