Bringing an International Community to Roger Williams University

08 July, 2017

Editor's Note: This story is part of a continuing series about international student life at colleges and universities across the United States. Please join us over the next several weeks as we bring you stories about international students and the American higher education system as a whole.

There were many things Miranda Rojas had never done in her life.

Born and raised in San Jose, Costa Rica, the 19-year-old had never been to neighboring countries in South America, let alone North America. She had never met a Muslim person. She had never even used public transportation.

All of that would change once Rojas completed high school and came to study at a university in the U.S. in 2016.

Roger Williams University undergraduate student Miranda Rojas with one of her friends in the Intercultural Center.
Roger Williams University undergraduate student Miranda Rojas with one of her friends in the Intercultural Center.

Rojas says when she was younger her parents were a little strict. But when it came to higher education, her parents wanted her to have as much freedom and independence as possible. They encouraged her to study at a university outside of Costa Rica, she says.

Both of her parents were international students. Her mother earned a master's degree at Marymount University in the U.S. state of Virginia. Her father earned an undergraduate degree from Cornell University and earned his master's from the University of Pennsylvania.

They wanted Rojas and her sister to see what the world outside their country might offer them, she says. But it was her father who pushed her to follow their path.

"He loved his experience, and he learned a lot. He says it changed him. So he wanted that for us too. And they always, like, encouraged us to apply to universities, to take the SAT, take the TOEFL, go look at universities."

At first, Rojas wanted to attend a large school for her undergraduate studies. She says she believed only a big school would have international students and American students of different races and backgrounds. So her first choice was Syracuse University in New York, a school of almost 22,000 students.

But her high school guidance counselor asked Rojas to consider the more personal experience a smaller college or university might provide. In the end, she listened to this advice and chose to study psychology at Roger Williams University.

Formed in 1956, Roger Williams is a private liberal arts school in Bristol, Rhode Island. The university has about 4,800 students. And the campus sits on the coast of Mt. Hope Bay, about an hour southeast of the city of Providence. In fact, beautiful water surrounds the town of Bristol on three sides.

Rojas was a little worried about how white the student population at Roger Williams was when she first arrived. The U.S Department of Education's College Scorecard states that about 73 percent of the students there are white. And Rojas thought that as a foreigner and a Latina, people would treat her like an outsider.

However, Rojas quickly found friends among the international students she met through the Intercultural Center at Roger Williams. The Intercultural Center is an office at the school that helps international students with their academic and social lives. It offers study help and hosts special events. It is also a place for international students to relax with each other and their friends.

Rojas says that through the Intercultural Center, she has made friends from all over the world. This includes people from countries whose people she never thought she would meet, like Rwanda and Saudi Arabia.

One of the dining halls on the Roger Williams University campus.
One of the dining halls on the Roger Williams University campus.

And while she first thought her race or nationality would separate her from American students, she could not have been more wrong, Rojas says. She says that Americans are much less open to meeting strangers than people are in Costa Rica. Yet once her classmates started to learn she is an international student, they all were happy to meet her and had many questions about her life back home.

However, for Qiming Li the main difficulty as an international student was not just making friends with Americans. He says he also struggled with being treated equally.

Li is from Guangzhou, China. He came to the U.S. in 2009 to finish his last two years of high school at the private Darrow School in New York.

Even though he had been living in the U.S. for three years, Li says his English still was not as strong as it could have been when he started at Roger Williams in 2012.

Li says the students treated him differently because of this. Once, while working on a group project, the other members of his group tried to do his share of the work for him, he says. He believes they did so because they did not believe he understood his responsibilities.

Li did not let this anger him. He simply told his group members that he was actually able to do the work himself. And ever since, he has seen the challenges of living in a foreign country and studying in a different language as a way of proving himself.

Roger Williams University graduate student Qiming Li sitting near the water in Bristol.
Roger Williams University graduate student Qiming Li sitting near the water in Bristol.

In fact, Li completed his undergraduate degree in history in spring 2016. He then chose to start a master's degree program in historical preservation at Roger Williams the following fall.

Like Rojas, Li also says he owes a lot to the support he received from the Intercultural Center. He says the students and staff he has met through the center never judge him. And while he has faced some difficulties dealing with American students, he still has learned a lot from them.

"If I did not came here ... I think my views on a lot of things would be different. In this school you have students from everywhere, people from U.K., from South Africa. And you have people from the southern part, the west coast of the U.S. You kind of get an opinion of how everyone feels about different things."

I'm Dorothy Gundy

And I'm Pete Musto.

Pete Musto reported this story for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor. Richard Hindman and Lucija Milonig produced the video. We want to hear from you. How do you deal with being in a situation where everyone is totally different from you? What ways do universities in your country support international students? Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

strictadj. demanding that people obey rules or behave in a certain way

encourage(d) – v. to make someone more likely to do something

master's degreen. a degree that is given to a student by a college or university usually after one or two years of additional study following a bachelor's or 4-year undergraduate degree

undergraduate degreen. a degree that is given to a student by a college or university usually after four years of study

applyv. to ask formally for something, such as a job, admission to a school, or a loan, usually in writing

background(s) – n. the experiences, knowledge, and education in a person's past

guidance counselorn. a person whose job is to give help and advice to students about educational and personal decisions

campusn. the area and buildings around a university, college, or school

academicadj. of or relating to schools and education

nationalityn. the fact or status of being a member or citizen of a particular nation

challenge(s) – n. a difficult task or problem