Finding a home while far from it

By Alex Moreno

According to exchange students at Whatcom, it’s one of the scariest yet most exciting things a student can do; feeling at home and being successful while studying abroad is a challenging yet rewarding experience.

Ulli Schraml, who is the Whatcom Associate Director for International Programs and New Student Support, has vital a role in the integration of exchange students. Schraml moved to Bellingham 20 years ago from Augsburg, Germany.

When Schraml arrived in Bellingham he “thought his English was good, but the cultural references and the American clichés” were vocabulary barriers he still had to overcome.

Schraml said he is in charge of organizing the new exchange student’s orientation, arranging the assessment testing for English and math, and helping new students in various ways.

Schraml said that most exchange students are “primarily from China, then Vietnam, then Japan” in terms of the number of exchange students from each country. Schraml described how the culture of all these countries varies greatly and would contribute to creating challenges for a person just arriving at Whatcom and getting accustomed to the American learning environment.

Schraml said that there are three housing choices for exchange students while attending Whatcom: a homestay, Whatcom housing, or independent living.

The homestay, which is living with a local family, provides structure, such as food, activities on the weekends, a carefree place to practice English, and a supportive environment.

There is a friendly “guide built in to the setup,” Schraml said.

Most students stay in a homestay their first year, and if they are under 18 then a homestay is mandatory, but as Schraml said, “staying in a homestay makes a lot of sense.”

The homestay provides many amenities in a safe environment. A homestay host can advise a new student on “where to go, what to see, and what to do,” said Schraml.

In contrast to living alone, the homestay provides more opportunities to submerse themselves into the surrounding community’s culture.

Radyan (Dhika) Pradhono and Elisa Bong, both from Indonesia, are starting their second year at Whatcom. They are currently student ambassadors in Whatcom’s Student Life and Development.

Pradhono said many students “don’t realize benefits of a homestay.”

The provided structure and living with a form of local support gives a student more immediate stability.

Some crucial elements of having a successful integration into a new community is to “be open-minded” and to not “make a border around yourself,” Bong said.

Bong said how it is easy for an exchange student to only hang out with other students of the same nationality and speak their native language, but branching out and speaking English is an important part of adapting.

Bong said that to help find a niche in the community and be successful the “best thing you could do is make American friends.”

This will help you integrate and understand the American language, know your community, and other students around the school.

Dhika said that the “language barrier is the most common problem,” for himself and exchange students, but it is “overcome by interacting with the different nationality.”

Another common and almost unavoidable problem for exchange students is homesickness. Dhika said he prepares one of the only truly Indonesian foods he can find around Bellingham, to help curve the feelings of homesickness.

Indomie noodles “reminds us of our home,” Dhika said.

Another option to help fight homesickness would be to “call my parents or Skype,” Bong said.

“There is no universal recipe to get over culture shock, but it’s important to share your feelings,” Schraml said.

David Kehe has been the ESLA transition composition coordinator at Whatcom since 2000. ESLA is an acronym for English as Second Language Academics.

Kehe said he “makes sure students are successful in their academic courses.”

Kehe and the ESLA courses focus especially on preparation for the mandatory English 101 course.

There are five levels of ESLA study and three levels of transition Kehe said. Kehe said how someone could skip class levels, if they make significant improvements in one level.

For those who take the top level writing course, ESLA 117, “usually around 95 percent get A’s or B’s” in English 101, Kehe said.

ESLA 117 studies “the why in cultural differences,” Kehe said.

“Culture shock is a major problem for international students,” Dhika said.

Significant differences contributing to culture shock is the American vocabulary, specifically slang, and the straightforward American speech and interaction style, Dhika said.

“For the vocabulary we have to be really careful,” because the classroom demands a specific vocabulary, Kehe said.

Integrating into the Whatcom community as an exchange student is a difficult process, but there are many programs, classes, housing options, clubs, and support offered for the transition.

“We have a lot of international students now, so that if you talk to someone who has been here for awhile, they can help you,” Schraml said.

The intercultural studies office, along with Schraml’s office, is located on the second floor of Syre in room 201.


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