Qais Iwidat is a senior, but he has only gone home once since coming to Penn.
“We don’t have Starbucks. But we have ‘Stars and Bucks,’” Qais said of his home in the West Bank, Palestine, as he sipped a grande iced coffee from the Starbucks at the Penn Bookstore.
He misses his homemade Arabic coffee, usually thicker and darker than what he can get from a Starbucks. The “Stars and Bucks Café,” located in the city of Ramallah, offers Italian cappuccinos, Arabic coffee and hookah, in a country where Starbucks does not exist.
Qais — like a few other international students — was the only one accepted from his country. As of 2014, Penn is home to international students from 69 countries. While countries such as China, India and South Korea have large representations on campus, there are 25 students who are their countries’ sole representative, according to the most recent data from fall 2013. They are from Albania, Lithuania, Iraq, Mozambique and Nicaragua, among others.
Without a defined pathway, their experiences before and after coming to Penn differ — sometimes dramatically — from those of other international students. Because studying in the U.S. is uncommon in their countries, they have to figure things out by themselves while educating their parents about their decision. Once they arrive, they don’t have any immediate support from other students with the same origin. Yet, the feeling of being the selected few gives them high self-expectations that often include giving back to their homes.
For Qais, receiving an acceptance letter from Penn did not guarantee successful enrollment. “You don’t really know if you are allowed to travel from Palestine,” he said. “Sometimes the borders are really controlled by the Israeli forces, so they have the say.”
He kept the news of his acceptance within his family and a few close friends, while still working hard for the college entrance exam in Palestine — just in case he had to stay and enroll in the university a few blocks away from his home. But months later, after obtaining a visa to study in the United States, he embarked on the long trip to Penn, the only student from Palestine entering his freshman class.
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Arman Tokanov, a Wharton junior, did door-to-door internet sales in his gap year before college.
“Hey, you have Internet?” Arman would knock on the doors, family by family, trying to start a conversation. “I basically said, ‘Your Internet sucks, you know. I have the one that’s cheaper and faster!’”
Most of the time people asked him to go away, but sometimes he would make a sale.
During his unconventional gap year, Arman — who spoke Russian and Kazakh in his daily life — spent time catching up on his English to get better scores on the SAT and the International English Language Testing System.
He went to a public high school in Astana, where English was used only in science classes. When his senior year arrived, he was not prepared for applying to U.S. colleges. Although he got acceptance from one of the top universities in Kazakhstan, he decided to take a gap year and apply to American colleges, despite concerns from his parents, who thought it was a risky decision.
Penn’s admission results came out in the early morning, before the sun rose in Kazakhstan. When he opened the website and saw the word “Congratulations,” he knew that the gap year was worth it. Arman came to Penn as the only student from Kazakhstan in his class.
Aye Nyein Thu, a Wharton senior from Burma, also managed to convince her parents to let her study in the U.S. Her parents thought she would be lonely and wanted her to go to college in Singapore, where her brothers were studying. So Aye made a deal with them: She would only come here if she got into an Ivy League university.
“Why are you going to this no-name school?” her mother asked after Aye showed her the Wharton acceptance letter. In Burma — like in Palestine and Kazakhstan — the only U.S. colleges that are household names are Harvard and Yale. But getting into a U.S. college at all was worth celebration.
Aye showed her mother the college rankings, and four months, later she found herself on a campus where she knew no one.
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International students have a natural need to find familiarity once they arrive in the U.S., said Rudie Altamirano, the director of International Student and Scholar Services. But for students like Qais, Arman and Aye, that task can be particularly challenging.
“If there’s no other person from your country, it’s harder in a sense that there’s no immediate connection,” Altamirano said. “They would look for that, but there was none. So they will go to the next level — which is the closest to my culture?”
In her freshman year, Aye would frequently visit Rangoon Restaurant, the only Burmese eatery in Philadelphia. The restaurant, located in Chinatown, served as a quick fix for her homesickness.
Arman noticed differences in culture right when he arrived at the gate of the Quad with his suitcases. In Kazakhstan, people tend to be reserved with strangers, which entails no smiling and no small talk. But he quickly learned that same rule does not apply in the U.S.
“There was a big guy, the guard, there. I was helpless and didn’t know what to do. I looked at him briefly,” Arman said, “and he looked back and smiled!”
“It was so weird — why is this big guy smiling at me?” he said.
However, a year later, when Arman went back home, he often found himself smiling to strangers and getting weird looks in return.
But certain things don’t change. Arman tries to keep up with praying five times a day. A Muslim, he knows by heart the direction of Mecca from all the buildings in which he takes classes, and he has discovered secluded spots in Huntsman Hall, Van Pelt Library and the Engineering Quad where he can pray between classes. Sometimes at these secret places, he meets his Muslim friends to pray together.
On a Wednesday afternoon this September, Arman brought a black foldable mat in his backpack and headed to the Lippincott Library on the second floor of Van Pelt. He walked toward the spiral stairs, took out his mat and laid it on the ground in the dim area beneath the stairs. Before praying, he looked out the window to Walnut Street to check that he was facing in the right direction.
During Arman’s five-minute prayer, a girl strolled down the staircase, but she didn’t notice him praying.
Qais, on the other hand, knew what to expect coming to the U.S. because he had watched Hollywood movies and listened to American music, like many other Palestinian teenagers.
“It’s funny that you live in what you saw in the movie. It actually makes you excited,” he said.
Qais has noticed one difference between West Philadelphia and the West Bank, though: how safe the neighborhood is.
“It’s really safe back home. It’s actually safer than West Philly,” he said, mentioning that, unlike at home, he does not feel secure walking alone here after midnight. People often ask him about the safety of his home country and are surprised to hear his answer.
“But I understand. I have skewed views on other countries, too. Coming here is a great chance for me to listen to other people,” he said. “To see through others’ lenses.”
In the summer after his sophomore year, Qais went back home for the first time. There is no international airport in Palestine, so he had to fly from New York to London, then to Jordan and he finally traveled to Palestine by land.
When he hung out with his old friends, he started to realize how studying in the U.S. had changed him. Qais saw himself becoming more assertive and individualistic about what he wanted to do in the future rather than “collectively planning” with his family, compared to those who stayed in Palestine.
“I mean, my family is always my top priority,” he said, placing his right hand over his heart. “But if I have a vision, I want to do it. Because I believe eventually it will be better for everybody, for my family.”
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Sitting on a bench on High Rise Field and dressed in a business suit with a black messenger bag, Remy Manzi, Penn’s first-ever student from Rwanda, was preparing to head to a Wharton career fair in Huntsman Hall. The College junior wanted to see the representatives from UNICEF.
Studying in the U.S. is opening up doors for him to realize his dream — international development in the short term and being a diplomat for Rwanda in the long term. Growing up in a country that had been ravaged by genocide, Remy developed a knack for solving conflicts. His school accepted children from both main ethnic groups involved in the genocide.
“I have to interact with kids whose parents participated in the genocide and learn their motives behind it, and also become friends of these kids,” he said.
Remy’s experience in a post-conflict country sparked his interest in a career in development and diplomacy. At Penn, Remy is involved with so many cultural groups that he couldn’t say which he identified most closely with.
When he went back to Rwanda after his freshman year for an internship in the Rwandan government, his friends looked at him and called him a “rich guy.” He had gained 40 pounds and grown two inches taller.
“In my culture, when you are bigger, it really means you are rich. Your social status has changed,” he said.
During his internship, Remy got to know President Paul Kagame personally.
“The president ... he’s expecting so much from me. Because there’s not a lot of Rwandese who have [the] opportunities that have been really opened to me,” he said. “So sometimes I say I don’t deserve it — that it’s overwhelming.”
Remy is not the only one with high expectations. Without receiving any financial aid, Aye has always felt guilty for spending so much family money and wants to pay it back.
The feeling haunted her so much that she called her father one day to apologize.
“I am so sorry I’ve spent this much,” she told him. “I promise I will pay you all back. I just need to find a job.”
Her father, a successful businessman from a rural village in Burma, has always been an inspirational figure to her. “Our family lives very fortunately for my generation. My parents had to go through a lot,” Aye said.
She has had several jobs on campus, including working as a research assistant and as a management TA. Every so often, she visits the Wharton Behavioral Laboratory for some pocket money. “In small ways, I tried to not spend,” she said.
Aye is currently going through the on-campus recruiting process for a consulting job and sees herself going back to Burma after years of working experience.
Like Aye, Arman also wants to stay in the U.S. for a few years after graduation. Wearing a T-shirt reading “< see what you can build / >”, Arman looks more like he should be walking out of the Engineering Quad than Huntsman. Although he has not decided his concentration at Wharton, he intends to do a computer science minor.
“I am not into Wall Street, but I am into Silicon Valley — that’s like another bubble,” he said, half jokingly. Arman is keenly aware that working in “banking, consulting or those good jobs people get at Penn” will be a “social lift.” He expects himself to get one, too.
“That kind of salary simply doesn’t exist in Kazakhstan,” especially at the entry level, he said. “It’s a social lift, pretty much, for middle class [students] in America, too.”
The students who left home and came to Penn alone from their home country might not have known what to expect when they opened the acceptance letter from a university in a faraway country. Aye is never going back to a high school with 16 students in the graduating class. Arman will not be a door-to-door internet salesman. Qais will probably get more coffee from Starbucks than Stars and Bucks. And Remy, with the addition of 40 pounds and 2 inches, will likely to be regarded as a “rich man” by his old friends from now on.
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