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Exchange students attending Penn for the semester pose for a picture in front of the Love statue. | Courtesy of Soomin Cho

As Penn students prepare for final exams and a restful winter break, the several hundred international students who travel to Penn to study abroad are planning to return home.

Over the course of the 2014-15 academic year, Penn hosted 192 international students spending a semester or year abroad, according to a Penn News Today article.

After reaching out to several students at Penn, I found myself added to a Facebook group chat of more than 30 study abroad students. At first glance, it seemed just like any other large, slightly unwieldy group chat between college students.

Previous messages included coordinating study sessions in Van Pelt or Starbucks or asking to borrow a hard drive from someone. They urged each other to go to events or shows they are performing in. Several students cheered for Penn during the championship football game. There was a long string of “Happy Thanksgiving” messages from a few weeks ago.

But interspersed with these messages were hints that these students are experiencing Penn a little differently. One student asked for recommendations of things to do in Boston one weekend. Another asked for prices of buying tickets on Broadway. At one point, a student working on an art project asked the others what reminds them of home.

When I asked them how long they were at Penn, I was met with a wave of sad faces from those only at Penn for the semester. Jaclyn Ying, a student from Melbourne, Australia, told me she chose to only stay for a semester because she would not be able to fill all of her requirements to graduate on time if she stayed for a year. In addition, Ying added that her home university would not cover the extra semester’s tuition.

Lucia Liu from Aachen, Germany told a similar story.

“I applied for two semesters because I didn’t want to leave right after getting used to everything, and four months is a really short period of time,” she told me. “But unfortunately, my school and Penn only let me stay one semester.”

Overall, students said they were attracted to Penn because of its reputation and location. SooMin Cho from Seoul, South Korea said Penn had one of the best reputations of the schools that offered an exchange program with her home institution. Flora Bahri from Lyon, France added that Penn’s location in the middle of a city was another appeal.

Chinmay Jadhav, from London, spent the 2014-15 academic year at Penn. He said his attraction to Penn was based more on his fascination with American culture in general. “For me personally, I suppose I’ve been fascinated by the United States from a very early age. Maybe it’s something to do with American cultural hegemony, but I know more about American media, social life and politics than I do about the UK,” he said. “After being inundated by American culture for so long, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to expand beyond the idea I’d acquired from the media.”

Almost all of the students interviewed said that one of their favorite memories of Penn was New Student Orientation. Elton Lee from Melbourne, Australia said NSO was his best experience by far, describing the “thrill of meeting new people” and the “awesome weather.” Lee added that he even took a trip to Washington, D.C. with some other exchange students.

Other students have fond memories of interacting with the students on campus. Alexander Pechtl from Germany said that his best experience at Penn has been the times he spent with his friends. “All the stuff I did with them was really cool. All the people are open and welcoming; they make Penn a lovely place,” he said.

Jadhav agreed, saying that he was surprised by how welcoming the student body was. “The most unexpected thing was how engaged the student body was in campus life. Penn has a lively, thriving campus. Everyone seems super excited about whatever they’re involved with,” he said.

Jadhav added that some of his favorite memories revolved around his involvement in extracurriculars. “I was involved with two theater productions. One with PenNaatak and another with all of TAC-e. The opening nights for both shows were a lot of fun,” he said. “I’m very fond of the theater community at Penn.”

Some practical issues made life for exchange students more difficult though. Students expressed difficulties with getting their grades transferred back to their transcripts at their home institutions and dealing with lots of paperwork.

Marc Ibanez Diaz from Barcelona also said that he was not added to some listservs, which meant that he did not always receive University notifications. “When [Wharton freshman Tommy Tercilla] died last week, the rest of my classmates got an email and I did not,” he said.

Almost all the students described their classes as rigorous and the academic environment as competitive.

Liu said her workload at times made her schedule a challenge. “I learnt to appreciate the amount of free time and freedom I have back home. Penn has completely messed up my daily rhythm after only four months,” she said. “I don’t know how full-time students can do this for four years.”

Pechtl agreed, adding that “people here are much more competitive than I’m used to, both in positive and negative perspectives.”

Some students said they struggled to form meaningful relationships with other Penn students.

“I expected to make friends with more locals, but it happened that most of the people I hang out with are foreign exchange students,” Liu said.

Ibanez agreed. “I really expected that Americans would be much more talkative, more accessible. Back home exchange students mix with the rest. Here it feels like metaphorically I have to put my hand down somebody’s throat to extract some meaningful conversation.”

Bahri said she feels the fact that she is an exchange student separates her from other Penn students because of the way she tries to experience the campus. “I want every day to be special and not to get caught up in a routine. But of course, everyone around has a whole life already settled so we have very different perspectives,” she said.

Despite feeling separated from the student body, though, students said Penn has pushed them to have more drive and ambition in their lives.

“I’m generalizing a lot here, but it feels as if a lot of my friends at home don’t have a direction or career path in life. Most here do,” Lee said. “It seems like it’s the norm for people to expand their horizons to someplace new.”

Since returning to London, Jadhav said that Penn has pushed him to make changes in his life at his home university. “It’s changed my perspective on my university experience. My time at Penn has made me more determined to make the most of my time at university because I’ve realized that I won’t have the opportunities I have right now forever,” he said.

While many of the students at Penn now are getting ready to leave their semesters abroad behind, Jadhav is able to look back at his with some perspective.

“It was a wonderful, academically and personally enriching experience, and I will treasure my memories of my year abroad,” he said.

Leaving, he said, was simply sad. “It was summertime. The Penn campus was beautiful, and graduation ceremonies had begun. It was really lovely,” he said. “I didn’t want to leave.”

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