From Mexico, Oman and Ghana… to Athens
According to Ohio University’s Office of Institutional Research, there were 961 international students that enrolled this year. As the school year draws to a close, I sat down with three of the near-thousand international students as they reflect on their first year: Cesar Carrillo, an industrial engineering major from Mexico; Mehdi Abdullah-Ahmed, an accounting major from Oman; and Lee Afeawo, a finance major from Ghana. I hoped to garner a better perspective on how the international experience of Athens differs from a stateside experience.
As someone who has never had the opportunity to travel beyond America’s borders, I came into this interview having no knowledge of the kind of lifestyle adjustment it takes to move across the world to get an education. I centered my questions on these students’ personal experiences. What surprised me the most was the response each individual had on how they perceived American culture after having been immersed within it; even the smallest cultural differences, often unseen to the average American, is noted by travelers. It’s interesting to see how the rest of the world views American culture and how it contrasts from the perceptions of those who live in the culture.
Why did you choose OU as a school?
Mehdi: I actually thought I was going to Ohio State! Then, I figured out that I was going to OU and not Ohio State. I’m glad to be at OU because OU is a small place and campus is really beautiful and everybody is friendly as f***.
Cesar: I actually only applied to OU because I was too lazy to finish my college applications for University of Cincinnati and Ohio State… But I’m actually super glad that I chose OU, it’s a very fun school and, like, pretty relaxing and the program that they have in engineering is just amazing.
Lee: I just really like Ohio and Ohio State is too big for me, I like kind of smaller environments, so I just chose here.
Mehdi: I knew Ohio from Ted Mosby from “How I Met Your Mother.”
Have you traveled broadly otherwise? Where?
Lee: Zambia, Sierra Leone, Dubai, London, can’t remember a bunch of them.
Mehdi: I’ve been to Dubai five or four times, and I went to France and Paris. And I went to Spain, to Barcelona, Singapore, Turkey and I went to Malaysia, as well.
Where was your favorite place to go?
Cesar: I like going to Mexico City a lot. There’s a lot of stuff to do there and there’s so much good food that you can just drown yourself in food forever and still be ok.
Lee: I like going to Sierra Leone ’cause it’s just turnt as f*** … Everybody’s so drunk 24/7 that f***ed up shit happens and it’s like, good f***ed up s**t.
Mehdi: I have three things I want to do—I want to visit New York City. And I have one thing, which is go to Barcelona, for their soccer city. And the third thing I want to do is skydiving. Maybe this is gonna be the place.
Mehdi: I’m scared of heights!
Then how’re you gonna dive out of a plane?!
Mehdi: I’m gonna face them!
Were there any big fears or concerns about being an international student?
Have you had problems with that?
Mehdi: No! I’ve never had any problems in Athens. Just since Athens is a small place, a small campus, everybody’s friendly with each other because everybody is students. Everybody knows about life, you know? So, that’s what I think, like how there is no racism at all. Even when you leave a party, at four or five [a.m.] you know you’re gonna be safe, nothing’s gonna happen.
Cesar: I haven’t had any problems.
Lee: Me either.
Do you think that Athens and OU have affected you as a person? Has it changed your life?
Cesar: Oh, yeah! It made me more open to being friendly to people, like, when I was living at my house, I was not that friendly and I still talked to people but I wouldn’t actually go out and talk to random strangers. But Athens has changed me that way, so I feel comfortable to talk to anyone.
Mehdi: What I like about Athens; people accept other views and ideas and one of the things I want to know about, like knowledge, about the whole world. People keep talking, that’s what I like. There’s no discussion and no fights, and so I like it.
Do you have the urge to re-invent your personality?
Mehdi: Same thing! Same thing. It’s different, I came here to the States and it’s kind of like a new life. You can do whatever you want. When you go back home, then you miss your family, you spend most of your time with your family.
Lee: You kind of have to, too. Turn down your personality when you go home.
Cesar: Yeah, I am a lot more outgoing here than when I’m at home. When I’m at home, I usually just sit in my room because like, “my family is too much for me.” I just haven’t talked to my family in a long time, then I just sit in my room and talk to a few of my friends who are still at home.
Have you guys dealt with any large specific cultural things that are different in America, as compared to where you’re from?
Cesar: Very, very narcissistic and materialistic. Like, we don’t value things as much. We value more values of family, so like respect and like truth, instead of this [picks up his phone], honestly.
Lee: Same kind of thing, like us, we’re more like communal, we share everything. So if I have something, you have something. But here, it’s more like, even if you share…that’s ’cause you chose to share, that doesn’t mean they have to share. So, that’s kind of weird for me.
Mehdi: Same thing. What I like even about the States is that people are really open minded, and that’s really awesome. People back home are kind of sophisticated since religion takes place, you know. But people here are like free and doing whatever they want, so that’s what I like about it, too. Nobody really like gives a …
Cesar: If you ever go out of the country, you’ll see how much it is incorporated into the American culture. As soon as you get out of the country, everything just like, drops.
Have you found any ways of incorporating certain things from your life at home or your culture into your life here?
Mehdi: Food. My friends from Oman, my Omani friends, they keep cooking rice and meeting them, we eat and food is really part of that.
Cesar: I incorporate the thought of death, but not like death in sort of a nasty way but like, happiness. So whenever I say goodbye to someone, it’s not really goodbye. It’s more like ��I’m still going to see you and I’ll still remember you.’ So, it’s more like ‘I’ll see you later’ even though I know that chances of me meeting the same person again will just not happen.
Lee: Yeah, I just have my Ghanian friends, so it’s like whenever I’m hanging out with them, it’s like I’m back home.
Did you know them from home or did you find a community on campus?
Lee: I came here with my friend, he’s Egyptian-Ghanian. I met Michael here, and then I met Eugene. Eugene came here when he was like, eight, so he’s American, but he’s Ghanian. I just started hanging out with him and we’re like a group of five people.
Mehdi: Yeah, I didn’t know anybody! I came to college here, like I chose here, most of my friends went to Florida but I didn’t get the scholarship in Florida, I go to Ohio, so. I met people on the plane, they were cool, so I started chilling with them, getting to know each other, that’s one of the things I wanted to do: get to know people. When I hang out with them, I feel home, too.
Do you think you deal with any specific stresses in day-to-day life as an international student that maybe other students don’t even have to deal with?
Mehdi: It’s cold, really cold. I have to deal with that a lot.
Has that been a big adjustment?
Mehdi: Yeah, it’s been like, really cold. Every time in the winter, I get sick. The weather back home is very different than here.
Cesar: I think it’s like, keeping your grades up and feeling academically accepted because everyone expects you as an international student to actually do well. You wouldn’t be here if you were just some random schmo and got a pretty average score. You’re here because you actually excelled at something and you’re pressured to keep that excel going.
Is it hard being so far away from friends and family?
Mehdi: Kind of. Depends, because I do have friends who are from back home from Oman and that’s like why every time I miss them, I just go chill with them. Even though I know I’m gonna miss them, but then I feel better.
How do your families feel? How do you feel with your parents being far away, and how do they feel with you being in a different place to study?
Mehdi: I think my dad, like my brother, my cousins are cool with it. But my mom … She misses me a lot. She keeps texting me every day, sometimes I’m like, “Come on.”
In your opinion, what’s the best part of OU or Athens, in general?
Lee: The people.
Cesar: It’s a small drinking town with a college problem.
Mehdi: Yeah, the people. I really feel that’s what I like.
What do you think could make OU better? Do you have anything you think could make OU better in general or specifically for international students?
Mehdi: Free food.
Lee: More parties.
Cesar: I think like, cleaning up Court Street because every time I walk down Court Street it’s just trashed.
Lee: That’s just the aftermath of a weekend! Which is…basically every day.
Cesar: As an international student, I’m very clean about where I keep myself and seeing my college just trash their own town is just, I don’t know how I feel about that…
Mehdi: I feel the dorm system sucks, too. We shouldn’t have to stay here for two years and then leave. Other universities, anybody just coming can live in an apartment or anything. Living in the dorm, that takes more money. It takes a lot of money. So, that’s one of the problems.
Just a funny, stupid question: I know here in America, we have the tooth fairy. Do you guys have anything like the tooth fairy where you’re from?
Cesar: I have a tooth mouse! Whenever you lose a tooth, your parents give you a little chest made of plastic and you like, open the chest and put your tooth in there and seal it back up and put it like, on your desk, not necessarily under your pillow. Then, the morning after, instead of getting just 25 cents, you get a silver coin, which is very, very special in Mexico.
: Is the tooth fairy something like…When your tooth breaks and you make a wish and you throw it? We have something like that! If your tooth breaks, you can just keep it in a tissue and just wrap it up and throw it into water. Into the sea or something. I used to do that when I was a kid!