In September, New England starts to get cold. People start to pack away shorts and sandals in exchange for sweaters and sneakers. In September in Japan, temperatures can still reach 80 degrees. Sweaters aren’t exactly necessary. That is, unless you are 15-year-old Shoichiro Watanabe, leaving behind bustling Tokyo for rural Connecticut. Watanabe hopped a plane, without his family, and went halfway around the world to be educated in the United States.
“It’s a big difference,” he said “but I have always liked the countryside.”
The topography wasn’t the only difference Watanabe would have to get used to. Against him was a language barrier and becoming accustomed to the U.S. culture- two things that he would learn very quickly. In September 2001, he began school at The Marvelwood School as a 9th grader. Six days later, the September 11th terrorist attack occurred.
“I didn’t really know what was happening,” said Watanabe. “I knew what the Twin Towers were and I knew what ‘plane’ was so I just wondered ‘Was there an accident?'”
Watanabe found out quickly what happened. He also became accustomed to American life and the English language. He graduated in 2005 and enrolled as a full-time student at Castleton State College and though he felt that people in Vermont and around the Castleton community were friendly, he felt that it was a difficult transition from his private high school that was made up of students from around the world.
“People were hesitant to talk to me,” said Watanabe, who is now known better as “Shou” around the CSC campus.
Shou is not alone as far as transitioning not only into campus life, but also into American culture. Currently, CSC has 40 students enrolled who were born outside of the United States, representing 18 different countries including Canada and Puerto Rico, and 70 students who identify themselves as something other than “white.” President Dave Wolk has expressed his happiness in the diversifying Castleton culture.
“This year we initiate a new office that houses a growing international student program and expanded study abroad opportunities designed to improve diversity and to
gradually internationalize our campus,” said Wolk in his Convocation speech.
But Castleton is still a predominantly “white” school and though diversity is coming with the Change Initiative, CSC has a long way to go.
“Vermont is one of the whitest states in the nation, and the majority of our students hail from Vermont. I am hoping that we will attract and retain a more diverse student body,” said Wolk.
CSC Freshman, Mihrab Ali came to Vermont from Sudan three years ago. Last fall she graduated from Winooski High School and said that because Winooski was so diverse, she expected Castleton to be as well. That was not the case.
“In Sudan, people accept you for who you are,” said Ali. “Here, I feel like once they get to know you, then they accept you.”
Despite the difference, like Shou, Ali feels that people in Vermont and Castleton are friendly.
“I was the one who was hesitant [to talk to people],” said Ali.
But she has had good reason to be. Not only did Ali experience cultural change, but also a change in family dynamic. She moved with her two brothers and her father to Vermont in 2006 while her mother stayed behind in Sudan. Ali has not been back to visit her mother, whom she says she was very close to. She does speak with her frequently though.
“Every week!” she said with a smile.
The language was another barrier Ali had to overcome and was, according to her, one of the scariest things about moving to the United States.
Castleton is working to provide its international students with the opportunity to study English as a second language in an effort to make the transition into the American secondary education a simpler one. This year, Associate Administrative Dean Renny Harrigan has teamed up with Alison Welch, International Student Resource Coordinator, Professor Ana Alexander, and several other CSC faculty members to create a support staff for Castleton’s international student population.
“Everyone at this small institution wears several different hats,” said Harrigan.
The group will be around on both academic and residential sides of campus to help this particular group of student adjust to life both in Castleton and in the United States. This could vary from issues like applying for a social security card to issues with a roommate.
Harrigan is also working on setting up connections with other universities outside the United States and encouraging CSC students to study abroad. She believes that having students at Castleton from other countries is a good way to start this process.
“It shows students that kids are currently studying abroad and they’re doing O.K.,” said Harrigan.
Currently, CSC does send some students abroad, but the number is limited.
“I had an amazing time,” said Castleton senior Christina Curtis, who spent last semester in Costa Rica. “I almost didn’t come back!”
Curtis still plans on returning to Costa Rica sometime after graduating from CSC.
Harrigan, who spent much of her educational career abroad in Germany, is working on making connections in France, London, and possibly at a British university. Currently, CSC sends students, most often, to McGill University, Concordia University, and Bishops University, all English speaking institutions in Quebec, Canada.
Castleton also accepts more Canadian students than any other outside nationality. Harrigan says that this is due to heavy recruiting done by both the men’s and women’s hockey teams. But Harrigan and other members of the group are recruiting heavily in other areas. Recently Alexander and Welch travelled to Peru. Welch is in Chile now recruiting students to come back to Vermont.
Back in the states, back on the CSC campus, other faculty members are creating ways to make the international students already attending Castleton feel more at home. Professor Sanjukta Ghosh planned, prepared and presented a Ramadan celebration just outside Morarity House Thursday afternoon. And despite a cold wind and an overcast sky, the music played and the turnout was good. Students, including both Ali and Watanabe, hosted the event and shared with guests information about the Muslim faith and about the Ramadan holiday.
“There are Christmas trees and we sing carols at Christmas time. Why not recognize Ramadan? Why not have a gathering for them, too?” said Ghosh as she munched on Baklava at the event.
Three tables filled with information and food were swarmed with people eager to learn and eager to eat. A large easel stood off to the side with two pictures posted: Paula Abdul and Dave Chappell, to easily recognizable celebrities. Between the pictures read: “How do these pictures change your opinions about Muslims?” Guests of the event were able to write their responses to the question and to the event itself.
Ghosh stressed that the event was not about faith or religion, but about sharing one another’s culture. The first of its kind on Castleton’s campus, Ghosh hopes to recognize Ramadan each year and have another event like this one in the near future.
“I think the next one will be for Japanese students,” she said with a smile.
Shou Watanabe is now a self-proclaimed “super senior” in his fifth year at Castleton and now that he has been educated in the U.S. for the past nine years, he says that he enjoys the American education method much better than that of Japan.
“Here it is more involved in the classroom,” said Watanabe. “At home the professor just speaks and students take notes. Students are not encouraged to ask questions.”
Watanabe has left his mark on Castleton even outside the classroom. “Shou” has been a member of the Spartan ski team, has been a C.A. in the dorms, has been a tour guide around campus, and has also been a mentor to community students.
Any barriers that may have stood in front of these students when they first arrived in the United States have been knocked down by their phenomenal want and will. Castleton will try, in the near future, to overcome barriers and become a more diverse college community.
“We’ve always been a mono-cultural campus,” said Harrigan. “I think we’re at an exciting point.