In some nations, looking a superior in the eye is disrespectful. In others, walking into a class without greeting everyone is seen as rude.
These are only two of the many cultural differences international students at Penn State face on a daily basis. Nghia Nguyen, president of the Vietnamese Student Association, said that even after nine years in America, he still has difficulties with the subtle social differences.
But he and other international and multicultural students have what many called their “safe havens” on the University Park campus. Members of international and multicultural organizations are able to utilize these clubs and associations to keep a little piece of home close to them while they are away getting an education.
BLUEPrint is one of the newest additions to the 60 multicultural associations at Penn State. Implemented this semester, Senior Coordinator Brianna Weeks explained that the group had transitioned from the original S-Plan (Support, Survival and Success) after University Health Services ended its funding.
Instead of ending the organization altogether, Weeks (senior-nursing) and about 10 others began working last spring to re-brand and re-market the organization under “BLUEPrint” and relocate it the Paul Robeson Cultural Center. The group is now aimed toward peer mentoring.
BLUEPrint is geared toward students of color, as well as international students and students transitioning from other campuses.
“It’s a different experience, I think, for students of color,” she said. “It’s unique. A lot of people [of color] don’t make it here at University Park.”
LeShae Daniel is one of the mentors within the BLUEprint organization. Hailing from Washington, D.C., she said she can understand the “culture shock” students feel coming from urban areas to the geographical center of Pennsylvania.
Daniel (junior-human development and family studies) said her Penn State experience would have been different if she were able to join an association similar to BLUEprint her freshman year.
“It’s a sense of comfort,” Daniel said about the organization. “It’s that assurance that they’re not the only one to look like they do here.”
She said that meetings usually don’t have to do with diversity, but about homesickness, stress and the resources that are provided on campus. Now that she’s a part of the organization, she said she and the other mentors are giving back the best way they know how.
“We try to do what’s within our realm to help,” she said.
When Nghai Nguyen (graduate-solar energy) first joined the Vietnamese Student Association, he said the organizations’ goals were geared toward partying, so he left.
He rejoined some time after and became the president in order to “show that the Vietnamese are here.” Nguyen said at the group’s meetings they discuss the subtle social differences between the two nations to help them integrate.
In many Asian cultures, it is considered disrespectful to look superiors in the eye. Nguyen said in America there is a “huge pressure on young people to do that” and said that even after nine years in the country, it’s still very difficult.
He also said in Vietnamese culture, students are expected to remain quiet during classes and show humility toward the professor. With the language barrier and many Vietnamese students taking intense science courses, this is a set up for the student to struggle. Nguyen teaches the club members that asking questions is a part of the learning process in the United States.
As for Ngyuen, he is a fourth-year P.h. D. student studying solar engineering. He said that when he graduates, he hopes to go back to Vietnam.
“Vietnam has lots of sun there,” Ngyuen said, smiling.
Some students find their home away from home in other organizations, such as the Iranian Student Association.
Although it is formally called the Iranian Student Association, President Soheil Bahrampour said that it’s not only students that join the association. Graduate students, faculty, staff and community members have joined the organization to celebrate traditional Iranian holidays and participate in weekly soccer or basketball games.
Bahrampor (graduate-electrical engineering) said the association “helps you adapt yourself [to America] and make a lot of friends.”
He said that his organization is a place of comfort for many. He said that people come from Iran to Penn State for an education, and that many spend all their university years in the area and don’t go back home until they’re done.
“When you come from Iran, you’re looking for the best chance you can get,” he said.
Speaking about the environment Penn State provides to people from Iran, he said students here are able to see past the U.S.-Iranian conflicts.
“It’s not something important,” Bahrampor said. “Friends here get to know you and see you’re different than what’s in the media.”
Joyce Zhou(junior-political science and psychology), public relations chair of the Chinese Undergraduate Student Association, came from China, as most of her club members have, to pursue an education in the United States. For her, she wanted to study political science, and her parents told her to go to America if she wanted pursue the subject.
For others, such as President Shihe Peng, it was easier to get into school in America because of the stringency of their form of the SAT.
For the organization, it’s mainly social events and professional development. Peng (senior-accounting) said the group will hold a general information session and teach freshmen how to behave in interviews and talk to recruiters, pointing out the social differences.
For cultural events, the group teams up with the Taiwanese Student Association and other groups to celebrate different holidays.
Peng said that when she came to Penn State, she was lucky to get help from those in higher grades, and as president, she hopes to help the freshmen do the same.
Kia-T'Nique Thomas, president of the Caribbean Student Association, joined the association her freshman year and ever since has “felt kind of at home.”
“I want my general body to get what I got out of it,” she said.
She came from the Virgin Islands, where the British education system focuses solely on careers. Thomas (senior-French and Global & International Studies) wasn’t ready to decide on a career path, so she came to Penn State to explore all her options.
Thomas said people join the club depending on how much they want to be a part of the culture once they come to Penn State
“Some people need to find a connection, to find some way to identify,” she said. “It’s a way to connect back and a great way to make a family.”
Ryan Brown, Penn State Student Black Caucus president, joined his freshman year because of the organization’s history.
“It serves as an organization that protects, provides and advocates for the minority population,” he said.
Brown (senior-integrative arts) said the Student Black Caucus has given him family and friends that will last a lifetime, as well as a place to call home.
When coming to Penn State from the Philadelphia area, he said that he sought out people who were from similar situations and Black Caucus provided that place, and believes it serves this purpose to all its members.
“This is the thing that kept me sane,” he said.
Aaron Wilkinson isn’t German. Nonetheless, two years after the German Club began, he became its president.
“It’s a fun club to make friends,” he said. “It’s people from random parts who all have something in common.”
Wilkinson (junior-international politics and German) is a German major who joined the club in order to practice speaking the language. He said at the meetings, they talk about German culture, practice speaking and plan social events, like how to celebrate Oktoberfest.
For him though, the most important part is becoming bilingual. Many of his club members studied abroad in Germany and came back to Penn State wanting to continue practicing.
Ariel Coronel joined the Latino Caucus the first moment she could her freshman year.
Being a first generation Ecuadorian, she said, “the culture and the language are definitely with me and a big part of my life.”
Coronel (senior-energy business and finance) is now president, and through Latino Caucus was able to learn more about her culture.
Her first year, the president at the time taught her the difference between “Hispanic” and “Latino,” a difference she didn’t even know existed.
Coronel said she was taught about the issues Latinos face in America and about social justice. She has now become a political advocate for many of these causes.
“I grew with Latino Caucus,” she said.
She explained Latino Caucus is the umbrella group to all the Latino organizations on campus and as president, tries to bring them all together.
“We have dinners where you can get your own home food,” she said, smiling.
Coronel explained that multicultural organizations aren’t necessarily for everyone. For example, her roommate is an exchange student from Turkey but has decided not to join the Turkish Organization on campus. Her roommate came to Penn State to learn about America and become a part of the American culture, not to reunite with those from her home nation, which influenced her decision not to join.
Coronel is also currently a mentor of BLUEPrint, and joined because of her relationship with a former Latino Caucus president.
“It’s a lot different for a student of color to come from areas of high diversity to come to this campus,” she said. “I wanted to provide that support to someone else that she provided for me.”