By Daniel Viegas, Medill, Immigrant Connect
It’s winding down from the summer heat and the college town of Evanston, Illinois, has a cool breeze while the sun sets. It’s Shiva Ram Venkatramanan’s first night in graduate housing and a day before he has his international student orientation. He walks outside after unpacking all the items that will be with him for the year away from his home in India. Like only a handful of graduate students do, he lights up a cigarette under the stars. Nervous and excited, Venkatramanan is about to start as a master’s student in Analytics at Northwestern University.
Venkatramanan is on a 15-month deadline. A date stamped clearly on the documents he’s received from the United States government indicates when his student visa expires. International students carry an expiration date with them as they decide how to apply their studies to their futures. A driving element is whether they will stay in the U.S., find work elsewhere or return home.
Time is limited and often coupled with a heavy workload that together figure into their decisions whether or not to form lasting bonds, friendships and even romantic relationships.
“It can be difficult to make things happen,” Venkatramanan says, and it can be lonely. For Venkatramanan, language is not an issue.
For other international students, language factors into in how social groups come together and how friendships are maintained. Nationally, approximately 300,000 international students are from China, with Chicago representing the fourth largest concentration of them, according to a Brookings Institute analysis.
April Goh, a journalism student specializing in business reporting, says it is common to see students from specific regions forming groups together. From her experience at Northwestern University, this is especially true of students from China and India. For many of the students from China, English is a second language and can be difficult to master. Goh has studied around the world and has realized the power of language and culture.
Goh says cultural differences matter too and are more nuanced. It is not easy to recognize cultural cues, Goh adds, especially for Asians.
“It has been difficult to get a kick start outside, Venkatramanan explains. “Even playing basketball, it is easy to start a chat, but hard to get closer.”
Even with the numerous events hosted in a graduate housing complex that is filled with other international students, he still considers it lonely.
Venkatramanan’s class is roughly 50 percent Asian-born international
students, and he says the intense concentration makes it difficult to integrate with the American students on a personal level. Yet, he says, his status as an international student has not stopped his classmates from being supportive and working alongside him. “Within classes there is a very good rapport. Everybody is happy to help another person out.”
It is fortunately inevitable that as part of the university and college experience, friendships and relationships find ways to bloom. When friendships flourish, they often come with pressure to make it count or with a caveat to keep some distance. Social media helps. It provides a promise of sustained communiation.
At Northwestern, the university’s International Office attempts to be a bridge for relationships to form. Orientation events provide the meeting space and opportunities. It is here that meet-ups paved the way for Venkatraman. It was up to him to deal with his with his pressing schedule and time constraints.
After the 15 months pass for Venkatraman, there are options to stay longer in the states. Work visas are available, though they’re limited, not guarantee, and they too have set expiration dates.
Venkatraman plans to stay but he knows he can’t bank on it, especially with the ever changing limitations in visa policies expressed by the Trump administration. Whatever relationships or friendships he strikes up will have to go with the erratic flow.