Qihong Zheng, also known as Mora, enjoys sitting outside Coffeeberry after a long day of studying. She was drawn to the small coffee shop after becoming friends with the owners. / photo by Donna Martinez

Qihong Zheng, also known as Mora, enjoys sitting outside Coffeeberry after a long day of studying. She was drawn to the small coffee shop after becoming friends with the owners. / photo by Donna Martinez

After leaving China, Mora grows into an independent person

by Kaila Williams
photography by Donna Martinez

Today, she can be found on the leather black couch inside of Coffeeberry almost every day between classes. The small coffee shop on D Street is her sanctuary from her busy schedule and a reminder of her home. Four years ago, Chinese international student Qihong Zheng, who is known to the La Verne community as Mora, was new to Southern California and to the United States. She had just left Shenzhen, a city in southern China, for the first time. She was away from family and constantly homesick. Then, she found a cozy coffee shop that became a place for her to meet new people and to find solace.

She sips tea from her cup with the seven continents on it. Asia holds a special place in her heart. “Mora!” a friend says. Mora looks up. Her face brightens with a warm smile as she greets a familiar face. “Hi, sweetheart,” she says as she hugs her friend. She quietly takes small sips from her cup. Another person walks into the shop and Mora greets him — it is another friend of hers. Despite the initial feelings of homesickness, Mora has made La Verne her home away from home with help from her favorite coffee shop.

Adjusting to La Verne

The transition from high school to a four-year university is tough for the average American student — it usually means leaving home for the first time and moving to a different city. But leaving home to study in a foreign country is no easy transition, either. “Los Angeles is different from the movies,” Mora says, laughing. She expected tall, glittering skyscrapers, like those in Shenzhen, and wealthy people. But that was not what she found in La Verne. A bit disappointed, she has erased her preconceptions of the Los Angeles area and is taking it in for what it is.

The first couple months in the U.S. were plagued with homesickness. Mora admits she cried often as she got situated. Homesickness still occasionally creeps up on Mora. When that happens, she usually calls her family, but she has to wait for a convenient time because of the 15-hour time difference. She either stays up late or wakes up early to talk to them. Another way she gets a little piece of home is by visiting Coffeeberry. Known as Andy, he and his wife Anne are from Taiwan and China, respectively. Finding others that are from the same home country, especially the same region, is a small reminder of home and what Mora is familiar with. “They are people I can relate to and have the same culture and values as me,” she says.

Mora visits the small shop frequently, and she became instant friends with them. Since they have become friends, Andy says Mora confides in them, discusses her troubles and seeks advice. “Everybody loves her. She is a very bright and hardworking girl,” Andy says.

Once situated, Mora began branching out and making friends with domestic students. She says it was difficult at first, but she spent time with her new friends and got familiar with American culture and become more comfortable and open to making even more new friends. “It’s easy to get to get in touch with each other, especially people from the same country, because we have a common language and culture,” she says.

Yet she did not fully experience culture shock until she visited home for the first time after a year and a half. “Now we have globalization so things start to blend together,” Mora says. One of the differences that stood out to her the most was the way people interact with each other. She says that in China, people walk by without acknowledging each other, but in American culture, it is different. “Everybody hugs each other when they greet,” Mora says. Mora notes that Americans are more friendly and happy to see one another; while in China, privacy and personal space are respected. Yet the thing Mora takes away the most from her time in the United States so far is her newfound independence and individualism. However, that conflicts with some Chinese values. Back home, parents usually make decisions for their children. In fact, it was her parents who decided she was to earn her degree in the U.S., not her. “If I would have stayed, my path would be decided by my parents. Here I have control of what I want to do,” she says.

She mentions that in Chinese society after children graduate from college, they should get married. In some instances, dates are already arranged. But Mora thinks that is ridiculous.

After she earns her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, it is expected that she will go back to Shenzhen to help run the family business. Yet, Mora has different plans in mind. “I learned how to be independent,” she says confidently. “I can defend myself.”

Life in China

Coming from the city of Shenzhen in the Guangdong province, Mora is over 7,000 miles away from home. Shenzhen is located north of Hong Kong. What was once a simple fishing village has boomed into a huge city and is the biggest in the Guangdong province. “It’s a diverse and liberal city. There are a lot people from other provinces and countries that live there,” she says. Mora and her family moved to the city when she was a young girl and she has spent the majority of her life there. Her father is a businessman who works in real estate and her mother stays at home to raise the family. Mora’s daily life, like that of other kids there, revolved around academics. During her senior secondary, the equivalent to American high school, Mora spent three years with the same group of 50 students in the same uniforms to hide any hints of a student’s socio-economic status. From about 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., they studied the typical school subjects like mathematics, history, biology, Chinese and more. At the end of those three years, they take the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, also known as the gaokao, which is equivalent to the SAT. It is a two to three-day test where students are tested on math, English, Chinese and a choice of a different subject.

In China, academics are important. Better academic scores give students better educational opportunities, such as going abroad for their degree. In Shenzhen it is a trend to send students to study in a foreign country. According to the Institute of International Education’s Open Door 2015 report, China remains the top country of origin of international students in the U.S., increasing by 11 percent to 304,040. California is the top state with the most international students, followed by New York, Texas, Missouri and Arizona. This increase in international students is due to greater efforts in recruitment, prominence of American universities, more international exchange partnerships, government aid and the rise of the middle-class families. Families usually hire agents to help their students find universities and help with the application process. “Agents have a better understanding (of what universities are looking for) and speak English,” Mora says.

Mora is not the first in her family to study outside of China. One brother and one sister studied in England and another brother is currently enrolled at the University of Southern California. It was through the help of an agent that she found out about the University of La Verne and it was the only school she applied to. Out of the group of 50 students, there were five students, including Mora, that were able to go outside of China to study.
After earning their college degrees, most students come back home to help their families. In the Chinese culture, the idea of collectivism plays a big role. Everything is centered on family and doing what is best for the family. However, Mora is not entirely sure she would want to go back to China.

Coming to La Verne

The Institute of International Education names the United States as the country with the most international students. The number of international students in the U.S. increased by 10 percent in the last academic school year. Currently, there is a total of 974, 926 international students in the country. The University of La Verne has over 800 international students enrolled from Sweden, Ecuador, Greece, South Korea, Taiwan, Norway and more, but the majority stem from China. With over 20,000 universities across the globe, Mora chose the small, quiet La Verne campus to pursue her higher education.

International students apply to La Verne as any other prospective student would. An application needs to be turned in along with personal statements, resumes and transcripts. Their admissions process takes longer since transcripts are submitted in different languages. Admissions send those transcripts to an outside contractor to validate them. Once accepted into the university, they pay their deposit, and that is when the Office of International Student Services steps in.

International advisor Araceli Sanchez assists international students with official documents and acts a liaison. The first document an international student needs before coming to La Verne is an I-20, a document proving that the student is studying in a university. “We get their financials (statements), passports, addresses, contact info — everything we need to create the I-20,” Sanchez says. The I-20 is the basis of all international documents. It is needed for students to receive a student visa from their respective country before they can travel to the U.S.

Studying in a different country can be expensive, but international students pay approximately the same tuition as a domestic student, except for a few hundred dollars more for international student fees, which vary. The only difference is that international students do not have the luxury of setting up a payment plan like domestic students. “The reason it’s expensive for them is because in order to get their I-20 they need to show the full amount,” Sanchez says.

Students need to provide bank or financial statements to prove to admissions, international student services and the government that they have the adequate funds for their education. Sanchez, who has worked with international students for six years, has seen all types of financial situations. Some students have parents who have saved up their whole lives, others have parents who are CEOs and can afford to send them to another country, and others have their government funding their education. “We have Qatar and Saudi Arabian students and those governments pay full on the amount of tuition, and then the students get a stipend of $5,000 to $6,000 a month,” Sanchez says.

A home away from home

Despite the rough beginning, Mora has made a La Verne family and helps her fellow international peers. Associate Dean of the College of Business and Public Management and Professor of Management Rita Thakur is one of a few in Mora’s support system. Thakur, who was an international student herself, makes it a priority to help other international students. Thakur experienced racism and sexism as an international student in the Midwest, but international students in California do not have to face those types of issues because of the liberal social values, Thakur says. “There were very few of us back then but, now there has been this huge shift of international students, which means more inclusion,” Thakur says.

She encourages international students to step out of their comfort zones and get involved on campus to further enhance their perspectives and broaden their minds. That is exactly what Mora has done, and she is taking full advantage of her time at La Verne. She has been the teacher’s aide in several accounting classes, has tutored students in accounting at the Academic Success Center, and is the current vice president of the Society of Accountants.

Her work ethic impressed Thakur so much that she helped Mora land an internship at Aura Systems Technologies for the fall 2015 semester. She has made the Dean’s List her entire time at La Verne and is a recipient of the International Student Scholastic Award. “She’s a very involved student and very committed. She always wants to the best,” Thakur says.

Thakur is even more impressed with Mora’s giving spirit. The College of Business and Public Management takes the international students in their department on day trips. One trip in particular was to Palm Springs during winter. Mora brought extra jackets with her just in case other students forgot theirs or needed extra warmth. “She said, ‘It will be cold there.’ She brought seven, eight jackets with her. That’s just who she is,” Thakur says.

Her kind nature is also felt by her peers. Fellow international student and junior mathematics major Jiahuan Huang, or Elaine, turns to Mora when she feels homesick. “When you study abroad, you have to leave all your friends and family; it’s really hard,” she says. Elaine confides in Mora because she is a good listener and can relate to her. Elaine jokes and says, “Everytime I call her, she is in the library.” Studying and working hard is the golden rule for Mora.

When Mora is not studying hard, spending time with friends is also a priority, since most of them are living away from home. “It doesn’t matter what my friends want to do. I’ll go to spend time with them, and I still enjoy myself,” she says. Mora and her friends plan several different activities — hiking, indoor rock climbing, watching movies, and they even recently went on a mud run.

Yet the most important thing for Mora is to keep a positive mentality. A former faculty member encouraged Mora to have a positive mindset and to be kind to others. “Bad things will happen and people will frustrate you, and you’ll want to lash out, but I just remember all the people in my life and I’m good,” she says.
Mora’s academic journey is not over yet — she is looking into graduate school. Mora remains grateful for her opportunity to study in the U.S. and for the people she has met. Until then, she continues her regular routines. It is lunch time, and Mora is sitting at the counter at Coffeeberry talking to her friends and sipping on tea. One after another, a few friends of hers walk in and are immediately greeted with a smile and hug. “I will never forget the experiences I’ve had here,” she says with a smile.

Mora enjoys a cup of hot tea while engaging in a conversation with her professor at Coffeeberry. Mora meets up with many of her fellow students and professors at the coffee shop since it is one of her favorite spots near campus. / photo by Donna Martinez

Mora enjoys a cup of hot tea while engaging in a conversation with her professor at Coffeeberry. Mora meets up with many of her fellow students and professors at the coffee shop since it is one of her favorite spots near campus. / photo by Donna Martinez