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International Student Leaders Share Stories of Making UT Dallas Home
April 1, 2019
Nepali Student Association
What he misses most about Nepal: “The connectiveness. In Nepal, I knew my neighbors. American society is certainly productive, but stressful. Nepalis like to spend time with people. I also miss the country lifestyle and my extended family.”
What he likes most about UT Dallas: “I love the diversity on campus and the commitment to education. Students here are serious and competitive. Education is No. 1.”
Biomedical engineering senior Ojaswi Ghimire still remembers leaving his green and mountainous homeland of Nepal when he was 12. His parents wanted him to have the best education possible, so they applied for a diversity visa to the U.S.
On the flight to Dallas, however, Ghimire began feeling anxious.
“I was really scared. I was crying. All I saw when we were landing was plain, flat, brown grass — and the airport was really big,” he recalled. “I told my parents I was scared because I didn’t know anyone here.”
His fears began to ease once he met with other Nepali students, first at a prep school in Irving and later at The University of Texas at Dallas, where Ghimire is now president of the Nepali Student Association.
“The community aspect of the organization is what really helped me,” Ghimire said. “Now, as president, I’m mentoring other officers and fostering that community to help incoming international students. I’m like a safety blanket for them.”
More than 7,000 international students from about 100 countries attend UT Dallas. Nearly a dozen international student organizations help them gain a sense of belonging through group activities, shared cultural food and music, and service projects. They also provide mentoring on how to navigate campus life and the U.S. culture.
The contributions of these organizations will be highlighted during International Week activities, which begin Monday. Sponsored by the Intercultural Programs at the University’s International Center, the week includes a global talent show, table tennis and badminton tournaments, and a showcase of food, music and national dress.
For students like Khanh Nguyen, a sophomore actuarial science student from Vietnam, connecting with other students from her home country made a new place feel more familiar. She left her family behind when she enrolled at UT Dallas to pursue “one of the most prestigious programs” for her major, she said.
Vietnamese International Network of Culture, Education and Friendship
What she misses most about Vietnam: “The food. My mom is a really good cook. The food at Vietnamese restaurants here is pretty good, but it’s not the same as my mom’s.”
What she likes most about UT Dallas: “It’s really diverse. I love UTD because people are all from different backgrounds and cultures. My roommate’s family is from India. So I’ve learned a lot.”
Before she even set foot on campus, students in the Vietnamese International Network of Culture, Education and Friendship at UT Dallas contacted her through Facebook. When she arrived on campus, they showed her around and even took her shopping.
“I can say I’m proud to be from Vietnam,” Nguyen said. “We all came all the way here to study. They’re inspiring. We push each other to represent our culture well.”
When she talks to her parents, they are impressed with how well she’s adapted on her own. She has learned to use Dallas Area Rapid Transit to get around and has traveled to Houston and to California to visit her aunt. She even signed up for an Alternative Spring Break trip to North Carolina.
“They think I’ve managed my life better than I did at home,” she said.
They’ve also noticed her new American habit of expressing her feelings more openly.
“I started to say ‘I love you’ more to my parents,” she said.
Mechanical engineering senior Napat Dawkrajai is a product of two cultures. He was born in Thailand but grew up in Austin, where his father earned a doctorate in petroleum engineering at UT Austin. His parents returned to Thailand after Dawkrajai was accepted to UT Dallas.
Dawkrajai recalls thinking that Americans were much more open and outgoing than he was used to when he arrived in the U.S. while still in elementary school.
“Everyone was super nice,” he said. “People here smile at you all the time.”
Though UT Dallas does not have a Thai student organization, Dawkrajai has found kindred spirits in the Japanese Student Association, a diverse group of students who are mostly enthusiasts of Japanese culture.
Japanese Student Association
What he misses most about Thailand: “The accessibility of the food — street food. Cheap food is everywhere. For $10, you can eat for a whole week. Here, you have to learn to make your own food.”
What he likes most about UT Dallas: “The beautiful campus. And the professors are great, especially in the upper-level classes. They are just so enthralled by their subject.”
“We all love anime, eating Japanese food and learning about the culture. I appreciate the dedication to presentation. It’s very orderly,” said Dawkrajai, who is the organization’s president.
Student-led organizations offer a special sense of belonging for international students who hold to cultural values even after they’ve acclimated to campus life in the U.S. For one thing, international students often maintain closer ties to their families than American students do.
“The Nepali culture is very family-oriented,” Ghimire said. “Here, after you turn 18, you go on about your own life. In Nepal, you still live with your family and are very family-centered. I’m still very Nepali after all these years.”
Dawkrajai said he is looking forward to reconnecting with friends and extended family when he visits Thailand this summer.
“I’m 90 percent American, and I’ve enjoyed being independent, but my core root is still Thai,” he said.
Student leaders of international organizations have ready advice for others who are new to campus: Be mindful of cultural differences, but be yourself; get out of your comfort zone; talk to your professors; and be willing to learn.
And brace yourself for the weather, which can reach both extremes in Texas. As Ghimire said, “I’ve never been in this much heat or this much cold.”