For the Prospective International Student Wondering About Comfort Zones

As the head mentor for the International Student Mentor Program (ISMP), I have always felt that the presence of international students on campus brings an interesting dynamic to campus life. We grew up in different environments and cultures (what Bourdieu calls habitus), and the things we do and say here sometimes challenge assumptions that students and professors make both in and out of the classrooms.

However, I would like to focus more on the personal – how having a group of international students on campus made me a better person. Apart from the obvious reason of having a support network, knowing people from so many parts of the world has also made me reconsider much of my own thinking. The mainstream media shapes how we view different countries in the world, and we begin to have singular narratives of certain countries – what Chimamanda Adichie would term the “danger of a single story”.

I might have included this reference just to showcase this photo I took with Chimamanda when she visited Pomona College last year.
I might have included this reference just to showcase the photo I took with Chimamanda when she visited Pomona College last year.

For example, before coming to Pomona College, my impression of Pakistan was that it was a dangerous, lawless and a fundamentalist Islamic state. This was what I got from the news I saw on television, and trust me, my parents will freak out if I ever tell them I now want to visit Pakistan.

But I had the luck of making a Pakistani friend after coming to college, and she overturned many of the prior impressions I had about the country. I learnt that Lahore, where she comes from, is a beautiful city with a thriving arts scene. I learnt that Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad are all cities in Pakistan with different characters and “feels”. But most of all, I managed to have a human connection with the country, so that the Pakistanis I see on television are no longer just disconnected “Others” to me, but have their own agency and thoughts beyond the simplified portrayals I see on television.

While studying abroad in Kyoto, my host mum once lamented that having so many friends from different countries is tiring because every time something bad happens in those countries, she also becomes worried and concerned. Of course, she was only joking, but it really shows how relationships with people from different cultures develops in you a sense of emotional empathy and understanding, so that you do not just care about your “own people”, but for a common humanity.

International students coming together to discuss the experience of "studying abroad" in the US
International students coming together to discuss the experience of “studying abroad” in the US.

Coming to Pomona College, a small school, meant that I had to interact with people from cultures and backgrounds dissimilar from mine. I could not remain in my comfort zone and only stick around other Singaporeans, because, well, there were only 4 others at the school. I had to learn to talk to people who were so different from me, only to realize that we often had more similarities than differences. I learned to create my own comfort zone, and I like to believe that learning from my friends has made me a better person. Being able to be comfortable around people from cultures different from your own is a skill that will help me not only in my future career, but also in life.

And so I realize that most of the South Koreans my age don’t actually care about Kpop, even though there seem to be hordes of zealous fans on Kpop music shows (or maybe I’m hanging around the wrong crowd).

I went through a period of self-reflection when I realized I knew nothing about Bulgaria to talk to my Bulgaria friend about, but then sought solace in the fact that she didn’t know anything about Singapore either. As a result, I now have a major urge to visit Ghana.

Granted, small schools like Pomona College probably have fewer international students, both in number and diversity, as compared to huge research universities like UCLA, Yale or MIT. However, it is the small population of international students on campus that force us to step out of our comfort zones and interact with people we do not know. I have friends at UC Berkeley or UPenn who spend their college career only hanging out with others from their home country.

International Student Mentor Program mentors getting a bit unhinged during freshmen orientation
International Student Mentor Program mentors getting a bit unhinged during freshmen orientation.

I once read an article about Psy (of Gangnam Style fame) where he explained why his English isn’t very good, even though he studied at the Berklee College of Music. He’d spent all of his time with other South Koreans, such that there was no need for him to even pick up English as a communication tool. At this point, you can question why I am reading news articles on Psy and whether I am making appropriate life choices. However, this is the wrong train of thought, and I will now nudge you gently towards what I want you to ponder:

I think staying in the comfort zone of your fellow countrymen and countrywomen while studying overseas really detracts from the experience of studying abroad in the first place. That said, everyone has their own reason and their own takeaways for studying abroad, and I am in no position to judge. Also, finding support and community with people from similar backgrounds and cultures is only natural and not wrong in any way, and I too feel the need to do so sometimes. I am pretty sure many US college students also hang around fellow Americans when they study abroad. Thus, I write to express my personal viewpoint and to highlight some of the ways I appreciate having an environment in which I can interact with people from different cultures.

Seeking support through hearing the stories of other international students
Seeking support through hearing the stories of other international students.

Sometimes I wonder whether I will still be able to meet people from so many different backgrounds and cultures (and to have them actually be receptive to meeting me) when I start working. This is also why I believe much of my learning in Pomona College has happened out of the classroom, through conversations with people and through learning about their lives. I am not about to break into “We are the world, we are the children~~”, but if there is any place where relationships can be built across borders and cultures, I think Pomona College is a pretty good place to start.