I’m gonna be real y’all, being an exchange student here in Ecuador has been one of the most humbling experiences in my life. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been fun getting to know people, seeing pretty places, and trying new things… but there have also been many times where I’ve been frustrated, scared, anxious, distressed, disappointed, overwhelmed, humiliated, and so much more. I realized on my first day of class actually- this is probably how all international students feel, including the ones back at UIUC. Being on the other side (i.e. being an international student instead of a domestic student) has opened my eyes to the numerous struggles and tremendous challenges of trying to be a part of another culture where everyone else doesn’t think you fit in. And I’ve begun to understand why international students do what they do, such as only hanging out with other international students or hesitating to speak up. I’ll share these, as well as my own personal experiences, because, well, I’ll be straight with you- what I want you to get from this post is that being an international student can be really hard and lonely, so go befriend some international students ASAP and make them feel at home.
Being an international student at USFQ has been pretty difficult for the following reasons:
- All of my classes are taught in Spanish. Although all of my Spanish classes back at UIUC were taught in Spanish, the professors/TAs knew we weren’t native, so they used more comprehensible Spanish. I’m only taking 4 courses at USFQ, but the amount of Spanish I have to take in, process, and then (sometimes) simultaneously think of a response, is overwhelming! My brain was really fried the two days of classes, but now I’m getting more used to it. Nonetheless, it’s still hard.
- It’s hard making Ecuadorian friends. You may say: just go up to them, introduce yourself, and voila, friends! It’s not that easy. Language is probably the biggest barrier. I can ask questions like “Hi, what’s your name? What do you study? Where are you from?” pretty easily, but listening and understanding the response is sometimes tricky. A lot of times, I think native Ecuadorians assume you can speak and understand really well, but in reality, the Spanish is hard to adjust to at first (contributing to this is the fact that we learn the “standard” Castellano dialect of Spanish in schools, but regional, national, and even community dialects are variable). There have been times when an Ecuadorian student has spoken to me and I was at a loss for words, or replied with only a few words because of my limited vocabulary and uncertainty of what to say. I feel like I wouldn’t be able to effectively communicate with them to befriend them, so it’s super intimidating! Besides, it’s not like any Ecuadorians have really taken the initiative to befriend me either. Maybe they assume I already have international friends or that I’m not cool or that I’m not interested in making Ecuadorian friends? But I really wish more Ecuadorians would come up to me and be like “Hey! You’re not from here! I am! Let me show you around!” or something. That’d be legit.
- Sometimes it’s even hard to make other international friends. International kids from other universities usually stay within their own university clique. I’ve been trying to meet and make friends from different universities, but some people just aren’t interested because they already have their group of friends. I’ve found a few who have been cool to hang out with though, phew.
- The school is big, the culture is different, and almost everyone speaks fluent Spanish. It’s easy to feel left out, especially if you just go to class and then go home. I wanna hang out with people in between and after classes, like I did back at UIUC.
Being with my host family has been a bit of a challenge as well:
- Language barrier once again. There’s so much I want to say to them, but I either feel that my verb conjugations are wrong or that I don’t have sufficient vocabulary to say what I want to say. A lot of times, my family will ask me how my day was or how my friends and family are doing, and I can’t find the words to say. It’s incredibly frustrating. Furthermore, since my family has indigenous roots, they incorporate some Quichua (indigenous language) into their speech, which makes talking to them and understanding them difficult sometimes.
- They don’t really introduce me to their neighbors or football friends (the family plays and attends football games every weekend), so I feel really awkward and out of place. Sometimes I’ve tried conversing with other people, but they don’t really wanna talk much. I feel disconnected from the community I live in, even though I know my family pretty well.
A lot of the time, I just feel like that poor little awkward gringo girl (“gringo” is used endearingly here for foreigners). I just wish there were more Ecuadorians who actually wanted to talk to me and get to know me. And I can’t say that every international student goes through this, but I’m guessing a majority of them do, and it kinda sucks (I hope you got that from what I wrote). It’s tremendously difficult to jump into a new culture where you don’t have mastery of the language and have little to no people connections. So, I super, really, highly urge you to reach out to international students/people wherever you are (especially if you’re at UIUC!). Get to know them, they’re probably really cool and have a lot to say. Be patient with them when they’re trying to think of words or putting sentences together in their heads. Help scaffold their language learning by asking them questions, teaching them slang, telling them about your culture. And ask them about their culture too! Hang out with them, invite them to typical American events with you (e.g. get coffee, bowling, movies, farmers markets, concerts, museums, etc.). ask to do stuff they’d normally do back home. I guarantee you that they will appreciate you sooooooo much and will remember you as one of the highlights of their experience abroad. And for UIUC people, if you’re not the type to just go up to an international student and befriend them, I highly suggest you check out the Conversation Partners Program. Basically you just get paired up with an international student and you meet up once a week for an hour to practice conversational English with them. I did it for three semesters and it was absolutely fantastic because I got to learn so much about Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Japan, and Kazakhstan. Learn more and sign up here: http://www.iei.illinois.edu/involvement/
And if you have any questions or comments on what I wrote, just let me know! As for me, although I’m having kind of a tough time, I’m gonna hang in here! I’m gonna keep an open mind, be confident in who I am (child of God, follower of Christ!), and continue trying to get to know people and this country better!!! HOLLA!!!!