San Antonio, Texas – In 2006, Daniela Hernandez was attending high school in Mexico and was far from being fluent in English. Now, four years later, as an international student at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), Hernandez is a member of the Honor’s College, a tour guide for the Visitor’s Center and is close to completing her bachelor’s degree in finance.
Despite her academic successes, Hernandez, a 22-year-old Mexican-born UTSA senior who expects to graduate in May of next year, isn’t shy about discussing the difficulty she has had adjusting to U.S. culture, from different styles of celebrating holidays to divergent modes of relating to friends and classmates inside and outside the classroom.
For example, she says, in Mexico families eat Christmas Eve dinner at 11 p.m. and open presents at midnight; U.S. families celebrate with dinner and presents on December 25. And New Year’s Day in Mexico centers on family; while in the U.S. people celebrate the holiday attending parties.
Another huge difference, according to Hernandez, is how students interact in the classroom.
“In Mexico, there’d be 30 people in a room and by the end of the class you’d know everyone’s name and possibly even the names of their family members too,” she said, adding that when she arrived at UTSA she noticed most students seemed independent, kept to themselves and avoided making eye contact. “They were there for school and nothing more,” she said.
With a student body of 28,955, Hernandez is one of nearly 1,400 international students who attend UTSA on student visas. The number of foreign students is expected to grow by 2,800 in the next five to 10 years, school officials said. They hail from 80 different countries; but the majority is from India, Mexico and Saudi Arabia.
How are they coping with the significant changes in culture?
Dr. Marian Aitches, a senior lecturer in the History Department at UTSA, agrees that international students from Mexico and other countries are often surprised to discover that students interact and behave differently than students in their homeland.
“It’s not that they’re unfriendly, but they’re just busy with their own lives, they’ve got their own group of friends,” Aitches said
Like Hernandez and Aitches, Dang Nguyen, a 23-year-old Ph.D. student from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, also has noticed that U.S. students are less group-oriented than back home. “There’s so many people there [Vietnam], that when you go on the street you’re always absorbed in the culture,” Nguyen said. “So, it’s a good thing and a bad thing [American culture].”
Another cultural difference that surprised Hernandez is how American men relate to women. In Mexico, she was used to having doors opened for her no matter where she went; but in America she discovered that men would not only fail to open doors for her but would sometimes let them slam in her face when exiting a door.
“Why can’t American men act more like the men in Mexico?” Hernandez said. “There, I never once opened my own car door. It’s drastically different.”
Although transitioning from a collectivistic culture to an individualistic culture is often challenging, most international students in San Antonio learn to acculturate.
Though Hernandez dislikes some aspects of American culture, she likes the independence of living in her own apartment with two roommates.
“I wouldn’t trade my experience here for the world,” she said, “and if I had to choose between (going to school in) Mexico and the U.S., I don’t think I could.”
Tanya Orndorff, Director of International Student Services and Undergraduate International Admissions at UTSA, said most international students describe the transition as “culture shock.”
“Some students are strong and they can handle it,” Orndorff said. “But some can’t.”
To help smooth the transition of foreign students, the office of International Programs works with the UTSA Counseling Services. “If they have nostalgic feelings about their country they can talk to a counselor. Some just get homesick,” Orndorff said.
In addition to counseling, the International Programs office provides mandatory orientation, tutoring, internships, walk-in hours, e-mail updates, access to multiple forms students can fill out and print online, tax seminars, bus services, and Intensive English Program and library tours, among other services.
Another service is to provide workshops through Career Services to prepare and guide international students for employment. Once they graduate, international students are allowed to complete one year of optional professional training in the U.S. “We also want them to be prepared after they graduate,” Orndorff said.
Adjusting to a new culture is challenging for international students, but UTSA strives to help make their transition less difficult.
“We do everything possible to help them be academically successful,” Orndorff said. “Not just academically, but also personally.”