By Almagul Serikbayeva
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the number of foreign students arriving in the United States has risen by almost 4%. Despite this, Northwestern University graduate students report still experiencing language barriers rather than cultural transitions.
Ming-Hsiu Hsieh, originally from Taiwan, came to the leading American institution to pursue a doctorate in theoretical chemistry. First year, he had a stipend from a scholarship, and this year he has a stipend from being a graduate research assistant. As exciting as this experience could be, it seems to be frustrating, he said.
“We leave our home country, our friends and family,” Hsieh said. “It’s kind of feeling isolated, and I think that’s a quite big challenge for me.”
Almost 1 million students came to the U.S. in the 2021-22 academic year from more than 200 countries, according to the Open Doors 2022 Report on International Educational Exchange. However, some foreign students find it difficult to adjust here, and the language barrier is one of the main reasons.
“Before I came, I thought my English is good enough, but as a doctorate student we have to pass the computer-based English test, which I failed three times,” Hsieh said. “I don’t think it’s reflecting my English ability.”
Pablo Jose Celis Irarrazaval, 32, a Northwestern master’s student in energy and sustainability from Chile, said he had complications with classes as it was hard to express himself precisely.
“One time, I asked a question,” he said, referring to an experience in one of the previous classes. “I remember that I pronounced oil, but the professor didn’t understand me and I tried to repeat it.”
Irarrazaval said he doesn’t know if the professor intended to make things hard as “we were talking about oil, so you should understand what I was trying to say in the context.”
The language barrier makes it difficult for foreign students to engage in social activities. Hence, they often feel detached and reach out to different ethnic communities for help.
“There’s a huge community of Chileans here, so they have supported me a lot when I needed it,” Irarrazaval said.
International students make up 20% of Northwestern’s student body, according to the Office of International Student and Scholar Services (OISS). On the OISS website, there’s an event calendar, but most of the events are related to visa workshops. There are also a few regular events hosted by various student organizations, such as NU nights, NU sports, etc.
Despite his desire to become part of a local community, Hsieh, 26, says his friendship with Americans is not personal.
“On the research, I can feel like we are the same,” he said. “But out of research, if we’re doing something more personal, I was still kind of isolated from them.”
Emmanuel Garcia Villatoro, 26, studies chemistry at Northwestern. He arrived in Chicago from Mexico in September.
Villatoro said his friends here are mostly Mexican-Americans, as they share the same language, but he has never experienced difficulties in making friends with other Americans.
“It’s not that I don’t feel welcome with them, it’s just that I haven’t really tried,” he said. “I was raised in Mexico City. My culture got mixed with American culture at some point, so it’s not hard for me to talk or be friends with them.”
Villatoro said he believes the sooner foreign students embrace the culture here, the better they will feel. Pretending that you’re still home by, for example, eating the same food, hurts the most, he said.
“You want to take me to Chipotle when we’re drunk because that’s your thing? OK, let’s do that,” he said. “I’ll not complain that it’s not real Mexican food.”
Villatoro emphasizes that now his life is here. “My friend’s trying to convert me to a Midwest guy, apparently, and I’m OK with that.”