Adapt and Overcome: The Challenges Faced by International Students

International students talked about how they have adjusted to new lives in a new country and thrived in their time at the University of Alabama.

By: Tanner Ary, Malia Davis and Jennifer Johns
News Reporters

After an eight-hour trip quickly turned to 12 because of delays, the sound of plane wheels screeching as they touched down and rolled to a stop on a dark landing strip in New Orleans came as a great relief to Paul Obermann. He gathered his carry-on bags and began making his way through the thin, crowded aisles, sliding between other passengers and their luggage to get to the door of the plane. Once he finally reached the entrance, Obermann paused and asked himself, “What the hell have I gotten myself into here?”

Paul Obermann spends time in his office working on completing his PhD.

Obermann decided to come to the United States as a highly recruited golf player from Germany. He accepted a scholarship offer to play collegiate golf at Southeastern Louisiana University in 2013. After having success both in the classroom and on the golf course at Southeastern Louisiana, he chose to forego his opportunity at professional golf and come to the University of Alabama where he is pursuing his doctorate in finance.

Although he found success in both sports and academics, Obermann has never forgotten the hardships and adaptations that came with leaving his family and coming to a new country for school.

“As soon as I stepped off the plane in Louisiana, I felt like I had run into a brick wall,” Obermann said. “The humidity combined with the 100-degree heat quickly reminded me that I was not in Germany, or anything like it, anymore. It was a complete and total culture shock.”

Obermann’s experience was not much different from many other international students who attend schools in the United States each year, including the 1,219 international students enrolled at the University of Alabama. These students leave their homes and choose to receive an education in a country most of them have only seen pictures of or read about online.

According to a press release published in November, the Institute of International Education’s resource, Open Doors, said the number of international students in the United States in the 2017/18 term reached a new high of 1.1 million.

While the students often similar experiences in trying to adapt to a new life in a new country, each has a different story to tell.

 Obermann’s coach was at the airport to pick him up, and the trip to Southeastern Louisiana was one that Obermann will not soon forget.

“On the drive to the school I remember looking around and seeing all of these swamps and marshlands which smelled awful,” Obermann said. “I can remember sitting there in that car and just thinking to myself, ‘This is definitely not Germany.’”

Once he arrived at his new home, in a small apartment off campus, Obermann quickly realized that his initial regrets might have been inaccurate.

“I found that everyone was so welcoming and hospitable here in America,” Obermann said. “They hear you talk a little funny, and they immediately strike up a conversation and ask you where you are from. It was really no problem meeting people, and it was a fun experience for me.”

For Obermann, the key to making life abroad an easy transition is to get involved with anything that is offered that gives students a taste of American culture.

“My advice is to take a dive into cold water essentially,” Obermann said. “You have to make an effort to adjust to a new country because the country will not adjust to you. Join clubs and talk to the people there, make new friendships with American students. It will be uncomfortable at first, but this will help you adjust and meet friends that can make this new place feel like a home rather than just a place you are visiting.”

Like Obermann, many others have enjoyed becoming accustomed to the culture and making friends in the United States, including Jay Boonchoong. Boonchoong came to the United States from Thailand to pursue a degree in aerospace engineering at Alabama. Although he is fully immersed in the culture of the South, his experience was not an easy fit at first.

“I was so surprised at how different everything was when I got here,” Boonchoong said. “I was so nervous about making friends and fitting in and to do so, I had to adapt myself to the lifestyle here so that I could fit in the best that I could.”

Throughout his first few months at Alabama, Boonchoong said he quickly realized that most everyone he met was polite and talkative, even if they were complete strangers at first.

“It was so crazy to me to see how people will just say hello when you pass by them walking down the street,” Boonchoong said. “That doesn’t happen where I am from, and the way people are so willing to get to know you here made me so much more comfortable each time that I met someone new.”

For Boonchoong, new friendships were formed after he made the decision to join a fraternity on campus. There he found a brotherhood that will last long after his time on campus is finished.

Jay Boonchoong (Far Right) pictured with a few of his fraternity brothers.

“Joining my fraternity was the best decision I made after coming here,” Boonchoong said. “Through the fraternity, I have been able to learn what it is truly like to be an American. My brothers take me to their homes and on hunting and fishing trips with them. On each adventure, I am able to learn something new about the nature of American people and the things they do for fun.”

Boonchoong said he plans to remain in the United States after he graduates because as he will tell you, Tuscaloosa has become his new home. This feeling of home is one he shares with another former international student turned professor and Tuscaloosa resident, Dr. Kyoung Kim, or as his students call him, “Dr. KT.”

Dr. KT came to the United States from South Korea in 2004 to further his education. Before making this big transition to the U.S., he said he felt no motivation or desire to come to the States.

“My parents and friends of my parents recommended me to study abroad in the States,” Dr. KT said.

When he finally made the decision to come to the States, he studied in Columbus, Ohio, at Ohio State University. While finishing his education, he grew to be happy and satisfied with the choice.

As the years went by, Dr. KT received his bachelor’s degree, but post-graduation, he only had three options to choose from when thinking about his next steps in life. He could stay in school, find a job or return to his home in South Korea. After months of thinking about his options, he concluded that he wanted to either stay in the U.S. to further his schooling or to try and find a job.

“I decided to stay for higher education or to get a job in the States because compared to my country, South Korea, there are many good opportunities,” Dr. KT said.

He eventually decided the best option was to stay in the U.S. to attend graduate school to further his education and gain additional knowledge that he did not get as an undergraduate. He decided on Purdue University, where he got his masters’ degree in economics. Upon completion of his master’s degree he returned to Ohio State University to pursue his doctorate degree.

Six days after his Ph.D. commencement, he was offered a job at The University of Alabama as an assistant professor. Dr. KT said he had not dreamed of ever becoming a professor or mentor. Although that was not part of his plans when he first came to the United   States, he has since realized how fortunate he is to live and work in Tuscaloosa.

“I’m so happy with this stable job teaching at the University,” Dr. KT said.

Dr. KT (Far Left) with a few of the students he teaches.

As Dr. KT has transitioned into making Tuscaloosa his home, he says he has experienced a slight cultural gap in comparison to South Korea. He said there is not much that is different culturally, but he has noticed that the people in the United States are friendly compared to the people in South Korea.

“I enjoy that aspect of living in America,” Dr. KT said.

Dr. KT said in that aspect, he is very Americanized. He can say hello to everyone wherever he goes. He said when he goes to the playground with his daughter, it is common for him to talk to other parents for about 40 minutes.

As Dr. KT adjusts to the American life, he said it is going to become harder to adjust to life when going back to South Korea. He goes from a nice and friendly environment to an environment where no one really acknowledges anyone on the street or out in public.

“The feeling is very different,” Dr. KT said. “That part of the culture gap is really opposite.”

Although Dr. KT was able to make the U.S. his home, students like Zhaoming Kang do not have that opportunity.

Zhaoming Kang is a study abroad student from China. He is currently a senior and has studied his undergraduate years at Alabama. Kang came to America to live out his American dream.

When Kang arrived in Tuscaloosa, he said it was tough for him because he did not know much English. When he first came, he could not even order food or drinks.

“I couldn’t even order a cup of coffee,” Kang said. “Even with ordering food, like if I go to a restaurant, I don’t know, I just randomly picked any dishes that just appeared there.”

As he learned how to adjust, he said he learned that there are a lot of cultural differences. The main differences he noticed was how the people treated him, eating habits, and how much the cost of higher education is.

Kang said the people in the United States are extremely nice to him and are always welcoming him with a smile and inquiring about how he is doing.

“If you do that in China, it’s weird,” Kang said.

Another difference that he experienced was the different eating habits. Kang said that it is different to see people eat things like Subway all throughout the day, and one of his biggest adjustments had to do with rice. In his culture, rice is eaten everyday, while here in America it is just a side dish every now and again.

The last difference he noticed was how much higher education was in Alabama. He said that in China you have to live in dorms, but here you can choose where to live after the first year.

Throughout his four years at the Capstone, he has had contradicting feelings about his experience. He said although he has adjusted well, he feels like he missed out on his own cultured college experience.

“When I do [a] comparison with China college, I missed my own culture, which made me kind of regret coming here,” Kang said.

As Kang’s college experience comes to an end, his only option is to go back to China. Although he would like to stay in the States, he said after he graduates he must move back with his family. Kang says he had an overall good experience with studying abroad.

Although international students like Dr. KT and Zhaoming enjoyed their experiences and would like to stay in the U.S., students like Prabhat Jah have different plans.

Prabhat Jah is a graduate student at UA studying mechanical engineering. Growing up in Nepal, Jah soon learned graduate programs in the U.S. and Europe were better than at home. After studying in Europe for a short time, his first term of academic study in the U.S. was at Mississippi State. Jah said the American version of English with a Southern accent and the food were something he had to get used to.

He transferred to UA where he said the college community was inclusive, but the community was something to adjust to.

“Tuscaloosa is less progressive than Starkville (Mississippi) which was a surprise to me because Alabama is ranked higher than Mississippi in most things and has a bigger name and university,” Jah said. “In Alabama, people are still stuck in their past. As a university they are doing great, but on a local level, people are still not as open minded, they don’t know another perspective if they haven’t traveled.”

Open Doors also said the United States remains the top country for international students to study abroad. However, it also revealed there has been a decline in new international students enrolling in American colleges for the past two years.

The Migration Policy Institute sites a national survey that found visa delays and denials, increasing costs of education, competition from institutions in other countries, prospective students’ concerns about securing a job in the United States after graduation and the shifting social and political climate as the factors contributing to the decline.

While Jah said he has seen this type of judgment, he has also seen great change after people get to know him.

“It gives you hope when someone opens their mind,” Jah said. “That’s the beauty of why you want to come to a place where there are many people from all of the world. America is the best example, and it’s difficult to find that anywhere except the U.S.”

Jah said he has enjoyed his time in the U.S. and getting to learn a great deal in academics and culture, but after he completes his education within the next year, Jah plans to return to Nepal. Jah said he learned something amazing in his U.S. travels.

“People are the same, that’s what I’ve found,” he said.  “People are same at the core, only culture and lifestyle are different.”