Cover story for Universitas magazine, Saint Louis University, Fall 2009
For six international students, Saint Louis University is now home.
By Allison Babka
Cover photo by Jay Fram
Do you remember your first day at a new school? Perhaps you were nervous about wearing the right clothes. Afraid to say the wrong thing. Scared about walking into the wrong classroom.
Now imagine doing it in another country.
That’s the case for more than 800 undergraduate and graduate students from all over the world who are enrolled at Saint Louis University this year. Along with the quality education for which SLU is known, these students are getting a crash course in American culture.
“There’s a perception worldwide that the United States has the best higher education system on the planet,” said Dr. Bert Barry (Grad ’95), director of international services. “And for that reason, you have this sense that a person who is educated in the United States is going to be able to get a better job — a higher-paying job — and go further in his or her career.”
This year’s freshman class includes nearly 200 international students, the largest-ever incoming group from abroad — most from China, Spain and the Middle East. And business, health and engineering majors from these and other countries are on the rise.
Word-of-mouth recommendations, family knowledge, foreign recruitment agencies and SLU’s high ranking on a variety of popular college lists encourage students to cross oceans for an education here. In addition, many students — particularly those in Central and South America — attended Jesuit high schools and want to continue that tradition at SLU. In the end, relationships and personal attention — recruitment efforts that SLU prides itself on — are what make the difference.
“Students who feel well-satisfied and well-served by their university will quickly tell their family and friends,” Barry said.
Those relationships begin the first time students meet an admission counselor or recruiting agency in their homeland and continue through the enrollment and visa process. Once students are on campus, they’re treated to a fun, welcoming orientation that caters to their needs, and they also take part in SLU’s traditional Welcome Week festivities if they arrive in the fall. After that, international services partners with other University departments and organizations to provide these students the academic and cultural support they need to make the most of their time at SLU.
“Just like an American first-year student has no idea what to expect, our international students also are nervous about their roommates and their classes,” said Aleah Fulton Likas (Cook ’06), a former international admission counselor who now is a counselor in undergraduate admission. “But the difference is, many of these students never have stepped foot in a Western country. They’re facing a whole new set of cultural norms on top of new academic and social experiences.”
Many international students may need assistance with the cultural aspects of life at SLU, but most are well prepared for the academics.
“Most of the students that we attract have been taking English for years,” said David McKee, international admission counselor.
SLU’s international students aren’t the only ones learning; American-born students also gain something by being surrounded by students from Europe, Africa, Asia and beyond.
“Both inside and outside the classroom and through campus organizations, American students interact with the international students, and it truly does enrich SLU,” Fulton said.
“I think what’s really important is that this meets the mission of Saint Louis University in a very specific way. If we’re going to be men and women for others, we can’t just be men and women for others as Americans or as people from St. Louis or people from Illinois.
"We have to be men and women for everyone, and that includes people from other countries,” he said. “And that makes the mission of the Jesuits more whole.”
Here’s a chance to meet six of SLU’s international students:
Yousef Fouad Al-Zayer
Hometown: Qatif, Saudi Arabia
Major: Biomedical engineering
What are your career goals? I would like to be a medical equipment designer.
Why did you want to study in the United States? Did you consider other schools? I believe that college is not just attending classes; it also is living the experience. I like the teaching method over here, as well. I did look at schools in London, Australia and Dubai before settling on SLU.
Why did you decide to study at SLU? SLU has an excellent engineering school (Parks College of Engineering, Aviation and Technology) and is especially good in the major that I am studying. In addition, my aunt used to work at Saint Louis University Hospital, and I became familiar with and liked the school through her.
How is the classroom experience here different from Saudi Arabia? The main difference between the classrooms of USA and Saudi Arabia is that in Saudi Arabia, boys and girls go to different schools.
What has been the best part about your SLU experience so far? I have met people from all around the world.
Where in St. Louis do you like to go? Forest Park and the Central West End are some of my favorite places in St. Louis.
What did you expect before coming to America, and how does that measure up? I was expecting that the lifestyle here would be nice, people would be friendly, and the food would be normal. I have been here for more than a year, and I found out that everything is just as I expected.
Hometown: Zwijndrecht, Belgium
Major: Finance, with a minor in international business
What are your career goals? Right now, financial consultant, working for a private investor or working for a financial firm.
You’re an exchange student at SLU. What is your home university and where is it? The University of Antwerp, located in the center of Antwerp, Belgium.
Why did you want to study in the United States? First, it seemed like a fascinating country to me; it is a Western country yet completely different from Europe. Secondly, my major: the United States is the leading country in the financial world — both positively and negatively.
Why did you decide to study at SLU? SLU seemed the best university to me, both infrastructurally (beautiful campus, excellent facilities) and personally (a real sense of community).
How is the classroom experience here different from Belgium? First of all, the average class size here is a lot smaller than in Belgium. On average I have class with 20-30 people, whereas the average class in Belgium is 150, at least. The second main difference is that there is homework for almost every class here. In Belgium, all we get are two or three long-term assignments. Although having homework takes some time, I do prefer this system, as it forces you to keep up with your classes.
What has been the best part about your SLU experience so far? Everything. I’ve met tons of awesome people and made a lot of friends. I really enjoy the community feeling and all the activities. Classes are really fun, and the professors are very nice. I totally love the campus and the city. I’ve already started looking for scholarship opportunities to come back to SLU after I graduate.
What types of activities are you involved in on campus? I joined the Residence Hall Association and am pledging Alpha Phi Omega. I also attend Campus Emergency Response Team training and joined the SLU finance society. Apart from that, I like to socialize with friends and go to the gym.
What did you expect before coming to America, and how does that measure up? I expected everything to be way bigger here than in Europe; this proved to be correct. Also, I didn’t expect the people to be so friendly here, so that was definitely a very nice surprise. The food is pretty much what I expected it to be: a lot of fast food.
Hometown: Lagos, Nigeria
Year : Sophomore
Major : Psychology
What are your career goals? Medical doctor — although I plan to go back home after one year of practicing.
Why did you want to study in the United States? Most of my family did their tertiary studies here, and when we would come to the United States for vacation, I liked what I saw as compared to other countries I had visited.
Why did you decide to study at SLU? Out of all the schools I applied to, I felt there was more individual attention given to me by SLU. They worked with me and made me feel that they re - ally wanted me to join their community. I also received a partial scholarship.
Have you developed friendships with any faculty members yet? From my very first semester, I developed friendships with most of my professors and some of my teaching assistants. I love how approachable most faculty members make themselves. It is an attribute that has helped me tremendously.
How is the classroom experience here different from Nigeria? There is less difference in the classroom experience for me than there is between the educational levels themselves. The transition from high school education to college education has had more of an impact on me than the individual classroom experiences on both sides. Of course there are the structural and technical advancements that schools in the United States have over most schools in Nigeria.
How difficult was it to leave Nigeria for college? I think like any other stage in life, it’s hard because you leave familiar ground, but it’s not horrible because you know it’s the next step and you’re prepared to take it. My family is super-supportive of me, cheering me on every day.
What types of activities are you involved in on campus? I’m involved in the Students for Life group and am joining the prehealth club. I’m also in the International Student Federation. In my free time, I’m definitely the kind of girl who hangs out with the girls, watches a movie and talks about everything and nothing — outside of studying, of course.
What did you expect before coming to America, and how does that measure up? For the most part, my expectations were duly met since I had been here and knew firsthand what to really expect. Surpassed, I must say, were my college life expectations and how much fun I could have.
Hometown: Jinzhou, China
Year : Senior
Major : Information technology management
What are your career goals? Physician or health IT professional
Why did you want to study in the United States? Did you consider other schools? The United States provides high-quality education in medicine. I also considered colleges in the United Kingdom.
Why did you decide to study at SLU? SLU has a wonderful medical school, and there are more practice opportunities in the St. Louis area. SLU also offers scholarships to international students.
What was the residence hall experience like? I lived in Griesedieck Hall my freshman year. My American roommate was really nice and talked and studied with me all the time. Other girls across the hallway were super nice, too.
How is the classroom experience here different from China? In the United States, students can question the instructor any time, while in China instructors just give lectures without interaction.
What is it like taking classes in a language that’s not native to you? It took more time to understand at the beginning, but after four weeks, everything was easy for me.
What has been the best part about your SLU experience so far? I have found my potential in leadership; I have been given many opportunities to prove myself.
What types of activities are you involved in on campus? For the International Student Federation, I was in charge of Diversity Month last year and made it a success. This year, I represent the rights of international students through the Student Government Association. I also was the president of the Chinese Student and Scholar Association last year. In addition, I perform with a traditional Chinese music instrument called hulusi.
Where in St. Louis do you like to go? My favorite part of St. Louis is Forest Park. I enjoy running and playing tennis there.
What did you expect before coming to America, and how does that measure up? I have cousins here in the United States, so I had heard about the lifestyle before I came here. I’ve learned that Midwestern Americans are friendlier than those from West and East Coasts.
Piera Antonella Blandon Sanchez
Hometown: Managua, Nicaragua
Major: Business, with a double concentration in economics and finance
Why did you want to study in the United States? Did you consider other schools? I wanted to apply to schools in Mexico, Chile and Spain; I was too afraid of the challenge of studying in English, since I’ve studied in Spanish all my life. But then, listening to my parents’ advice, I figured that the United States had much more to offer regarding education. It has, after all, the best universities in the world.
Why did you decide to study at SLU? I looked at SLU’s videos and immediately fell in love with the school. I applied to a few more colleges, but when the moment to pick my school came, both my parents and I thought that SLU was the right choice for me. Not only did it have a beautiful campus, but it also is a Catholic school, which was very important.
After attending a Jesuit high school, what does continuing your Jesuit education mean to you? Colegio Centro America (my high school) forged the person that I am today. It taught me how to be a “woman for others.” This definitely biased my decision of attending a Jesuit college. Thus, when I learned about all that SLU had to offer, I said, “I want to be a Billiken; where do I sign?”
You and Ximena are best friends. How did you both end up at SLU? It is a funny story. I ran into her on the way to a class in high school, and we started talking about SAT scores and college applications; Ximena said she was applying to SLU. I thought she had seen my files or something, so I got mad at her for not telling me the truth. But it turned out that she actually was applying here. It was a Godsend. I feel really happy to have her here with me.
What activities are you involved in on campus? I am involved with service leadership, Hispanic American Leadership Organization and Martin Luther King Jr. Scholar duties. When I do have spare time, I go to Simon Recreation Center to work out; if I am not there, you will probably find me near the clock tower fountain listening to music or talking to friends.
What did you expect before coming to America, and how does that measure up? I thought it would be a huge transition and that it would be very hard for me to blend in, but everyone makes it so easy here; everyone is really warmhearted and polite. I wouldn’t change this experience for anything.
Ximena Cordon Somarriba
Hometown: Managua, Nicaragua
Major: Still deciding, and not ashamed of it!
Why did you want to study in the United States? My decision to look for schools in the United States came almost automatically. It is a country with a reputation of having the best schools in the world. It also is not as far away from my home as other countries.
After attending a Jesuit high school, what does continuing your Jesuit education mean to you? My Jesuit heritage is something that I deeply cherish and I’m thankful for; almost every school that I applied to was Jesuit. This was very important to me because I share the philosophy that a human being must be well rounded. To do that, it is necessary to educate the mind, body, heart and soul. Apart from being Jesuit, SLU is a school with a beautiful campus and great faculty, and it showed a lot of support and interest in both Piera and me.
What is the residence hall experience like? Piera and I decided that it was best not to room together so we could give each other the chance to meet other people. This decision turned out well when I joined the Micah community, because now I live with the other members of Micah in Marguerite Hall. I get along great with my roommate, who is from Lebanon, as well as my floor mates, and I have even called it my other “home.”
How is the classroom experience here different from in Nicaragua? It’s quite different. In Nicaragua, people who are able to attend university live at home; there are no residence halls. Academically, you have few options in terms of what you want to study, and no one has an undeclared major. Classes, however, are pretty much the same as they are here.
What types of activities are you involved in on campus? I’m currently involved in the Hispanic American Leadership Organization, will be working on The University News and helping with the Spanish and English Mass at Pruellage Hall. I exercise at Simon Recreation Center. Also, as part of my Micah program responsibilities, I do community service every Thursday.
What did you expect before coming to America, and how does that measure up? I was familiar with the lifestyle in the United States because I have friends who have already experienced freshman year in universities here, and even at SLU. This is why coming here was not a big shock to me. I adapt easily, so things have fallen into place smoothly.