Being international at Notre Dame
Jee Seun Choi | Sunday, October 30, 2011
If you studied abroad, you would know that being an international student is a challenging experience.
But being one for four years at Notre Dame, like five percent of the student body, requires deeper interaction with the new place. The experience, of course, varies from individual to individual. I know of an international student who didn’t even know that Notre Dame had a football team, or even that it is a Catholic school.
Then there are other international students who know everything about the Notre Dame tradition. Some speak English with their parents, while some find speaking the language very uncomfortable. The culture at Notre Dame can be shocking even to an American student; for an international student, Notre Dame provides a different kind of challenges and excitement.
When I first arrived at Notre Dame, I was afraid, excited and jet-lagged. I had said goodbye to my old friends who came to see me before I left at 4 a.m. I cried in the airplane as I read a farewell letter from my family. The immigration process at the airport was predictably unfriendly. I was anxious to be speaking a foreign language that I had learned for a while but nowhere close to be fluent in.
My first impression of Notre Dame? I hated Frosh-O. Everyone else seemed to know all the songs and childhood TV shows that were basics of a culture I had not grown up with.
The moment I opened my mouth, they knew that I was not American. I felt judged when I couldn’t act fluently in a quick and stressful social situation. The program designed to make most of the student body bond and identify with each other only accentuated my dissimilarities.
Classes were challenging as well. At Notre Dame, it’s so easy to lose the balance between one’s studies and life outside academia. When self-worth is defined by academic performance, one can easily be crushed when that one pillar becomes unstable. The pressure is exacerbated for the hyper-achieving international students, who came to a different country to attend an academic institution while lacking fluency in the language and culture.
People might extol bilingualism and cultural awareness, but in reality the general attitude makes one feel less than appreciated. It is extremely frustrating when you have something to say in class but cannot express it or misrepresent it due to the language barrier. Your classmates often appear more intelligent because of their mastery of the language the class is taught in. You might be the sole contributor of an idea that isn’t received by anyone else because the reference is specific to your cultural upbringing.
Connecting with the American professors can be really awkward because of the cultural difference. You need to make an extra effort to make what you learn in college applicable to where you come from.
My sophomore year was especially challenging. I missed speaking and reading in my language. I missed my family and friends. I missed the food and culture. I sometimes felt absolutely lonely. I questioned why I left home; some days I just wanted to go back.
Despite all the difficulties, or maybe because of them, international students have a tremendous opportunity for personal growth at Notre Dame. The culture shocks — a surprising level of patriotism, an unquestioned Christian faith, the idea of equality, sexual liberalism or lack thereof, material abundance, openness, diversity, political correctness, differences in socializing — make you reflect on your own culture.
The intellectual seriousness is the right environment to reconstruct many of the values you had taken for granted, which has been a critically painful but rewarding process for myself.
You truly learn what it means to respect different ways of life through befriending Americans and other international students. Academics are challenging, but you know it’s what you could not have gotten at home. After Notre Dame, you have the option of choosing between two different countries, which most people usually do not. You can bring something what you’ve learned here to your home country.
Although there is room for significant improvement, Notre Dame is a diverse place. It all depends on how you make use of it. However small, there are young and enthusiastic people from all parts of the world from different background. Many campus-wide events celebrate different cultures, and the school even pays you to go abroad.
Many Notre Dame students have international experiences, or want to have them, maybe even through international students here. If you haven’t found your niche, you can be the pioneer. (This semester I witnessed the birth of two Asia-related academic groups!) The school is trying hard to increase the enrollment of international students and support them.
So international students at Notre Dame, and American students who want to be true internationals, do not be frustrated. If you are unhappy about Notre Dame, shamelessly put yourself out there and you can be the change. I know it is difficult, but you will find support.
(And don’t forget to check out the Asian Allure this weekend!)
Jee Seun Choi can be reached at
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.