Ben Parker / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

March 21, 2019

‘Two Completely Different Worlds’: Four International Students Reflect on Homesickness, Culture Shock and the Value of Community

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Lidia Mandava ’20 has returned home just once since she came to Cornell. Arzu Mammadova ’20 — who speaks four languages — struggled sometimes in her first-year writing seminar. Georgia Makris ’20 and AbdulRahman Al-Mana ’20 both described missing out on their changing hometowns. All these students are either the only, or one of a handful, student to ever attend Cornell from their home countries.

International students face the same homesickness, loneliness and adjustment period that most college students experience. However, that can be compounded by being thousands of miles from home and not knowing another person from their entire country at Cornell.

At Cornell, 5,322 international students make up 22.55 percent of the total student body. Although Cornell boasts international diversity, more than three quarters of foreign students hail from the same ten countries, while some countries send only one.

These four students — among many Cornellians with similar experiences — have different home continents, languages and reasons for coming to Cornell, but they’ve all made Ithaca their home (far, far) away from home.

Lidia Mandava ’20 is a government major from Maputo, Mozambique. She applied to Cornell through the Davis United World College Scholars program at her international high school in Eswatini.

“Oh my god, I miss everything,” Mandava said. Then, she continued, “the food, the beaches, the warmer climate, the people.”

“Everyone is always complaining like, ‘I haven’t been home in two months,’ and I’m like, ‘um, hi’,” she said. Mandava hasn’t been home since December 2017.

Mandava explained that one of the biggest challenges has been how students minimize the nuance of Mozambique among other African countries. Many people think of Africa as one body, Mandava said, “but it’s such a multicultural place.”

Mozambique is home to 29.67 million people, but Mandava is the only one at Cornell. In comparison, New York state has a population of 19.54 million, but 4,679 undergraduates represent the state.

“Being the only one is a lot of responsibility to try and explain to people the culture … to educate the rest of campus,” she said.

Arzu Mammadova ’20 is a computer science major from Baku, Azerbaijan, who applied to Cornell after attending a summer program that spurred her interest in the Western education system and watching college students’ videos online. Mammadova said she has found the community at Cornell comforting.

“If it wasn’t for them, it definitely would have been harder for me to get adapted,” she said.

Mammadova — who speaks Azerbaijaini, Russian, English and conversational Turkish — explained that one of the hardest parts of the transition was learning to write critical essays in English, even though she’d been speaking it since she was in the second grade. She said she “really struggled” in her first-year writing seminar.

Mandova recalled when she first came to Cornell — with her parents and six suitcases in tow — she was shocked “that this is where I’m going to spend the next four years of my life, and that I would have to live apart from my parents.”

Georgia Makris ’20 is a statistics and philosophy major from Cyprus who applied to Cornell after hearing its name as a child and continuing to claim she would go there since.

“Oh, Cypress, Texas?” Makris cited as the most common question people ask her about her home.

When asked what she misses most about home, she replied that she felt she was missing out on her brothers’ growing up — and the food.

Makris, who speaks Greek, said that everything — from math to memorization — takes a lot longer in English. Being a student “takes a lot more effort,” she said.

Makris also explained how meaningful having a Greek friend is, because “it’s nice to speak your [own] language.”

AbdulRahman Al-Mana ’20 shares his experience as the only current Cornell student from Qatar.

Ben Parker / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

AbdulRahman Al-Mana ’20 shares his experience as the only current Cornell student from Qatar.

AbdulRahman Al-Mana ’20 is an urban and regional studies major from Doha, Qatar, who applied early decision to Cornell after deciding in high school that he wanted to study urban planning — an interest that came from watching his own hometown “flourish out of the desert.”

When asked about the biggest shift from his life in Qatar to Cornell, Al-Mana said he missed speaking Arabic. He explained the difficulty in finding other Arabic speakers, but when he does meet them, he feels a “sense of Arab unity” and the comfort of the sounds of home.

“It is very lonely being the only one — not having people who grew up with similar experiences,” he said.

When Al-Mana says he’s from Qatar, the questions people ask are often political, he said; he struggles to balance his personal experience as not broadly representative in his answers.

“At times, I feel like I have to act as some kind of ambassador or spokesperson,” he said. “I try my best to illuminate what life is like there … for me.”

“It can be lonely and isolating in some ways, but we are put in a very unique situation, where we can share our unique culture with others,” Al-Mana said about being one of the only students from his country. “It’s very empowering.”