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Credit: Insia Haque

 People from all over the world come to Penn for a variety of reasons, whether for the quality of education, the job opportunities, or the romanticized idea of the college experience. And for a lot of international students, coming to Penn is also their first experience living in America. Sometimes, it is not at all what they expected.

“Mainly after NSO it was harder to speak to more people in class and outside of clubs,” College first year and international student Edgar Rodríguez shared when talking about the openness of students on campus after the first few weeks of the semester. Similarly, I found that even though a lot of students are still open to meeting new people after NSO, it seemed kind of awkward for a lot of people to just approach others and introduce themselves.

Just like Edgar, many international students I know have realized that American culture is starkly different from their own soon after getting to Penn.

I did not realize this difference until after my first week at Penn. I was running around all day doing activities for International Student Orientation, which meant that everyone I met would greet me with a hug, a kiss on the cheek, or two. When classes started, my American roommate told me that greeting people with hugs and kisses was not a normal thing here.

In general, I can say that the people back in Mexico are usually more welcoming to strangers than the people I have encountered here. For example, we will always say “good morning” or “good afternoon” when walking into any place, regardless of if we know the people there or not. That said, I definitely believe that being far from home and discovering a new country together helps international students create deeper connections to each other much faster than a lot of American students. This usually happens when we talk about our home countries, being homesick, and what we have learned about the new country we're in.

But Penn is not an easy place to be for anyone, regardless of where you are from.

It's a place where everyone is always in a rush to get somewhere. Where every space seems to be designed for you to be productive. Where competition is always in the back of our minds. Where we are always vulnerable to feeling lonely, even when we are surrounded by thousands of people. This makes it more important than ever for students to be able to create genuine, close relationships to each other from the start of their college experience. 

Additionally, creating close relationships at Penn can make the college experience better because it's nice to have people to talk to about the things you’re struggling with. Going through college isn't an easy thing to do, and having people to rely on allows students to have a solid support system. In my first month here, for example, there was a big earthquake in Mexico and telephone lines weren't working. I had no way to contact my family. However, I had friends that I had just met a few weeks before, and they were the ones that helped me through this. They listened to me and consoled me, and they eventually became my family here.

I can confidently say that my friends have made my Penn experience better. These are people that I've known for about six months now, but for some reason I feel like I’ve known them for a lifetime. And although some might be surprised at how close we got so fast, I can say that when you decide to be a little more open to the people around you, it just comes naturally. This can be in the form of sharing more vulnerable aspects of yourself with others or even just taking a risk and introducing yourself to someone new, even those who you don’t expect to become your friends. And the only way to achieve this is to be a little more welcoming.

For the most part, international students seem to be open to meeting new people. And, as students like Edgar and I have realized, we will most likely be the ones that take the first step to start an interaction with someone. We might go up to the people in our classes and befriend them. We might smile at the people we cross paths with everyday, even if we have never met them.

So, this is an invitation for everyone at Penn to pay a little more attention to the small things international students do that make them seem more welcoming, and learn a thing or two about it. Regardless of where you are on campus or what you are doing, just the fact that you're at Penn is an open invitation to meeting new people. Maybe instead of just nodding your head at someone, you could go up to them and ask how they are doing. Maybe you could give someone a compliment, even if you don’t know them. And maybe then, you could surprise yourself and find a close friend in someone that would’ve otherwise never been anything more than an acquaintance.

Still, this is just the short experience of a Mexican here at Penn. And just as there are people here from all over the world, there are also a million different personalities and perspectives you might encounter when it comes to openness. However, you can always learn something new from everyone you meet.

ZARA TENA is a College first year studying political science from Puebla, Mexico. Her email is