It was clear from the moment they walked in the room that these students trust each other, rely on each other, and for the time that they will be here, they are each other’s family.
Elnura Alinova (aka Ella) from Kyrgyzstan, He Tianjiao (aka Harry) from China, Anais Silva Vizcaya from Venezuela, and Aarif Badarny from Israel are four of the five Global UGRAD students at Castleton University this semester. The fifth is Mia Villa from Philippines who wasn’t able to make the group interview.
According to Deborah Singiser, director of International Student Services at Castleton, the UGRAD program is a federally funded program that places undergraduate scholarship students from other countries in colleges and universities in the United States for one semester.
“This is the only program that we (U.S. taxpayers) have that brings international students to the United States as undergraduates. Usually you have to be a graduate student to come and benefit from this kind of cultural exchange,” Singiser said.
A company called World Learning is responsible for placing the students, supporting them, checking in on them, and providing each student an advisor to answer any questions they might have.
“There are certain requirements, like they must have a roommate that is not from their own country, they must do 20 hours of community service a semester,” Singiser said. “This is all done intentionally I think to push the students outside of their comfort zone and force them to go meet people that they otherwise might not meet.”
The UGRAD students are inspired, and goal driven. While they spend most of their time in classes and doing homework, many are involved in clubs and activities on campus. They are each a part of the mentor program where Castleton University students meet and spend time with kids in the area.
“I was so disappointed because I didn’t get a scholarship from my own university. I promised myself that I would get this UGRAD scholarship and I will show my previous university that I can do it,” Alinova said. “I was so surprised, I was like ‘I did it!’ I was really happy.
Alinova was the only one from her university to get the scholarship. There are limited spaces in the program, with only five at CU.
Vizcaya heard about the program from one of her friends who was in it too.
“This is like a dream, because in my country all of your dreams and expectations and goals are getting blocked because of the humanitarian crisis that we have and the corrupt government. So to have this, it’s an experience that I knew would be so difficult to do myself. When I got this scholarship I was like, ‘wow, this is a gift God has given to me.’ A lot of people were dreaming about this, and I got it.”
Her next goal is to go back to Venezuela and fight to finish her degree, then apply for a masters scholarship.
Tianjiao said his father’s friend told him about the program – and he almost missed the deadline.
“I didn’t know if i could successfully apply for this scholarship for this program, but in the end, I,” Tianjiao said as the others joined in and said, “you got it!”
Badarny learned about UGRAD from one of his high school teachers who was involved with the U.S. embassy.
“He knows how much I like English and I’ve always wanted to visit the states. I didn’t care where they placed me because I knew that I could visit places on my own. I feel honored, even though I’ve had some rough times,” he said.
They said they love their professors who have helped them so much with classes and general campus knowledge. They mentioned how they experienced culture shock when they first arrived but are adapting well. Tianjiao said that the United States compared to China is completely different.
“The language, the people here, the characters of them, behavior, the work view, many things. The environment and the studying is also different,” he said.
In China, Tianjiao said, there are no grades for things like participation and attendance. Their grades are primarily based on the epic final exam. So during the semester, most students wouldn’t go to class and just study to pass the final exam.
“We are not very busy,” he said.
Compared to the United States, where students are required to do well, in China, they leave it up to the students to decide if they are going to pass or not.
“I have to admit, at the beginning, we were interacting with other international students. But what about the United States students? It was difficult to make those friends,” Vizcaya said.
“It was easier for me to make American friends in my country,” Badarny said. “I studied at an international school and met many American friends, but here, it’s harder.”
Badarny plans to visit the American friends he made in Israel during his time here in the U.S.
“There’s like, a lack of diversity here. And people are not open to learning about other cultures,” Badarny said. “You know, I obviously look at it like, I’m coming to this place I’ve never seen and I want to like, teach them more about my people but, they’re not really open to, I guess, expand their knowledge. Especially coming where I come from.”
Although it has been hard for him at times, he said “If I didn’t like the country and I didn’t like the people, I wouldn’t have come.”
As the students are past the halfway point of their intensive U.S. experience, there are a few things that the students learned here that they hope to bring back home.
“I have a really good idea. It’s my next dream. My dream to study in America was from 12 years old and my next dream is; I saw here many second hand stores and I want to open this kind of store in my country and all the money I want to donate to orphanages, to elderly homes, to homeless people,” Alinova said.
She gets to write a project when she gets back home to apply for a grant to make this dream come true.
Tianjao has to do a final research project for his senior year in China. However, because he is not there, he has to do his project here. His major is social work.
“I want to investigate social workers here and try to find their influence factors that pushed them into social work professions,” he said.
Vizcaya wants to go back to Venezuela and fight to improve the state of her country. She feels a responsibility to.
“My family founded the city that I live in. I feel like I have to fight to make it better.”