Searching for a Space: Navigating Newark as an International Student
Cathy Chen arrived in Delaware two years ago, and it was the first time she had traveled so far. On her first day in Newark, she was greeted by her host family, a Filipino-American couple who had what Chen said felt like “a real home.”
They brought her along with them to church on Sundays. Chen was excited to explore Christianity and religion, which she can remember her grandmother talking about, but never felt comfortable pursuing it in China, where there still exists forms of state-mandated atheism. Soon, Sunday church was eventually joined by Tuesday study group.
In the period of time when Chen was attending a study group, her English wasn’t so good. She spent a lot of time trying to process and understand, and she was perceived to be very quiet. She made some English-speaking friends, but compared to relationships with other Chinese speakers, she felt that these were very different.
“I think I am a really good communicator and have just a little bit of humor when I am speaking Chinese, but when I am in an English environment I am just a really quiet and really shy person,” Chen said. “I want to let my American friends know that I am a person who really likes talking, not always quiet.”
Chen traveled from the Jiangsu Province to the university to learn English and experience an American university, where she heard there was a better arts education and a globally-ranked English language program.
She spent a year in an intensive language and cultural education program and now has matriculated into the general student body. She studies operations management and has a minor in fashion. She is an outgoing person, and likes to be involved on campus, which has included membership in the Blue Hen Leadership Program. There, she is the only Chinese student.
She said that in that kind of environment, it can be a challenge to keep up with fast-paced conversation happening among native speakers. During her first few months here, Chen experienced similar language barriers in church, and found that often, she could not follow what the priest was saying.
Still, church had given Chen a real community for the first time since coming to Delaware. She made her first friends there, like Laura, who introduced her to study group. However, out of a desire to better understand the religious content, she switched to a Chinese church up the highway. There, she could better understand the sermons in her native tongue. She joined a carpool with a few other students who attend and formed new friendships not long after.
“It’s easier to make a connection with the Chinese students,” Chen said.
A large community of native Chinese speakers creates a zone of comfort for those here. According to Andrew Yan, a sophomore student and Blue Hen Ambassador, for students who are balancing mastery of a new language with the challenge of building a good GPA and acclimating to American culture, it can be a great relief to be around an environment where there is mutual language and cultural understanding.
“It really depends on the person,” Yan said. “For me, I am a super outgoing student. So I like to spend a lot of time with native speakers so I can practice my spoken English. But for some students, they just want to stay in their comfort zones. Also, when they stay in the comfort zones they can just focus on their academics.”
Gaps of cultural understanding and language barriers can make jumping into university life and communicating with native speakers an intimidating task. As a Blue Hen Ambassador who assists other Chinese students with their transition to American university life, many of the concerns that Yan hears are about these type of cultural incongruities. Beyond simple language barriers, there are so many pop culture references, colloquialisms and differences in social norms that make up American culture.
“There are going to be so many misunderstandings when you are cross-culturally communicating,” Yan said. “I think that’s a huge problem here.”
Matthew Drexler, who is the assistant director for international student engagement in the university’s Office of International Students & Scholars (OISS), likes to use the example of asking a new friend to get coffee to illustrate the kind of cultural differences that exist in America.
In the United States, people often speak in such a way that it may insinuate plans being made, when in reality, they may be saying it just to be nice.
“I spend some time talking to my international students about that one,” Drexler said.
“If an American says, ‘Let’s get coffee sometime,’ and you really want to do it, you have to follow up.”
These kinds of disconnects have pushed many Chinese international students to sometimes seek refuge among themselves where there is a better sense of understanding.
“I found that with many Chinese people, they tend to get together with Chinese students. Many of them don’t even make friends with Americans,” Chen said.
Just under 2,000 Chinese students are enrolled at the university as of fall 2018. It hosts 78% of the state’s international student population, and the city of Newark is becoming increasingly supported by a concentration of international residents.
According to Yan, who helps manage Chinese applications, the university sends a large amount of offers of admission abroad every semester.
To U.S. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), that seems to be just fine, as he acknowledged in a recent tweet.
While #IntlStudents make up only 5.5% of #HigherEd students, they bring $177 million each year to Delaware and support 1,928 jobs. Today, we celebrate the international students who make our universities and communities even more vibrant. #YouAreWelcomeHere #WelcomeToSucceed
— Senator Chris Coons (@ChrisCoons) April 3, 2019
The high number of Chinese international students, who have chosen Delaware in part because it’s a safe and isolated college town, have fueled a lot of economic development in the city of Newark. There are more than a dozen different Chinese and Asian restaurants in town, as well as almost a dozen places to get bubble tea, a Taiwanese drink that is popular in Asia. Chen said that many of her friends have what she calls a “Chinese stomach,” and are only comfortable eating that kind of familiar food.
The university, through its English Language Institute (ELI) program, provides an education that helps ease students into the transition to the English language and American culture. Chan said that the ELI fills an important role in helping Chinese students learn the language and transition into being a college student.
“The professors in that program will take care of us more than the normal college students because they know we are still trying to fit in,” Chen said.
Yan entered the university as a fully matriculated student, with his English language skills advanced enough to skip the ELI program and jump right into courses with the rest of the freshman class. Even without a language barrier, understanding American and university culture was still a big challenge.
For him, it took three months to truly “get into it” enough to understand how to maneuver campus culture and land a job as a Blue Hen Ambassador.
“[Americans] have your own culture, and we have our own,” Yan said. “When those combine together, there are going to be some misunderstandings.”
Drexler said that the ELI and the OISS consistently work to bridge the cultural gaps that are frequently experienced by international students. The OISS office hosts events focused on providing venues to create opportunities for cross-cultural engagement.
International Coffee Hour, held weekly in a busy student center, tries to offer something for the entire international community. Attracting students to these types of events has been a challenge: with the coffee hour, OISS strives to create an inclusive space that is conducive for the different goals and degrees of extraversion that attending students may have.
“I think the solution to that is having a semi-structured environment. You don’t really impose on anybody, but you have optional activities and facilitators who are there to help everybody get started,” Cesar Caro, who works with student engagement through the OISS, said. “So we’re in the process of planning that.”
Drexler said that the programming and events offered by the ELI and OISS are good resources, but only for the students who are engaged to pursue those kinds of experiences.
“For international students or first-generation students who aren’t quite accustomed to that routine or that culture on campus, we have programs to help introduce everybody in to it, but at some point you have to go for it on your own,” Drexler said.
Outside of events, the university also makes an effort to place students in homestays or other housing options where they will have the opportunity to engage directly with native speakers.
International students and domestic students in the second year of the World Scholars program live together within the International House (iHouse) Living Learning Community. The iHouse attempts to foster a global community by creating living arrangements where domestic and international students share the same room. While living in iHouse in Caesar Rodney Residence Hall her sophomore year, Chen continued to enjoy sharing her culture with domestic students.
One night, in Caesar Rodney, Chen prepared some fresh flower tea to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival. She was hosting a moon tea party for her roommates.
“I really liked to share Chinese cultural things,” Chen said. “On that day, in the Mid-Autumn Festival, families get together at night, it’s a little bit like American Thanksgiving so families like to get together and they have dinner together. They eat mooncake, and they watch the moon.”
Chen had gotten the mooncakes, a sweet pastry that come in a variety of different fillings, at a local Asian market. That night, she had them with dumplings and rose tea with her roommate at the time, Caitlin Rulli, a World Scholar from New Jersey.
“It was a sweet afternoon, and we also got to know each others’ cultures really nicely,” Rulli said.
Chen only chose to live in the dorms for one year, before moving back into a homestay. She said that as well as she and Rulli got along, she had some bad experiences with another roommate. Anyway, she missed the opportunity to have home cooked meals.
Many of Chen’s Chinese friends have also chosen not to live in dorms and instead sign leases for off-campus housing with other international students.
When she visits them, those living spaces can be a nice place where Chen knows she can just be her funny and bubbly self, without any stress over being misunderstood to be the