How international students integrate themselves at DU

Moritz Lerzer (left) skiing in the Colorado mountains with other international students.

Studying abroad is sure to be a life-changing experience for many. It is the optimal way to learn a new language, provides the opportunity to travel, allows you to get to know another culture first-hand, helps you expand your worldview while meeting people from all over the world and helps you to learn more about yourself.

However, the international student experience is affected by two main issues students have to deal with: culture shock and the lack of integration with domestic students and the university community.

Dealing with culture shock

“Culture-wise I wasn’t really shocked when I came to the US because even though it is really different, it is still the western culture that I am used to from Germany, “explains Moritz Lerzer, 22, who is attending DU as an exchange student for one year.

“The first week I’ve been here was the hardest though. I lived in a hotel room all by myself, didn’t know anybody and felt really lonely at times,” explains Lerzer.

Twenty-year old Saudi-Arabian Saud Al-Ajaji who began his international student experience in early 2010 found himself in a different situation. Before he started his undergraduate studies in the fall of 2011 he studied English at the English Language Center (ELC).

“I initially came here with two of my cousins and two other friends. So I already knew people and didn’t have to deal with everything all by myself,” says Al-Ajaji. “The culture shock is not as intense when you have people around you who find themselves in the same situation as you.”

Saud Al-Ajaji (right) doing homework in Drsicoll Underground.

Orientation week

The international student orientation at the beginning of the fall quarter was a big help for making the first steps in the DU community. The International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) organizing the student orientation are generally aimed to support internationalization at the University of Denver and provide assistance to international students in matters of immigration, communication and cultural adjustment.

“The orientation staff made us feel welcome and made it easy to understand what was going on. They knew we were probably experiencing some culture shock and feeling a bit homesick and they were willing to help us with that,” says Kavindee Edirrisinghe, 19-year old freshman from Sri Lanka.

Social Integration: Making new friends

As all of them agree that the first week of orientation was necessary and helpful in terms of getting to know how everything is organized and what to expect in the weeks and months ahead, not all of them see it as a crucial part in their social integration.

“As far as meeting new people and making friends goes, the orientation might have been a first start and I would have had to do more on my part if there hadn’t been an orientation, but since I don’t shy away from going up to random people and talk to them, I don’t think I would have been lost without it,” explains Edirrisinghe.

Kavindee Edirrisinghe having lunch in the Halls cafeteria.

Al-Ajaji says that for him “the orientation definitely made me feel more comfortable and it gave me the chance to meet a lot of people that I am still really good friends with now,” whereas Lerzer is convinced that he “probably would have felt integrated enough without all the events organized by the ISSS, but it sure was a great opportunity to come in contact with other international students who I could share my experiences with.”

Local friendships

As easy as it might be to form close bonds with other international students and only socializing within one’s own national, geographical or language group, a major disappointment for many international students is their failure to establish meaningful local friendships.

A mean to help with this issue is the DU Pioneer to Pioneer Program, where American students are matched up with international students to help them with their English skills and introduce them to campus life – overall a program that allows domestic students to function as both resources and friends to international classmates.

“Most of my friends are international students. My roommate is American and she helped me with things like how to use the washing machine, or how to dress for the winter here in Colorado but in terms of actual friends it’s different,” explains Edirrisinghe her situation. “Americans talk, smile, joke and are nice to you but this does not necessarily mean they’re open for a real commitment to friendship.”

“In the beginning it was easier to meet and become friends with other international students but that has changed for me and now I have a lot of American friends as well,” says Lerzer.

Joining clubs and organizations

As college students are most likely to become friends with others who live in close proximity to them in the residence halls, who belong to the same student organizations as they do or who share similar interests, it is also important for international students to join clubs and organizations and participate in out-of-class activities.

With joining various clubs and organizations like the Rotaract Club, Intramural Sports or the DU Alpine Club, Edirrisinghe, Al-Ajaji and Lerzer have integrated themselves in the DU community and feel overall happy in the situation they are in now.

“Experiencing a new culture, making new friends, getting out of one’s comfort zone, trying new things and getting to know more about oneself and one’s ability to adapt to a new situation is all this is about  and I hope that’s exactly what I can take away from the whole experience,” says Lerzer.

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