International students and the American dream
by Michael Saakyan
photography by Austin Beck
It’s the week of finals, and the Wilson Library at the University of La Verne is overflowing with students. The spacious study is filled with a multicultural mix of students. Most are traditional undergraduates between the ages of 18 and 25 – many of whom are native Californians who live on campus or commute from nearby cities. But scattered among them are international students who are thousands of miles away from their families. More than 800 international students called ULV home during the 2013-2014 school year. They all have their own stories of how they chose ULV and what they hope to gain from their adventures. Throughout a typical semester most of these international students go unnoticed by traditional students, remaining a mystery to them. Like clouds in the sky, they are here one day and gone the next. They have traveled a great distance to embark on this journey, thrust out of their comfort zones and into the American lifestyle. La Verne Magazine set out to put a story to those faces in the crowd.
The philanthropic multiculturalist
He is from Serbia but was born in Sri Lanka, and spent most of his life in Africa. He has traveled to so many countries he is unsure of the exact number. Stefan Celeketic loves to travel and connect with people from around the world.
As a young child, Stefan would visit the park with his mother in Belgrade, Serbia. He would climb trees and play while his mother read to herself. To most Americans, playing in the park sounds like a normal event, but in Belgrade during 1999 the park was in the middle of a warzone. “The entire ex-Yugoslav region was in conflict during the 1990s. NATO stepped in to try to put an end to the conflict,” Stefan says. “Problem was they were doing harm to civilian locations. I know this personally, I’ve seen where the bombs hit.”
Stefan says his mother got him through those horrific times. She never wanted to allow the war to inflict a sliver of fear into Stefan, and she was successful in that pursuit. “I don’t remember the bombings as being a dark time in my life,” Stefan says. It became so normal to hear air raid sirens and explosions that those sounds became like lullabies. Stefan remembers the day he slipped and hit his head against the radiator in their home. Due to the bombings, his parents were unable to take him to the hospital. “We had a doctor friend come and inspect the wound,” Stefan says. “It healed fine, but my parents thought I was going to have a brain trauma or a serious concussion.” Although there were no serious injuries, Stefan jokes that if he ever were to go bald, his cone-shaped head would be exposed. His family was unable to leave Belgrade because Stefan’s father had obligations to his job as the manager of an engineering company. That being so, they did not allow the bombings to destroy the tight bond of their family. During the war Stefan’s mother enrolled him in a children’s theater group, which inspired him to major in theatre at ULV.
The family was delighted to eventually move when Stefan’s father was transferred to Zambia, Africa. Stefan no longer had to listen to the sounds of sirens wailing and buildings blowing up. Instead he got accustomed to gates and electric fences surrounding his new home with muddy roads covered in potholes during the rainy season. “I used to live on a dirt road, and often times the government doesn’t want to use the money to fix the roads. They have other things to focus on, like corruption,” Stefan says sarcastically.
The corruption in the Zambian government motivated Stefan to get involved in charitable work. “Zambia has a lot of poverty, so the charity work I was doing there consisted of going out to villages and building them toilets and houses,” he says. One of his most notable works was for the Global Issues Service Summit. “We had a lot of projects going on with the villages close by, so we built a pond for one of them so they can have a sustainable source of income through raising fish and having food available,” Stefan says.
When it came time to look for colleges, he chose one in Southern California, both for its educational attributes and the sunny skies. Since moving to the United States, Stefan says his charitable efforts have slowed down due to schoolwork. Although it is not as significant as building ponds in poor villages, Stefan still gets to help others by volunteering in ULV’s social activism club “Voices in Action,” which raises awareness for social issues.
As for the future, Stefan says he sees himself living in a third-world country after he graduates. “Working with refugees, war victims and problems with starvation, not having the five basic human rights—I have those convictions,” Stefan says.
The freshman from Hong Kong
As Karen Shum walks by ULV’s cafeteria, the heavy scent of Spanish rice clouds her head. She takes a bite and thinks to herself, “It’s just not the same.”
Karen takes her rice very seriously. It is a big part of her life because it reminds her of where she comes from. Thinking of traditionally-cooked Chinese rice is one way Karen remembers being with her family in her homeland of Hong Kong. Her real name is Mung Kay, but she goes by Karen to better acclimate herself into the American lifestyle. She wears the basic college student uniform—skinny jeans, a t-shirt and tennis shoes. Her black hair is in braids with a hint of brown at the tips. She is petite, soft spoken and barely stands five feet tall.
Karen came to La Verne to explore outside of her comfort zone. “I didn’t want to be in Hong Kong anymore and just wanted to go somewhere new,” she says. “I would not be able to go to La Verne without the scholarship that they offered me, plus I wanted to go to a small school with an emphasis on business and psychology.” Connecting with other students is a breeze for Karen, though she still feels more of a bond with students from China. Her former roommate was Chinese, and Karen says it was much easier to connect with her. “We laugh at the same things together, but we don’t have to explain to one another why we’re laughing,” she says. “I have to explain to my western friends why I found something funny,” she explains.
English slang terms and “bad jokes” are difficult for Karen to comprehend. “They’re so bad,” she laughs. “Like when people use the words ‘ghetto’ and ‘ratchet.’ What is that? And everyone here has tattoos. It’s like it’s so normal,” she says. “It’s the norm here, but in Asia it’s taboo—‘oh they’re a bad kid, they must be one of those kids who hang out after midnight on the streets in gangs and what-not.’ But over here people tattoo their dreams and their beliefs on their body.”
Despite her positive experience in La Verne, Karen says she still gets homesick, mainly for food and comfort. “I kind of like being on my own. There’s the freedom, but I also miss my family a lot,” she says. “In terms of food, I really miss the smell of rice. I really miss that.”
The young fashionista
With a simple search on Google, Alina Rozwadowska set out to find the right university for her major, international business and Spanish. The result she found was a small college in a suburban town 30 miles east of Los Angeles.
After locating the University of La Verne on a map, Alina began the application process and started her journey to a new country, leaving her homeland of Warsaw, Poland. Relocating to a foreign land was both exciting and “incredibly scary,” she says. Alina credits her mother for always being supportive, encouraging her to take on new adventures. “For as long as I remember she was always there for me, motivating me to achieve new goals and to challenge myself,” Alina says. “If it was not for my mom’s amazing upbringing I would not be as experienced with stepping out of my comfort zone as I am now.”
The first thing one notices about Alina is her large, pearly-white smile. She is a tall, young woman with long silky blonde hair. Alina’s attire, no matter when you see her, belongs in an Urban Outfitter’s catalogue. She keeps up with the latest fashion trends and knows what is hip, and what belongs in a bag headed to the Salvation Army.
During the weekends when traditional students go home to see their families, international students like Alina are thousands of miles from home, left with digital applications and mobile phones to contact loved ones. “I talk to my family over Skype about two times a week, and we constantly text and share photos,” she says. “It is harder to keep up with my friends as we all are very busy, and the time difference of nine hours is not necessarily helping.”
With the encouragement of her mother, Alina says, she has taken on new challenges. This year she co-created a fashion blog called La Vogue which features the best and most creatively-dressed students and faculty at ULV. “We want to find out what inspires them and what shaped their fashion sense, and in general the story behind the things that they are wearing,” Alina says. “It’s not just about the pictures. It’s also about the people.” One of the co-creators of La Vogue is Kaitlyn Lopez, a traditional student, who says she admires Alina’s passion for the blog and is encouraged by it. “She defiantly puts her heart, soul and time into La Vogue more than anyone who is involved,” Lopez says. “Working with Alina on this project has proven to be both rewarding and challenging, so when I’m having a hard time with it, Alina always finds a way to encourage me to do my best.”
As Alina looks to her senior year, she thinks back to that Google search—did it live up to her expectations? “Mostly yes. Sometimes I wish ULV had more classes to offer, like the art of negotiation or different marketing courses. Besides that, I think the small class sizes and professors’ approachability are great. I really enjoy having conversations about life and business with my favorite professors.”
The International Students Organization
On the first floor of the east wing of the Abraham Campus Center stands the Office of International Student Services. Staff members are available there to help international students with their adjustment to the United States. The OISS offers many services such as work information, social events, immigration advice and orientation.
The University of La Verne also offers international students a way to connect with other students through the International Students Organization. ISO President Stephanie Lima says their main goal is to make the international students feel part of the La Verne community. She says the international students face language issues when they first arrive which cause them to shy away from becoming social. “They sometimes feel embarrassed or uncomfortable about what we are going to think of them,” Lima says. “But they are all very friendly and want to get to know everybody, but I don’t think they know how to go about it, or feel comfortable enough to be the one to reach out.”
The ISO club organizes trips and events for international students, and welcomes traditional students to come along. Some of the events include meet-and-greets on campus with free food, as well as weekend trips to Big Bear and trips to sports events. The activities are meant to help members bond and understand the different cultures within the La Verne community.