Slice of Life: Feeling foreign: exchange students’ take on American college culture

Each semester a fresh batch of students ships off to study abroad. It is a rewarding experience, as those of you that have lived overseas know. But trying to navigate life in another culture can be a challenge.

Have you ever thought about all the foreign students we have running around GW? They’re going through the exact same thing.

Curious about what foreign students think of GW and the United States in general, I checked in with a few to see what they had to say about us Colonials.

“Everyone is so friendly,” said Stella Wolters, a GW exchange student from Germany. “I’m still shocked when strangers stop you on the street to say, ‘Hey! Nice jacket!’ or ‘I like your hair.’ That doesn’t happen in Germany.”

She’s right. It took me a couple of weeks to realize if you smile on the streets of Germany, you stick out like a sore thumb.

A friend of mine visiting from Spain had similar feelings about American friendliness.

“Everyone is so easy to talk to,” said Juan Fernandez, a Spanish college student from Madrid who recently visited D.C. He added with that humility for which the Spanish are so famous, “everyone here loves me.”

“Americans are so friendly, and they aren’t as weird as the Germans,” said the conquistador, who spent a year studying in Berlin with me.

But though foreigners often praise American friendliness, they sometimes find us to be shallow.

“The friendliness can be a bit superficial,” lamented Wolters.

Other Europeans I spoke with echoed that sentiment, saying it’s hard to really know what Americans mean by the word “friend.”

“With Germans, it takes awhile to really become friends, but once you reach that level, you are friends for life,” said Bianka Krast, a college student from Germany who spent a year in Wisconsin a few years ago. “Americans are quick to be friendly, but you are never sure exactly where you stand with them.”

In addition to our friendly culture, Washington got rave reviews. But the go, go, go atmosphere can be a bit much for foreigners used to a more laid-back lifestyle.

“There’s so much going on that one can never get to do all that one wants to do,” said Ileana Cheszes, an Argentinean studying at GW. When asked about the negative aspects of American culture, she hinted that we all should take a chill pill.

“Americans are always drinking coffee or snacking on something. Back in Argentina, meals are more of a time to sit down with friends and family, chat, share a moment,” she said.

There are some major differences in the classroom as well.

“I love that professors are very accessible to students,” she said.

“Back in Argentina students and teachers don’t have any contact at all beyond class. That’s one of the most striking differences.”

Wolters also raved about GW professors, praising their helpfulness. One of her professors recently handed out a paper topic and said “show me how smart you are.”

“A professor would not say that in Germany,” she said, looking shocked.

The students said that in many European school systems, professors are gods and students are supposed to simply listen with due reverence.

Wolters explained that it was difficult to overcome the initial culture shock she experienced upon arriving in Washington. But she is now all smiles.

As all foreign students must, she has learned how to celebrate and understand the differences.

Best of luck to all you foreign students out there as you spend a semester as an American. Make yourselves at home.

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