Nkazimulo Sibanda has a hard time squaring the kind greetings he regularly receives around the University of Missouri–St. Louis campus with the perceptions he had of the United States when he arrived here last winter.
They’d been shaped by many of the American news reports that have circulated around the globe in recent years – images of racial strife, violence and political rhetoric seemingly unwelcoming to outsiders.
If Sibanda is being honest, those things almost kept him away. He sparred with the same concerns that many others have apparently been feeling at a time when nearly 40 percent of U.S. colleges and universities have reported seeing a decline in applications from international students.
“There’s a little bit of anxiety when you go anywhere new, but coming here specifically, I felt like there were a lot of things that I was going to encounter inevitably – things like racism and so on and so forth.”
Still, Sibanda decided his fears shouldn’t deter him from pursuing the offer of a scholarship to study on this side of the Atlantic.
He’s one of the roughly 900 current international students who’ve chosen UMSL, and their presence enriches the campus as they work to better their own futures.
UMSL’s international student population includes individuals from six continents and more than 70 countries.
International students don’t always expect to find that level of diversity when they imagine what it will be like to study in the United States. They often develop fast friendships with one another.
“I feel it brings people together,” says Nino Obanor, a junior information systems major from Serbia. “Everyone who comes here from a different place – it’s not from here. So that helps you relate, whether it’s from South America or Africa or whatever. People relate just based on not being familiar with the culture here, not being born here.”
Obanor, who began his time at UMSL as a member of the Tritons men’s basketball program, attended a prep school in Los Angeles before beginning college, so he got a head start acclimating to the United States and its culture.
It is almost always a challenge for students living abroad for the first time, away from family and friends and the routines of daily life.
Getting involved is the surest way to get over any initial homesickness.
“UMSL has a very welcoming atmosphere for international students,” says Prachi Talwar, a junior information systems major from New Delhi, India. “You have so much to do. You never get bored on campus. You can join clubs and organizations and it’s not just academic stuff.”
Talwar’s involvement has run the gamut from membership in finance and accounting clubs to joining a group for board-games enthusiasts. They are good ways to meet people and build a network of friends.
Establishing a support system becomes all the more important because international students inevitably will have moments of adjustment where they could use a little help.
From an academic standpoint, it could be understanding the importance American professors tend to place on homework assignments or the need to take advantage of extra credit opportunities – extra credit being a foreign concept in some countries.
Away from class, they might need help knowing how to format a resume or to apply for an internship.
The International House is a place international students can turn to when they need questions answered.
Annie Mbale, a graduate student from Malawi, is one of the International Student Leaders living there this year. She has made it a point to try to share wisdom she’s acquired since beginning as a student at Jefferson College in 2011 and coming to UMSL in 2014.
“I know it’s a struggle,” Mbale says. “I was lucky enough that I had an American family to show me. But I remember many mistakes. I didn’t even know that people had to do taxes – things like that that you would expect people to know, I didn’t know.
“There are things that they look simple, but we don’t know, so whenever I can help, I try to help as much as I can.”
The I-House, as it’s commonly called, also exists to help facilitate cultural exchange, both among fellow international students and their American peers, with regular events designed to highlight a particular country and its customs.
“You see Americans learning from international students and international students learning from Americans,” Mbale says.
“That’s why we always encourage Americans to be here because they’re the ones who are going to teach people things like, ‘We eat a hot dog like this.’”
The exchanges go both ways.
“I don’t think people typically understand the pressure I guess that there is to make local friends – the need,” Sibanda says. “I wanted to. It’s really what I wanted coming here. Going all across the world and then to not know the people that live here would be very frustrating, and I think it would be for a lot of international students.”
Culture is never the only thing international students are studying.
Obanor came to UMSL intent on pursuing a health-related degree, perhaps physical therapy. But he decided to change majors after a friend exposed him to coding.
“I took an information systems class and found out there’s so many opportunities in technology,” Obanor says, “so I kind of fell in love with that.”
Obanor has taken advantage of UMSL’s proximity to the growing tech scene in St. Louis. He recently gained valuable experience working as an intern for British startup company WIFIPLUG through the Ameren Accelerator, an energy-focused incubator created through the partnership of Ameren, UMSL Accelerate and Capital Innovators. It’s housed in Cortex, the innovation and technology district that resides in the city’s Central West End and Forest Park Southeast neighborhoods.
Qinyi Sharif has pursued an academic path a bit less common for students arriving from overseas: nursing.
“I came here and my first major was biology; I wanted to be a doctor,” says Sharif, who arrived from China in the winter of 2012. “But then I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after I graduated because the specialty degree to become a doctor is still a long time.”
Sharif met her husband that summer at UMSL, and he and his family suggested she look into the BSN program, pointing out the job prospects it could provide. She is currently in her final semester and completing her clinical work at Missouri Baptist Medical Center. She expects to hit the job market in St. Louis – now her home – this winter.
Living in St. Louis
The surrounding communities play an important part in the experience international students have at UMSL, whether they eventually settle here or return home.
It can be hard for many international students to find authentic cuisine, as Sibanda has discovered. But he’s become partial to eating at a local Mexican restaurant.
Talwar has a couple Indian restaurants she enjoys, but she’s also developed a taste for Imo’s Pizza, the local standby known for its Provel-cheese-topped St. Louis-style pizza.
Talwar and her friends have grown fond of riding the train down to the Gateway Arch grounds and hanging out together there, chatting as they look out at the Mississippi River.
Not long after he arrived, Sibanda joined a group of people on a visit to Tower Grove Park to go geocaching, an outdoor treasure hunting game using GPS-enabled devices. It remains one of the experiences he remembers most fondly since arriving here.
Mbale doesn’t like to spend too much time sitting. So when she has a break from class during the week, she might head to Forest Park, either to get lost in one of the galleries at the Saint Louis Art Museum or simply to explore the outdoors.
She usually keeps her camera app open so she can take pictures and send them to her younger sisters back home.
“There’s always something happening,” Mbale says. “There are always free events to attend. I’m very outgoing, and I like that the city offers me those opportunities.”