“The coffee isn’t even really that good,” Patricio Brevis said as he sipped on a steaming cup of free java at the International Center.
Lackluster coffee doesn’t deter Brevis from attending the Office of International Students and Scholars International Coffee Hour. The free coffee is merely a perk of the social gathering of culturally diverse students, scholars and faculty. “It’s a way to meet people from different parts of the world,” Brevis said. “It’s good for a new student learning about the culture. It’s a place to meet people with common interests and common problems.” The Chilean native, who is working for MSU’s horticulture department, said a similar program helped him assimilate into American culture while he was earning his Ph.D. from a university in Georgia, and he was glad to see one was present in his new location. [coffeeBriggs]
While MSU has a strong advantage in international relations and students are surrounded daily by people of different countries, cultures and attitudes, international students are faced not only with a new school, but a new culture, new social norms, new day-to-day interactions and often a new language. The International Coffee Hour, held every Friday afternoon from 4 to 6 p.m. in the International Center, has served as a way of bringing this diverse group of students and faculty together into one familiar, warm setting.
Peter Briggs, director of OISS and founder of the Coffee Hour, said it was created to assist the formation of an international community on campus. “Whether they go or not, just its existence alone tells them that we care,” said Briggs. “In the post-Sept. 11 world, they are scrutinized at the airport, but we want to create the notion of a welcoming campus.” Briggs also described the levels of culture shock many international people experience, including a honeymoon stage before life becomes stressful from the accumulation of differences. “The International Coffee Hour gives them a comfort zone,” he said. “It is a safe place for international students.”
Another person socializing at the Coffee Hour, Matthias Spitzmueller, who is a management graduate student from Germany, said, “I usually just hang around people in my department. This is an opportunity to see some other people from different cultures.” [coffee hour matthias]
Psychology senior Ayaka Nangumo said she started noticing the cultural differences she would have to get accustomed to as soon as she stepped off the plane from Japan. “Everyone was wearing jeans in the airport,” which Nangumo said she wasn’t used to. Other physical differences she immediately recognized were the size of the buildings and the people – both being much taller than at home. Even the size of her coffee grew. “We have Starbucks in Japan, but it is really different here. We have a very small size, and when I ordered the smallest size here, it was huge,” she said.
Along with the surface layer of things Nangumo had to get accustomed to, she said, “In the United States everyone is individualistic. It’s ‘I’, ‘I’, ‘I.’ In Japan it is all the ‘we’ perspective. Here, they ask, what do you think? It’s kind of threatening. In Japan the self is a product of the whole community rather than creating a self image. Everyone is more relaxed here and there are more options. I go (to the Coffee Hour) simply to get to know others. It is always nice to share some stories – something about our own countries, our experiences here at MSU, or simply about our life stories. Also, I feel more comfortable sharing my own experience with other international students because I feel I am understood more by these students than by domestic students who have never traveled abroad.” Trinidad and Tobago native and College of Education graduate student Alicia Trotman agrees with Nangumo. “The individualism was a shock,” she said. “Here people don’t work as a community. Unless you request it, people won’t put their hand out to help. Everything was so impersonal. I felt lonely because I am a very social person. You have to make a plus-plus effort here to meet people.”
Social interactions were also one of the most noticeable differences to Janak De Silva, a visiting fellow of the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship from Sri Lanka and public prosecutor in civil cases. “In my country we put our arm around each other, but here there is a distance while talking,” De Silva said. Casual hellos and goodbyes also caught him off-guard at first. “Here ‘hi’ and ‘goodbye’ are artificial, but ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ there means that you want to get to know someone.” De Silva’s scholarship allows people like him from developing countries in the middle of their careers to gain firsthand experience in how the American system functions.
De Silva also recognized many differences between U.S. customs and those of his native country. He was shocked at the discipline on the roads and how people actually respect the road signs. “I don’t hear horns, unless the guy is really angry,” he said. The freedom of children also grabbed his attention immediately. “Children are earning to pay for their school fees by working in supermarkets. That’s not so in my culture. Life is built around parents until they are 18 or usually older for the daughters, they are dependent on their parents. [In Sri Lanka], we seek guidance from the elders, and what they say is followed. It is not so here. There is young independence, and at a certain age people lose their value.”
East Lansing is just one more facet of American culture international people have to get accustomed to. Arriving in January 2000 to begin her college experience in New York and coming to East Lansing this August to earn her Ph.D., Trotman said she found the transition to be very difficult. “East Lansing was especially hard because it’s not as cosmopolitan,” she said. “In New York you just take people as they are, but there is a majority of Caucasians here.” She said what affected her most was coming to East Lansing without any friends or family, and the small population of Caribbean students and difficulty of her graduate work didn’t help either. “The Ph.D. program is so intense that there is no way to find your people – you just don’t have the time,” she said. [coffee Nangumo]
After a long day of work, Trotman said she couldn’t avoid the change – even her alcoholic beverage of choice changed. Also at Caribbean parties there is Caribbean music, but here she said she hears all hip-hop from this decade and the ’90s, which she doesn’t enjoy. “For leisure here there are parties – going to the bar, beer, something to drink. In the Caribbean, rum is number one. Every drink has rum in it,” she said.
Nangumo also explained many parts of campus life took some getting used to. “Parties shocked me a lot,” said Nangumo. “In Japan parties are formal parties. It’s really populated there so we can’t really go to someone’s apartment to party. I like [MSU] a lot. People wear green and white and there is a lot of school spirit. Japan doesn’t have that much college involvement.” She said adjusting culturally has been hard, not only in the United States but also when she returns to Japan. “Now I am somewhere in the middle. Here I am Japanese, there I am American. I go home once every other year, and when I am home I feel like an outsider. I feel like I’ve lost some sense of other people’s feelings. The cage of society there is so tight.”
However, for the most part, Nangumo said she feels she has comfortably assimilated into American culture. “I feel comfortable most of the time, unless I have to make a presentation in front of 550 people or something, and then I feel lost,” she said. “I feel like they think I can’t even speak proper English. And every now and then I encounter a funny situation when I can’t think of an elementary vocab word. I know all these big words relating to psychology, and then I can’t think of something like the word ‘cupboard.’”
Although Trotman also attends Coffee Hour, she said one thing that is still hard for her is missing her boyfriend who is still in New York, her family back home and some of the Trinidad and Tobago traditions including the local carnival. She hasn’t been able to attend for five or six years and said she now feels like a foreigner because of it.
However, Trotman is finding ways to cope with the new changes she has encountered. She has found other international students who she said know what she is going through. “These people are in all of my classes, and I am building closer relationships,” she said. “The loneliness is reducing.” [coffeeworld]
On the other end of the spectrum, when asked if he felt like he has assimilated into American culture, De Silva wasn’t so sure. “I don’t think so,” he said. “The culture is so complex, from state to state and city to city.” He did mention his arrival and transition have been made easier because he received information about what to pack and what to expect in the states. “The settling in process was made easy by (the Hubert H. Humphrey scholarship).”
Familial support has also helped De Silva cope with the multitude of changes. Although his wife is thousands of miles away, he said he is dealing with the situation well. “They are very supportive,” he said. “It was a good opportunity that I got, so it was difficult to say no. My wife has family and company there and this program is so intensive that I cannot just sit back and mope.”
MSU has also implemented organizations other than the International Coffee Hour to help international students adapt to the culture including Community Volunteers for International Programs (CVIP), which gives international students an opportunity to teach the community about their country; Friendship Family, a program that provides a family environment for the students and an opportunity to see an American home and family life international college students might otherwise not see; Supper Club, which allows international couples to dine together and experience unique foods; an English as a Second Language (ESL) program and the Lending Center, which provides things for the home in case international students don’t have certain supplies. “These are all important because it enriches the international students’ experience and education,” said Margaret Beall, a community volunteer through CVIP. “They get to see much more than the campus experience. It also establishes positive global relationships.”
According to Beall, such a variety of programs is not only beneficial to international students but the community as well: “The community gets to learn about new cultures and customs which widen their global perspective,” she said. “International connections are a big asset to MSU. We have one of the best numbers of enrollment in the country. This is a wonderful asset for the community to take advantage of.”
Briggs agrees MSU has a great mixture of people from around the world right at our fingertips. He pointed out 7 percent of MSU’s student population is international. “Now we just have to figure out a way to get American students there (International Coffee Hour),” he said. “The Coffee Hour is a place where you can meet a total stranger, shake their hand and have a friend from some other part of the world. International students are a fountain of information.”
Some international students already have an idea of what they will miss about the United States and what they are going to take away from their experiences. “I love music and it is very accessible here, especially world music,” said Trotman. “I will miss the bartenders. They know millions of drinks, and I love cocktails. Now, I’m not an alcoholic, but it’s amazing. Not every drink has rum in it! More seriously, I will miss the opportunities in academics. You are supported to do research on what topic you want, and you’re encouraged to progress,” she said. “Asking questions is a good thing, and I find that phenomenal.” According to Trotman, she plans to return to Trinidad and Tobago after she earns her Ph.D. since she believes it is her duty to help direct the country in a positive direction.
Nangumo said she has found ease in assimilating to American culture, but enjoys using the Coffee Hour in particular to remind her of her roots. “Although I am pretty much assimilated to American culture, I always want to remember where I come from,” she said. “Coffee Hour is a good place to remind me about the fact that I am Japanese and I have a family that cares about me in Japan.”
Although he has only been in the United States since Aug. 6, De Silva knows his time here, both at MSU and the weekly Coffee Hour gathering, will be valuable. “This opportunity has opened up for me friendships and networks,” he said. “I can make the best use of this when I get back home. There must be a continuous exchange of ideas in order to understand what each culture has. I think that is what the world as a whole has to concentrate on.”

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