INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS LEARN TO EMBRACE THEIR UNIQUE IDENTITIES
Being immersed in a different culture can be confusing, but sometimes it’s in the most foreign of surroundings that you can best find yourself.
This has been the case for a number of ONU’s international students. Amarachi “Amara” Egbujor, a fifth-year pharmacy major from Nigeria, Africa, is a prime example. When she first came to ONU, she was shy and reserved, and she was especially fearful of sharing her background with anyone. She would often be mistaken as African American, but from time to time, her accent would give her away. Being different made her nervous and insecure; she just wanted to blend in.
Then in the spring of her first year, Egbujor participated in the annual multicultural fair at ONU, an event celebrating different cultures with food, attire and presentations about other countries. She dressed up in Nigerian garb, made a Nigerian dish and shared a PowerPoint about her culture. This experience opened her eyes to the fact that being different made her special.
I WAS SO FASCINATED WITH HOW MUCH STUDENTS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT MY CULTURE,” SHE SAYS. “I FELT SO CONFIDENT, AND I DECIDED I WAS GOING TO SHARE MY BACKGROUND. IT WAS SO RELIEVING. I COULD FINALLY TAKE OFF THE MASK, AND I FELT SO COMFORTABLE. NOW, EVERYBODY KNOWS WHERE I’M ACTUALLY FROM, SO I FEEL BETTER INTERACTING WITH PEOPLE."
Since then, Egbujor has really come into her own. She intermingles with students from other countries as a member of World Student Organization, and she serves the local community in several ways through Alpha Phi Omega, a service fraternity on campus. She also has been an international student greeter (ISG), helping incoming international students settle in upon arrival and during their orientation week activities.
Without a doubt, international students face many challenges. Aspects of their culture and behavior are sometimes misinterpreted, and a language barrier can be especially difficult to surmount. Tetsuharu “Haru” Hashimoto, BSBA '18, a management graduate from Yokkaichi-Shi, Japan, understands this struggle all too well, having entered the United States eight years ago knowing little English.
But it didn’t take long for Hashimoto to realize he wasn’t alone. He found a trusted friend and confidant in Riku Watanabe, BSME '18, a mechanical engineering graduate from Centerville, Ohio. Watanabe moved from Japan to the United States at the age of 10, so he fully understood the challenges Hashimoto was facing.
“I always tell other international students I’ve been here for 12 years, and it took me eight years to really feel comfortable with how I speak English,” Watanabe says. “It takes a long time, and I would tell Haru, ‘I always have your back whenever you need me.’ I didn’t want him to quit, so I just told him, ‘There’s light at the end of the tunnel. You just have to keep going.’”
Hashimoto did just that, making large strides along the way. He went on to become president of the Asian American Student Union and a member of the badminton team. He even became a mentor himself to other international students as an ISG and Polar Pal mentor. For him, the personal growth he experienced was worth it.
THE SMALL COMMUNITY HELPS ME TO HAVE BETTER FRIENDSHIPS AND RELATIONSHIPS WITH OTHERS,” HE SAYS. “I THINK THAT HELPS ME BE A BETTER PERSON AND STUDENT, AND IT ALSO MATURED ME BECAUSE THEY TEACH ME HOW TO BE MYSELF. YOU’RE NOT JUST AN INTERNATIONAL STUDENT. IT DOESN’T MATTER WHERE YOU’RE FROM. THE ONLY THING THAT MATTERS IS WHO YOU ARE, SO THAT’S WHAT I LEARNED HERE, WHICH IS VERY BENEFICIAL."
Finding one’s identity can be one of the hardest tasks in life, but from great struggle comes even greater personal growth. Discovering the value of individuality is pivotal, especially for international students, and once they learn to embrace their uniqueness, they gain a new confidence and acceptance in their own identity.
"There’s been a huge, 180-degree transformation in me,” says Egbujor. “Before I came here, I used to be reserved and shy. If I would talk in front of people, I would literally cry, but with the exposure here, I feel confident talking now. I’ve always had that struggle of finding where I belong, but being here has made me realize that you can just be you."