Katie Sims / Sun Staff Photographer

November 21, 2016

International Students Share Academic, Cultural Differences at Cornell

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With an undergraduate population composed of 10 percent international students, Cornell prides itself on its diverse campus. International students matriculate from 118 foreign countries — most hailing from China, India and Canada.

When asked about Cornell’s role in their transition to campus and the United States, many international students agreed that in general, the University helped to make the change easier.

“My transition was not as bad as I thought it would be … we [international students] had the pre-orientation program, PREPARE,” said Vivian Kiniga ’19, a native of Nairobi, Kenya. “We talked about American culture, what to expect and how to face depression and discrimination.”

Kiniga, also a member of Underrepresented Minorities in Computing, said Cornell has multiple clubs designed to help international students with job applications and finding internships.

Linus Setiabrata ’20, a native of Jakarta, Indonesia and a member of Cornell Indonesian Association, agreed that his club allows him to keep in touch with his culture and connect him with other international students.

Despite these opportunities, Iliana Paleva ’19, from Sofia, Bulgaria, said that the University could be doing more to help international students, specifically in securing internship opportunities.

She said that the vast majority of companies at career fairs require U.S. citizenship and “the international student office is knowledgeable only about the basics that you can read on the official U.S. government’s website.”

Setiabrata agreed that finding a job as an international student is a “more tedious” process.

In addition to issues with finding employment, Paleva said the University could make improvements allocating financial aid to international students.

“I already witnessed two international students leaving Cornell last year because they could not keep up with the cost,” Paleva said. “Also, international students either get [financial] aid right at the beginning [of their first year] or not at all.”

Kiniga contrasted the financial aid system at Cornell with that in Kenya, where college is subsidized for students who perform well in high school. Paleva, who has also lived in Germany, added that tuition is free in German public universities for domestic and international students.

When asked about their adjustment, most international students pointed to cultural, educational and climatic differences as obstacles to a smooth transition to campus.

All students agreed that their American classmates were generally friendly and approachable, making their transition easier.

“People here … they keep smiling at you, holding the door open for you,” Kiniga said. “In Kenyan culture, no one stops to say ‘I like your top.’”

Fiona Morrison ’20, an American citizen from San Jose, Costa Rica who also participated in PREPARE, contrasted “the boisterous attitude of Americans — always protesting and standing up for some cause” with Costa Ricans’ generally more mellow attitudes.

Dhananjay Bansal ’20, from Mumbai, India, also mentioned differences in the ways students interact with their professors. While in India, students would address professors and elders as “Sir and Ma’am,” while at Cornell, calling teaching assistants and even professors by their first names is more common.

Bansal described the education system in India as primarily rote memorization.

“I believe that the education system [at Cornell] really forces a person to think and to analyze on their own,” Bansal said.

Kiniga agreed that although the coursework may not necessarily be harder at American than Kenyan universities, she has to put in more effort at Cornell.

On the other hand, Paleva mentioned that “multiple choice exams were nonexistent” in Bulgaria and Germany. The European education system is also less flexible, as students “don’t get to pick their classes, but rather follow a set curriculum.”

Despite their differing views on Cornell’s accommodation of international students, all agreed on the importance of and diversity at Cornell.

“It’s crazy every time I think about the diversity here,” Kiniga said. Before Cornell, I never would have thought I would have friends from China.”