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Living and Learning Together: International and American Students Become World-Class Global Thinkers

By Doralisa Pilarte

College is a place where young people come to broaden their worldview and enrich their minds. Certainly, these goals are advanced in the classroom, where students expect to encounter new ideas and grapple with intellectual challenges. But a great deal of broadening and enriching happens outside the classroom, as well – sometimes in the most unexpected ways. This is especially true at institutions with highly diverse student populations, like Marymount University, which enrolls students from more than 70 countries.

Living and learning together every day, the international and American students at Marymount challenge one another’s assumptions, gain a more nuanced view of the world, and discover common ground. They also form lifelong friendships, build intercultural understanding and respect, and emerge as global citizens ready to function successfully in an increasingly interconnected world.

Here, students from around the globe talk about the ways their Marymount experience has “rocked their world.”
Liliana Gutierrez ’09
B.A. in Interior Design
Bethesda, Maryland, USA
Ngoc Tina Hoang ’11
Business Administration major with Finance and International Business specializations
Hanoi, Vietnam

Liliana and Tina became roommates and fast friends, and traveled to Vietnam together in summer 2009.

Liliana: “My parents are Colombian, and I was born and raised in the DC area, so most of my cultural self is American, but with strong Colombian roots.

I didn’t know that much about Vietnam before meeting Tina. But in summer 2009, I went there with her. I stayed for a month, and we traveled around the country. I learned how the language works, how the people there show expressions through tone of voice. Tina taught me how to make spring rolls and beef soup; now I make these foods for my parents, and they love them!
I also learned about a different attitude. In America, what you say is who you are. But in Vietnam, they see opinions as reflections of what you have been taught – they don’t necessarily assume that the things you say reveal who you are as a person. They know that opinions, or points of view, can change. I thought, ‘Wow, I never thought of it that way!’ This made me realize that I had never really questioned how I was raised to see things. There are hundreds of ways of looking at the same thing, and not just the one. This realization put my own upbringing and culture in a new perspective.

Tina was definitely a mirror, someone I could bounce ideas off of. It was enlightening.”

Tina: “Last year, as president of Marymount’s International Club, I worked with a team of students from 37 countries, so I had to learn to deal with people from many different cultures. I had to transition from being very individualistic to having a team mentality. My professors gave me strategies: I learned to evaluate people within a team and match their skills with the jobs that needed to be done.

I have also learned diplomacy at MU. People here are much nicer when they give you negative feedback; in my country, people tell you bluntly.

In Vietnam, I didn’t know any black people. Here, I have met many African-Americans and international students who are black, and I have learned about their cultures. I also have had the opportunity to educate my new friends about Vietnamese culture.

My roommate Liliana invited me to her house for Thanksgiving, and I learned about Latin food.”

Mike Bokosha ’10
B.S. in Biology
Harare, Zimbabwe

At MU, Mike was an orientation leader, a resident assistant, the founder and president of the Chess Club, a member of the International Club, a Campus Ministry retreat organizer, and a student researcher and faculty assistant. He is now doing research at the National Cancer Institute on the effects of diet on the regulation of genes. He plans to go on to graduate school to become a physical therapist.

“When I arrived at Marymount, food was a problem. In Zimbabwe, our staple is a thick corn porridge called sadza, which we eat with beef and a vegetable stew. They didn’t have that here, so when I first arrived, I ate a lot of rice. Also, our culture teaches us to be humble; you don’t look at elders in the eye, as a sign of respect. Here, people look you straight in the eye. At first, it was very uncomfortable. But now, I can look people in the eye comfortably. These challenges showed me that I could adapt successfully to a new culture.

Where I grew up, it was a completely Christian society. I didn’t know anyone who was not a Christian. But here I’ve met all kinds of people: Muslims, Hindus, even atheists! I have acquired a clearer understanding and appreciation for other people’s religious perspectives. I’ve also been exposed to many different political viewpoints. In America, people freely and publicly express their political opinions without fear of incarceration or torture.

My language skills have grown, too. I speak five languages, including Swahili, which I learned from my Kenyan friends at Marymount.”

Blessing Gomero ’10
B.B.A. – Accounting
Port Harcourt, Nigeria
Blessing was an orientation leader, a member of Students In Free Enterprise, publicity chair and treasurer for the International Club, and a junior class senator for the Student Government Association. She is continuing on at Marymount for her M.B.A.

“I have made many friends from so many places, and I pick up their accents easily. When I went home, my friends were saying, ‘Blessing, you sound Jamaican, or American, or French!’

Marymount is a very diverse campus. I have met so many people with different points of view about religion, sexuality, and culture. We all can learn from each other if we give each other a chance.”

David Alberto Abraham Downing ’10
B.B.A. – Finance
San Pedro Sula, Honduras
David was a member of the International Club and of two honor societies: Delta Mu Delta and Omicron Delta Epsilon.

“My first year at MU, I hung out with just American or Latino people, but now I’ve made friends from so many places. You learn so much more when you’re with people who are not like you.

I made friends with a guy from Ethiopia and he introduced me to Ethiopian food, which I probably never would have tried otherwise, and now I love it. I also learned about Ramadan, because I saw on campus how the Muslim students fasted and what they could and couldn’t eat. There aren’t many Muslims in Honduras, so I didn’t really know any of this.

One important experience was getting to know my roommate in freshman year. He was gay, and that tore down a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes that I had about gay people. Knowing him made me become more accepting of others.
The first spring break, I went to St. Croix with some friends from MU. Over there, they’re more islandy, really relaxed, not so hung up on race or status. That experience really opened up my mind as well.”

Liliana Vedia ’10
M.Ed., English as a Second Language
Cochabamba, Bolivia
Liliana is now working as assistant director of International Student Services at Marymount.

“The religious diversity on Marymount’s campus is an education in itself. In Bolivia, we are mostly Catholic, but here I’ve made friends from all religious backgrounds. This allowed me to understand other forms of spirituality, different ways of believing in God.

Here, I’ve noticed a high degree of individualism among students: When you leave class, nobody waits to walk out together, nobody stays around after lunch to talk. And while there is plenty of openness for self-expression, there is little respect for one’s elders.

I think that living in this culture has given me more flexibility in my way of being, in my decision making, and in my viewpoints.”

Rui Lily Yang ’11
Interior Design major
Shanghai, China
Lily is publicity chair for the Activities Programming Board, a board member for the Interior Design Alliance, and a member of the International Club.

“I moved to Virginia from Shanghai with my mother when I was 10 years old. I’m still used to Chinese customs, and I respond to many situations differently than Americans would. I was taught to respect my elders and, for example, to give the bigger portions to elders at dinner. Here, I do the same with upperclassmen, but they think it’s strange. Also, it’s considered rude here to point at someone with your finger, but this is not the case in China.

If I had stayed in China, I definitely would not have such a diverse group of friends as I have here. My friends are Jamaicans, Americans, Koreans, and Africans. What helped me to broaden my worldview was being able to talk with so many different people.

At the International Banquet last year, my job was the decorations. I made origami centerpieces, which I had learned to do in China. Of course I needed help to create enough centerpieces to decorate all those tables, so I taught Farah Traih from Jordan, Carmen Alvarado from the Philippines, Tina Hoang from Vietnam, and Kelly Tang from Taiwan. Now they all know how to do origami!”

Bernise Springer ’11
Graphic Design major with a Communication minor
Castries, Saint Lucia
At MU, Bernise has served as president of the International Club and a student ambassador. She won a raffle at the Saudi Student Association’s Saudi National Day celebration in fall 2010: an all-expenses-paid trip for two to Saudi Arabia, which she plans to use in summer 2011!

“I am from a small island community, so coming to Marymount really involved some big changes for me. Back home, I felt restricted in a sense. On a small island, it seems like all eyes are on you. But here, my decisions are my own and I can be my own person. I found that very refreshing. Also, I realized here that it’s OK to step out and make a positive name for yourself. You need to be true to yourself, to be who you want to be.

At first I did not want to come here, mostly because I would be separated from my childhood friends. But now I realize that I would have missed out on so many opportunities if I hadn’t come. I have many friends now who aren’t from the Caribbean, and yet we all share similar childhood experiences, even something as simple as our favorite foods as kids or the TV shows we loved. We also learn so much from each other about the deeper aspects of life.”

Kelly Tang ’11
Fashion Design major
Rockville, Maryland, USA
Kelly’s parents are from Taiwan, but she was born and raised in Maryland and grew up speaking Chinese at home. She has done public relations for MU’s Fashion Club and served as activities director for the International Club.

“I didn’t come to Marymount for the diversity, but I sure am getting a lot of it! I joined the International Club because most of my friends here are from other countries, and they said it would be fun.

Many international students perceive time differently, so now I have a new sense of time. Bernise has taught me a lot: to accept people for what they really are, to look at time differently, and to appreciate Caribbean food. I love it! I’ve also tried Ethiopian food, and I definitely would not have tried that if it weren’t for my friends here.”

Tuvshin Ganbold ’11
Psychology major
Ulaan Batar, Mongolia
Tuvshin is a member of the International Club and the Psychology Club and serves as a student ambassador.

“I was shocked – literally – by the fact that here the hot water tap is on the opposite side than at home. If you’re sleepy in the morning, this will wake you up fast! Even though I had lived outside of Mongolia, I hadn’t left the country in 10 years, so arriving at Marymount was kind of scary at first.

Most students here don’t really know where Mongolia is; one girl thought it was in Africa, and another student thought it was part of China. Those incidents made me grateful for all my geography lessons in high school.

We learned through books that western cultures are very individualistic, and I have found that this is true. If a group of friends is walking along and I stop to tie my shoelaces, nobody waits. I’m used to offering my food to others, but my American friends were shocked when I did this. I’ve learned that both ways are good: being individualistic and also being part of a group.”

Lizelle Pereira ’11
M.B.A. with a Finance specialization
Zanzibar, Tanzania
At Marymount, Lizelle has been a graduate assistant and a project leader for Students In Free Enterprise. She spearheaded the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) service for international students that was launched by Marymount’s International Student Services Office in fall 2008.

“I went to high school in England while my mother was working on her Ph.D. there. When I came to Marymount, it was my first time in America and it was a bit of a shock. One of the big differences is the emphasis on teamwork in the U.S. education system, compared to England. This gave me the opportunity to develop superior teamwork skills. I have also learned about compromising, listening to others, and being flexible with my time and opinions.

I’ve had a chance to educate other students about my country and the diversity of the people who come from Africa. I am a second-generation Tanzanian, of Indian descent, and our languages are English and Swahili. It was difficult for some of my American friends to understand that ‘African’ can mean so many different things.”

Atanaska Dobreva ’10
B.S. in Mathematics and B.A. in Economics in Society
Parvomay, Bulgaria
An Honors Program student, Atanaska served as a Marymount peer tutor.

“My honors thesis was titled ‘Financial Sustainability of the National Health Insurance Fund in Bulgaria.’ Over the past year, while the health insurance debate went on in the U.S. Congress, I was able to educate other students about many of the issues in health reform because of my experience in Bulgaria. In Bulgaria now, they’re going in the opposite direction. We have a public insurance fund, and they want to introduce a private option.”

Viviana Gumatho Orbora ’12
Business Administration major with Accounting and Finance specializations
Loiyangalani, Kenya
Viv is an orientation leader, a member of Students in Free Enterprise, and a student assistant at MU’s Center for Global Education.

“Coming from a small village and going straight to the United States, I feel like I gave birth to myself. It was a tremendous experience. I used to be very shy, but now I have a lot of friends, both international and American students.

The biggest thing I’ve learned is how people here live a more independent life, while in Kenya it’s more of a communal life and there’s a great deal of respect for elders. Here, it’s common to call elders by their first name! I have had to learn and adapt.

Knowing me has made my American roommate Brianna become interested in studying abroad. As for me, I’m already studying abroad!”

Brianna Notarangelo’12,
Multidisciplinary Studies (Elementary Education) major
Bergenfield, New Jersey, USA

“In my three years at Marymount, and after seven roommates, I haven’t had a single roommate from my own country. They’ve been from Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. It’s been really cool. One time, I was taking a nap and Viv woke me up, looking worried and asking if I was sick. In her culture, you only sleep during the day if something is wrong!

Encountering all these cultures here in America has made me want to study abroad. Next summer, I’ll be doing an internship in Italy.”

Krisztina Kovacs ’11
M.Ed. in Elementary Education and English as a Second Language
Budapest, Hungary
A member of Hungary’s 2000 Olympic swim team, Krisztina now serves as an assistant coach for the MU Saints swim team.

“In Hungary, the method of teaching is very rigid and militaristic. The attitude of teachers is, ‘You choose to be here. Do it right or get out.’ But here I’ve learned a different philosophy. As an assistant swim coach at the University and as a student-teacher in a local elementary school, I’ve seen that you should try to appreciate individual differences that can help students be successful, rather than saying, ‘Fit in or get out.’

With Marymount swimmers, our philosophy is to raise each individual, not just as an athlete, but also socially and culturally. We build up the team as a whole.”

Nastacia House ’12
Economics in Society major
Port St. Lucie, Florida, USA
Nastacia has served as secretary of the International Club, secretary of the African-Caribbean Student Association, a peer mentor, and a student ambassador.

“I met most of my friends at MU through the International Club, and I’ve learned so much! I know some Arabic words. I’ve learned about musical groups that are popular in Japan, China, and the Arab world. My friends and I frequently go to Georgetown, and they introduced me to a popular Asian drink that I’d never heard of: bubble tea. I’ve also tried injera, the Ethiopian spongy bread that’s served with a sauce and meat.

When my friends and I are hanging out, we’ll talk about the different customs, and how something that is common here will be considered very strange back home. I’m so glad that, despite our different backgrounds, we’re all able to be friends.”

Hassan Jrab ’11
Business Administration major with a Finance specialization
Beirut, Lebanon
Hassan is a member of the International Club and the Muslim Student Association. He has served as a student ambassador and a resident assistant and is the coordinator of Marymount’s Global Thinkers Living and Learning Community.

“I graduated from an American high school in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and worked for two years as office manager for a vice president of Lockheed Martin there. He told me that I should go to college in the United States.

When I came to Marymount, it was my first time in the States. I had never celebrated Thanksgiving or Christmas, and I got a lot of invitations to people’s homes. But I also encountered quite a bit of ignorance about Muslims. One time, I was invited to a dinner at someone’s home and they served pork; we were all embarrassed.

It wasn’t easy to communicate with my teachers at home, but here I can stop by a professor’s office any time and they’re always available. And I have experienced teamwork as a student ambassador. Everyone helps each other out.”

Jeffery Wilkins ’12
Fashion Merchandising and Communication major
Newport Beach, California, USA
Jeffery does public relations for MU’s Black Student Alliance.

“Marymount has rocked my world! It has opened my eyes to so many things. When I arrived here, I didn’t really know what to expect, but every MU activity includes a great diversity of people. Meeting all these international students has given me insight into their cultures, religions, and different ways of life.

My friend Macy Kinde took me to the Easter service at her Ethiopian church, and everyone there had on their traditional garments. They fed us, and now I love Ethiopian food! For me, to understand the spiritual side of the service, without even understanding the words they were saying, was just beautiful.

People say religion is hard to talk about. But I say that talking about people’s beliefs is the best way to get to know someone! When Hassan was talking about his religion, I was sitting there with pen and paper because I wanted to become more knowledgeable about him and his culture. These three religions – Islam, Judaism, and Christianity – appear dissimilar but in reality they are so similar, and that, to me, is astounding!

Some student organizations have tutoring programs for elementary schools in the area. Hassan came along on one of our Black Student Alliance tutoring sessions in DC, and he taught kids about U.S. history and English, even though he’s not American and English is a second language for him. That generosity was very moving.”

Charlyndria Horton ’12
Fashion Merchandising major
Washington, DC, USA
Charlyndria does public relations for the International Club and serves as events coordinator for the African-Caribbean Student Association.

“A Somali friend here told me that there are a lot of misconceptions about Muslims, that it’s not what you see on CNN. She told me Islam is a religion of peace. I have learned a lot from her, and she from me! She thought that Americans are not religious. I said no, this is a land of religious freedom, including the freedom not to be religious. We are a land of immigrants, so we’re international. I wish people could accept that underlying sameness and the differences all at the same time.”

The Turkey That Started It All:
Annual Events Give MU Students Opportunities to Celebrate and Share Their Cultures

When Aline Orfali, director of International Student Services, arrived at Marymount in August 1996, the University had few multicultural programs. So – with help from enthusiastic students – she started two: an International Thanksgiving Dinner for the fall semester, and an International Banquet for the spring. Fifteen years later, both events are still going strong, with hundreds of MU students pitching in to ensure their success.

Looking back, Ms. Orfali recalls a rather inauspicious beginning: “We held our first International Thanksgiving Dinner in The Lodge with about 15 students and no turkey. None of us knew how to cook a turkey, and by the time we sat down to eat, the turkey was still raw. But the side dishes were good!”

She explains, “We had no budget back then, so we all pitched in to buy the ingredients. That’s what first bonded the International Club; cooking together with little money, you have to be really creative. But when students get together with a purpose, they can do anything! They just need a platform, and that is what the International Club provides.”

Ms. Orfali also remembers how quickly the event grew: “The second Thanksgiving, the turkey was done on time, and more people came. The third year, we did an American-style turkey and one with Saudi flavors. The fourth year, we had 130 participants and moved the dinner from The Lodge to the Gerard Dining Hall! The fifth year, we invited Campus Ministry to cosponsor the event, and we had five different-flavored turkeys going. Since then, Marymount’s International Thanksgiving Dinner has been a co-production of the International Club and Campus Ministry, a great partnership!”

The University’s first International Banquet, in spring 1997, was an equally powerful experience. Aline Orfali says, “It was amazing! Students volunteered to cook, to organize, to sell tickets. It was surprising how many people wanted to be involved. We had about 120 people attend, and I knew it was the start of something big.” Today, the International Banquet is the secondlargest annual event at Marymount. Each spring, more than 500 guests attend the sold-out celebration, which features international cuisine, traditional dress from around the world, and a student talent show.

Ms. Orfali notes how the students benefit from the experience: “Certainly, there is fun, satisfaction, and the forging of new friendships. Also, because of visa restrictions, international undergraduates don’t have an opportunity to gain work experience outside the University. So this event is an excellent way for them to apply skills learned in the classroom. They do all the planning, the publicity, the ticket sales and accounting. They work in teams, so they must practice cooperation, communication, and negotiation skills. All of these are things that they can put on a résumé.”

The students also decide what charities will receive the proceeds from the banquet ticket sales. Last spring, the money raised was divided between the Haiti Relief Fund and Marymount’s International Student Emergency Fund.