School year introduces new country to students

Volunteers work to ease the transition to the states for international students.
Monday, August 20, 2007 | 2:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:07 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008
Nguyen Thi Minh Ha, left, and Thuong Nguyen, right, examine dontated bed sheets with International Friends volunteer Diane Driver on Saturday.

When Guanyu Gu came to MU from China, he brought only a backpack and a small suitcase.

Without having a place to stay, he carried the luggage with him throughout the campus’s international-student orientation Aug. 13. His first day on campus, he found there was so much to do that he had no idea where to start.

Gu, 19, needed to open a bank account for his parents to wire money to. He had to get access to the Internet with his laptop. He had to buy a cell phone. And he needed a pillow and blanket for the night.

Life in Columbia was far more different than what he expected.

It’s an adjustment many new international students have to make after they land in Columbia. And their numbers are growing.

According to MU’s International Center, 1,336 international students — 4.7 percent of MU’s student body — were enrolled at the university in 2006, up from 1,295 from 2005. Among the 95 countries with students here, China had the largest presence, with 325 students at MU in 2006. The statistics for this year are not available yet.

Helping those students adjust is an important task for the International Center and international student organizations on campus.

This year, about 20 volunteers from the center provided shopping trips, organized activities and answered questions.

Student organizations offered information for newcomers and connected them with more experienced students. On Saturday, the International Friends Center held a giveaway for new international students.

Even those well-prepared beforehand sometimes struggle to fit into a strange new environment.

Ibrahim Alshiha, a student from Saudi Arabia, complained about the public transportation. He thought the bus service stopped too early. It would be more convenient if the buses could run longer, he said, even for 24 hours.

“There could be less in the evenings, but never stop it,” Alshiha said.

Because many new students don’t have cars, public transportation can be a concern. Other worries include finding housing, buying furniture, hunting for a job and obtaining a Social Security card.

Despite the difficulties, many international students adapt to life here. Unlike State College, Pa., where Alshiha attended Penn State, Columbia seems to have more local residents. Although it is not big city, he said he has found plenty of shops and interesting places he liked.

After the orientation, Gu found a volunteer from the International Center to take him shopping. Along the way, many of his questions were answered patiently. By week’s end, Gu had settled into Columbia, thanks to all the help he received. He had located his dorm room, bought some food, gotten access to the Internet and found a pillow.

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