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Culture shock: Being international at Belmont

Editor’s Note: This article was written by James Mixon, who is also an international student at Belmont.

Belmont University is not known as a particularly multicultural campus, but there are a number of international students living and learning here under the radar.

Though the transition can be difficult, more than 100 international students are soaking in the American culture and helping steer Belmont towards a more globally-aware future.

Some international students are citizens of other countries who are at Belmont under a student visa. These can either be exchange students who stay for just one or two semesters or students on a 4-year visa. Out of 113 undergraduates on student visas, 27 are in an exchange program.

All of these students fall under the purview of the International Students and Scholar Services department, operated by Kathryn Skinner.

There are also a number of foreign-born students who are now American citizens or dual citizens and don’t require a visa. These include the children of missionaries, military personnel, diplomats and international businesspeople.

The total number of international students at Belmont is less than 2 percent, said Skinner.

Moving countries in addition to beginning college can be very stressful. Skinner’s department–which consists solely of her–provides guidance in completing the visa process, acquiring international health insurance and navigating the initial throes of culture shock.

Many international students “really need this office for the first year,” while they adjust to residential life, food, curriculum and–for some–language, said Skinner.

Tahina Fiaferana, a freshman from Madagascar, said during the enrollment process “the way things were explained was definitely helpful to me.”

To ease the cultural transition, every international freshman is assigned an American roommate, and many deeply enjoy engaging with their American classmates.

Fiaferana said he spends “more time overall hanging out with the American students,” although he said there are many elements of American culture that are new and strange to cross-cultural students like himself.

At the weekly international coffee hour coordinated by Skinner, international students said they were interested by the ubiquity of religion, the higher drinking age and the informality of the campus culture. French exchange student Pierre Guillermin said he found it “cool” that professors had such personal, helpful relationships with students, something not experienced in his home country.

Life in a new place can still be lonely, however.

Most international students are too far from home to return more than once or twice a year, yet many, said Dr. Skinner, never enter an American home during their studies. She said sometimes “people are afraid of foreigners.”

Eric Gomez, a Belmont graduate from Colombia, said that “though people are friendly in Nashville, being international made me different in a way, so it was harder to connect with people.”

Senior Mohamed Darwish, the son of Egyptian immigrants, said it was difficult to find “a place where I fit,” and that many of his friends are also cultural minorities. However, he and others agreed that most Belmont students, upon beginning a friendship, are “really open to learning more.”

International students seem cognizant that a lack of knowledge goes both ways.

“Though people do know very little about Colombia: cocaine, jungle, coffee–maybe–I know very little about most every place, so I understand the situation and can do nothing but shed light on the truth,” said Gomez.

Similarly, Charlotte Payne, a junior Communications major who grew up in Thailand, said that constantly explaining her background to people can become “uncomfortable,” and wants to remind fellow students that “I think their life is interesting too.”

To build a more informed and diverse campus, Skinner advocates for a stronger international program. In the past Belmont maintained several helpful programs that have since been dropped, such as the English Language School Language Center, and multiple language exchange residential spaces.

The last such space is the Max Kade house, located on the lowest level of Dickens Hall, which houses a mix of German- and English-speaking female students to encourage cultural and linguistic interaction.

Skinner said change will come through a higher saturation of international students. More exposure to new cultures and ideas will foster curiosity, global awareness and new relationships for both local and international students. This can be achieved by increasing international recruitment, international scholarship and Belmont’s name recognition overseas.

“I love being around international people because anytime someone walks in the door, I learn something,” said Skinner. The more Belmont attracts internationals, the more Belmont will learn.

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