Global Confab in Buffalo

Dezi Lara, Susana Eng and Andreea Claudia Novaceanu exchange views at campus roundtable.

International students share experiences and plans at campus forum

By Jessica Keltz, JD ’06

WHEN ANDREEA Claudia Novaceanu came from Bucharest, Romania, to the United States in 2004 to play tennis and major in communication at the University at Buffalo, she felt a bit frightened and didn’t know what to expect.

“I never came to the U.S. before, so I was scared,” she remembers. “First of all, I had to come by myself and change three flights. When I got here, I knew absolutely no one—I had no idea what to do, where to go.” Later, however, “the coach was welcoming and the teammates became sort of my family.”

As it turns out, most of the UB women’s tennis players had something in common from day one. “We are from seven or eight countries, and we are nine people,” Novaceanu points out.

Indeed, Novaceanu’s experience at UB is becoming increasingly common, as the university’s ranking as a top destination for international students continues to rise. In November 2006, the Institute of International Education upped UB’s international enrollment ranking to 10th in the nation with 4,072 international students enrolled in a total student body of 27,220 for the 2005–06 academic year. In 2005, the university ranked 11th; in 2004, it ranked 15th.

With that trend as a backdrop, a group of international students, representing a dozen countries and diverse undergraduate and graduate disciplines, were invited to share their experiences over pizza and Buffalo chicken wings in a roundtable forum held in UB’s Capen Hall in late February 2007. So strong is the current international presence at UB, many of these students said they were amazed to find that even after a year or two at UB, they almost had to go out of their way to make friends with Americans.

“Being a graduate student, I had to take an undergraduate course this semester just to have some American classmates,” comments Mohit Virendra, a PhD student in computer science and engineering from New Delhi, India. Virendra says his graduate classes appear to be made up of about 90 percent Indian and Chinese students.

By contrast, Susana Eng, of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, says the pharmacy program she’s enrolled in consists of 10 percent international students. “Most of my friends in the pharmacy school are Americans, but most of my friends outside the pharmacy school are international students,” she explains. As to why she chose a university so far from her homeland, both academic quality and family ties played a role. “Apart from my sister already attending UB, I have always been interested in a health-related career,” she says. “The UB pharmacy school offered me one of the nation’s top-ranking programs.”

CULTIVATING FRIENDSHIPS

MOST OF THE UB roundtable participants agreed that as in anything else, how you choose and cultivate friendships often reflects shared interests—be they in sports, business or a country of origin. Sometimes, though, it is merely a matter of having in common the experience of culture shock.

“I have many American friends, but I know more international students,” says Przemyslaw Garbaczewski, an undergraduate business and economics major from Rzeszow, Poland. “It’s very easy to make friends with international students, because we all have something in common. Most of my friends are Chinese,” he says with a smile.

Emre Dayanc, a PhD student in immunology from Ankara, Turkey, spends most of his time doing research at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. There, he says, it’s easy to make a diverse group of friends. “I don’t have a lot of Turkish people working with me at Roswell, although I know a lot of Turkish people studying at UB,” he says. “Most of my friends are Americans, Italians, Japanese—you name it.”

Dezi Lara, a member of the men’s soccer team and a geography major from Trinidad and Tobago, says, “I am friends with my teammates; outside of the team I don’t know too many people. I spend a lot of time with athletes because we all share a common interest in sports.”

Although Lara grew up speaking English, the national language of Trinidad and Tobago, word usage and other cultural differences meant that studying at UB still took some getting used to. “A couple of things I say, I have to repeat, or speak a little slowly,” he says. While most of his teammates have “international roots,” Lara reports that these individuals were born in the United States, and thus grew up speaking American English.

Then there is the matter of cultural tempo, which can differ sharply from country to country. “In the Caribbean, things are more relaxed—everyone does things at their own pace,” explains Lara. He contrasts the more laid-back atmosphere of home to studying at UB, where, he maintains, everyone seems to be in a hurry. “I struggled in the first year, but I’ve gotten better at it.”

Other UB international students say they initially had a difficult time getting used to Buffalo’s weather, or were pleasantly surprised by the culture of American academia.

For instance, Chun Yee Poh, a graduate student in biotechnology from Batu Pahat, Johor, Malaysia, began at UB in the spring semester of 2003. “When we got here, the chill was just killing us,” he recalls. “My first day here it was five or six degrees. My first experience was walking from my dorm on the North Campus to Tops on Maple Road to get groceries—the Commons was closed. That was the craziest. You couldn’t imagine the cold.”

But although Poh was once accustomed to 90- to 100-degree weather year-round in Malaysia—with an accompa-nying “100 percent humidity”—he has now adjusted to the point of even wearing shorts in Buffalo once the temperature hits at least the 40s.

Aki Niimura, a master’s degree student in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) from Morioka, Japan, says she enjoys the less formal interaction between students and professors than she experienced back home. “One thing that surprised me was the relationship between professors and students here,” she says. “Back in Japan, the relationship is very formal. We don’t talk about casual things. Here I can call [professors] by their first names. It took me some time getting used to that.”

Overall, these international students report that UB has provided them with a strong education and, in many cases, they plan to stay in the U.S. a bit longer than originally planned. “I’m graduating this May and I’m really confused about what to do next,” says Wojciech Biernat, a master’s student in finance in the UB Department of Economics who is from Sandomierz, Poland. “But I definitely want to stay and get some experience.” Biernat says his student visa will permit him to remain in the U.S. for 12 months after graduation, as part of the Optional Practical Training work authorization. “Eventually, I will go back, not necessarily to my country, but to Europe.”

Sudha Bommidi, an MBA student in the School of Management from Hyderabad, India, says she always wanted to go to graduate school in the U.S., but with the expectation that she would quickly return to her country. “Now I think I will stay a little longer, because I like the U.S. after having lived here for one and a half years.”

Garbaczewski, who had been to the U.S. before he arrived at UB for full-time study, offers a similar view. In fact, he quickly discovered that he likes the U.S. better than expected and that it has been easy to adapt. “I thought it would take more time for me to adjust and to get Americanized.

“But then I got used to the customs, I got used to the people ... after the first semester, that was it.”

Jessica Keltz, JD ’06, a former UB Reporter staff writer, was admitted to practice law in February 2007 and works as downtown living coordinator for Buffalo Place Inc.

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