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Learning from Differences at the University of Vermont

2017-6-17

Editor's Note: This story is part of a continuing series about international student life at colleges and universities across the United States. Please join us over the next several weeks as we bring you stories about international students and the American higher education system as a whole.

Ahmad El-Ashwah has learned a lot in his time as an international student in the United States.

El-Ashwah, who is 23, was born in Beirut, Lebanon. He is part of the second generation of his family to be born in Lebanon. Years ago, his grandparents moved there from the Palestinian territories to escape violence.

But life was not always easy in Lebanon. El-Ashwah says his family and others like them often face difficulties. He says the Lebanese government limits employment for people it considers refugees. Also, he says the country’s education system needs more money to support high quality schools.

So after completing high school, El-Ashwah decided to look outside Lebanon for a way to get a college education. In 2011, he decided to attend Bridgewater College in the American state of Virginia. He wanted to earn an undergraduate degree in physics at the school.

Ahmad El-Ashwah, mechanical engineering master's degree student from Lebanon
Ahmad El-Ashwah, mechanical engineering master's degree student from Lebanon

El-Ashwah says his education started on the day he arrived in the United States. While traveling to his new school, he missed one of his connecting flights and arrived in the middle of the night. He had no idea where he was and was unable to contact the person who was supposed to meet him because his mobile telephone died.

Luckily, El-Ashwah was able to contact a friend of a friend and find his was to his new home. But he says he learned a lot about how to react to an ever-changing, almost frightening situation. And every day after that, for the next four years, was a learning experience.

"If these things are going to happen, you definitely have to plan in advance for a worst case scenario."

El-Ashwah completed his studies at Bridgewater College in 2015. In addition to his college experience, he loved how much he learned about surviving so far away from home. And so that same year, he decided to continue his education at the University of Vermont. He is now seeking a master’s degree in mechanical engineering

Formed in 1791, the University of Vermont is a state-supported, public research university with about 12,200 students. The school is in Burlington, Vermont. National Geographic magazine called Burlington a “top adventure town.” It is just an hour away from Lake Champlain, which offers many activities for swimmers and bicycle riders.

Close to the Canadian border, the University of Vermont is also near some of the top-rated skiing areas in the country.

El-Ashwah says he is happy he chose to complete both degree programs at U.S. schools because of the different things each has required of him. He notes that at the undergraduate level, students have more freedom to take classes about subjects that do not directly relate to their main field of study. Many undergraduates change their field of study one or more times. Also schools want these students to make new friends and become involved in interests outside of their studies.

El-Ashwah says delaying his arrival in the U.S. until his graduate-level studies would have been a mistake. He feels he would have faced greater challenges had he waited. He says his English skills were weaker before entering Bridgewater College, and he would have found the culture more shocking.

In graduate school, El-Ashwah says students have to be more self-directed. They must spend more time on research and guiding themselves through their studies, not having professors make choices for them.

Graduate students are much more independent than undergrads in many ways, El-Ashwah adds. For example, he got help paying for his undergraduate studies from an organization called the Hope Fund. This group raises money for Palestinians who are seeking higher education in different countries. But for his graduate studies, El-Ashwah had to find a job as a teaching assistant at the University of Vermont to help cover the costs of his studies. This is common for many graduate students at American colleges and universities.

Jade Zeng, business administration undergraduate student from China.
Jade Zeng, business administration undergraduate student from China.

While learning to deal with all this responsibility, El-Ashwah says he would not have had time to learn even the simple necessities of living and studying in a foreign country.

Jade Zeng is an example of an undergraduate international student who has tried to learn as much as she can from her experiences. Born in Nanchang, China, Zeng says that, as a girl, she always wanted to come to the United States. Her mother made many American friends through her religious group. Some of them helped her learn English. In addition, Zeng says she watched lots of American movies and television shows.

So when it came time for Zeng to choose a university to attend, she and her mother began reading reports that rated U.S. schools. They soon learned of the University of Vermont’s strong study programs and beautiful surroundings. So Zeng moved there and started working on a degree program in business administration in 2015.

Ever since, Zeng says she has looked to every difference in experience between the U.S. and China for even the smallest lesson.

"So when I was in China, I thought salad is just the mix of fruit, right? But when I got here it’s like raw vegetables."

In addition to her business administration studies, Jade Zeng takes all sorts of other classes. She loves the German language almost as much as she likes speaking English, so she has taken several German classes. Also she has a strong interest in insects. So not only has she taken several classes on insects, but she has also helped form a beekeeping club at her school. This freedom of choice is something Zeng says she would not have had at a university back home.

Artwork on the University of Vermont campus.
Artwork on the University of Vermont campus.

But Zeng argues the biggest lessons she has taken from her experience have come from the different people she has met. She remembers being shocked in her first year when she met someone who is transgender. This means they do not identify as their birth sex. Zeng says she had never met a transgender before and thought this was strange at first. But over time Zeng and the transgender student became very good friends.

Zeng says this experience taught her not to judge people based on the way they look or how different they may seem. And she and El-Ashwah agree that that attitude is very important to the culture of student life at their school.

In their eyes, the University of Vermont strongly supports people from all walks of life and the differences they represent.

I’m Pete Musto.

And I’m Anne Ball.

Pete Musto reported this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. How do universities in your country support different types of students? What do you think you can learn from the experiences of others? Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.

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Words in This Story

undergraduate degreen. a degree that is given to a student by a college or university usually after four years of study

mobileadj. able to be moved

scenario n. a description of what could possibly happen

master’s degreen. a degree that is given to a student by a college or university usually after one or two years of additional study following an undergraduate degree

adventuren. an exciting or dangerous experience

challenge(s) – n. a difficult task or problem

rawadj. not cooked

beekeepingn. the act of raising black and yellow flying insects that are often kept for the thick, sweet substance they produce, and can hurt someone by making a hole in or through the skin with a sharp, pointed part that usually contains poison

transgenderadj. of or relating to people who feel that their true nature does not match their sex at birth