Thursday, October 19, 2006

World-Class Students Find Second Home

By Christine Magbanua

Pradeep Veeramachineni remembers his first few weeks at UIS. He was far from home for the first time. He had to adjust to a new school and form new relationships. To say that he and his community of fellow new students were “homesick” for the first few weeks would be an understatement.

Pradeep is now in his third semester here, but like many students living away from their families, he still misses many of the comforts of home: home-cooked meals, old friends, his tight-knit family.

“I miss my mother a lot,” he says.

But unlike an overwhelming majority of UIS students (85 percent of whom are from Illinois), Pradeep’s home is not just a long car ride away. Pradeep is from Hyderabad, India--8,400 miles and an 18- to 24-hour plane trip from Springfield.

“My mother always had a fantasy of one of her kids studying abroad,” he says. “I’ve known the same thing from childhood in India. I wanted to know a different variety of people. I wanted to come out and learn how people are different.” So Pradeep decided to come to the United States to get a graduate degree in computer science--fulfilling his mother’s dream and satisfying a curiosity of his own.

Pradeep’s friends recommended that he apply for graduate school at UIS--a very popular choice among students from his hometown.

Jonathan GoldbergBelle, international student advisor and director of the Office of International Programs at UIS, says the university’s best recruitment tool is word of mouth.

“The biggest source is friends and relatives,” he says.

Many students also find out about UIS through the Internet, and Goldbergbelle says the office is continually working to upgrade the webpage to make it user-friendly for international students.

When GoldbergBelle first came to UIS in the fall of 1998, there were 110 international students. This semester, over 400 international students are enrolled, about 95% of them graduate students. GoldbergBelle says UIS would also like to attract more undergraduate international students.

Until recently, International Affairs was one office; now, however, it’s two. The Office of International Student Services works with students once they are admitted to the university, providing them with necessary information about their transition. International Programs conducts study abroad programs.

GoldbergBelle says international students have the same questions that anyone has when they come to a new place--Will I make new friends? What are the classes going to be like? How much do I really have to study?

But many international students also have to brace themselves for a change in weather, food, and other aspects of culture.

Veplava Chintala, also a graduate student in Computer Science, noted, “It was tough at first to get adjusted. Everything was entirely different.”

Veplava described his introduction to American fashion: “In India bell bottoms are in style,” he said. “I didn’t know that here only girls wear them.”

His friends urged him to get new clothes, but he was stubborn. “I didn’t want to waste money,” he said. “I wore them for about a week…then I couldn’t wear them anymore.”

Many international students’ biggest worry is money because federal regulations restrict much of what the students can do. GoldbergBelle says the International Student Services tries to help the students work through money issues any way it can.

“All expenses taken into consideration, we still are a reasonable buy for international students,” GoldbergBelle says. “I think the small size is also something that attracts students here, because it’s not an overwhelming campus.”

The office holds an orientation before classes start that helps answer many of the students’ questions. Students receive information about registration, academic advising, English proficiency testing, and immigration status. They get a chance to meet other students and staff at a number of social events, and in the fall they can attend “America Night” where they can sample Springfield favorites like corndogs and horseshoe sandwiches.

The office also sponsors a host family program that matches students up with a family or an individual in the community with whom they can visit, share an occasional meal, celebrate holidays, or participate in other social events.

GoldbergBelle says many host families keep up with their students after they’ve graduated.

“In some cases lifelong relationships are established,” he says. “Some hosts have even gone to visit students in their home countries and some students come back to see the hosts again.”

Veplava Chintala’s host “father” is close to his real father’s age. “He literally taught me what American culture is,” Veplava said. “Though I was new to the country, though I had a different accent, he and his family were very patient to listen to me. That helped me a lot.”

Veplava added that he found the people in Springfield to be very friendly. “More than we teach them, they try to learn from us,” he says. “They love to know our culture and our food.”

GoldbergBelle says the presence of international students at UIS can only have a positive impact on the campus.

“There is an interdependency in the world,” he says. “And the more that students have the opportunity to meet students from other countries and other cultures, the better the understanding between people.”

“And even a place like Springfield, surrounded with all of this corn and soybeans -- a lot of it is shipped overseas,” he says.

“We are really dependent on an international market even if we don’t think about it all that much. And I think it’s important for us to understand that -- how connected we are. Even here in the heartland we are connected with the rest of the world.”

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