Home Campus Breaking our biases: International students speak on their unique cultural experience

Breaking our biases: International students speak on their unique cultural experience

BYU-Idaho is a melting pot of cultures. People from all over the world come to BYU-I to study and learn. People bring interesting perspectives from their home countries and enrich the campus with their ideas and good actions. There are, however, struggles unique to people who come from other countries.

According to BYU-I’s website, nearly 75% of all students at BYU-I during Spring Semester 2021 were Caucasian. With 25% of students being various other ethnicities and races enrolled the same semester, the need for a serious conversation about how culture is viewed in Rexburg has been building.

Statistics taken from the BYU-I Official Enrollment Statistics site.
Statistics taken from the BYU-I Official Enrollment Statistics site.

Four international students share an apartment in Alpine Chalet. They’ve all had interesting experiences with learning and adapting to culture not only here in America, but at BYU-I.

Jace Edwards is a freshman studying financial economics. He’s from Canada and says things a bit differently:

“Garburator” in Canada for “garbage disposal.”

“Pasta” with a long “a” in Canada as opposed to pasta with a short “a.”

“Took” (said like “fluke”) in Canada instead of “beanie.”

“There’s lots of people,” Edwards said. “I come from a small town, so this is considered a small town to a lot of people, but it’s a big town for me. I kind of like it.”

Culturally, nothing is really different between Idaho and Canada, Edwards said.

“Alberta is the Idaho of Canada,” Edwards said.

Some of Edwards’ biggest challenges with school are balancing his time and juggling wanting to play, exercise and still being able to get his schoolwork done.

“You just feel slammed all the time,” Edwards said. “You have to either balance exercise with free time. If you want to hang out with friends, you’ve got to sacrifice that a bit to exercise these days.”

Alex Vasiuk is a junior studying computer science. He is from Ukraine and speaks Russian with a wicked lick to his tone. He expressed that culture shock was a big thing for him coming from Ukraine.

“It was weird to see people smile at me,” Vasiuk said. “In Ukraine, people don’t smile but are very serious. It’s part of the mentality. People here are very nice, much nicer than in my country. That’s very good because sometimes when people smile at you, that can make your day. At the same time, people in my country are more straightforward about what they say and do. Here, people are more roundabout.”

Vasiuk connecting and smiling with one of his friends.
Vasiuk connecting and smiling with one of his friends. Photo credit: Everett Willis

When speaking with Vasiuk about schoolwork, he shared some of his struggles with doing his work in English, with it not being his native language.

“It can be very hard sometimes because you feel that you’re behind everyone, and what’s simple for other people who are native here must be harder for you,” Vasiuk said. “But when you finally achieve it, you feel very good.”

Vasiuk knows other Ukrainians around who share his culture and mentality. Having the ability to speak Russian and Ukrainian seems to be something that can instantly unite Vasiuk with other BYU-I students.

Vasiuk smiles with his roommates and friends.

Marcos Galaz is a sophomore studying accounting. He was born in Mexico, specifically Nuevo Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, and was raised in Longmont, Colorado. He’s enjoyed much of what BYU-I has to offer its students.

“I’ve made some good friends,” Galaz said while discussing things he enjoys about student life. “I like the feeling of independence and being in charge of myself.”

Trying to keep his voice upbeat, he spoke about his experience with the culture.

“There’s no one to really share my culture with,” Galaz said. “I do meet some Hispanic people, but most of them haven’t been Mexican. They’ve been from Honduras, Venezuela, and there’s a lot of Brazilians here, but that’s a different language. The only Mexican people I know here are my cousins, and that’s about it.”

Typically, Galaz and his cousins will watch movies, go out to eat, and have a family dinner night every Sunday, where they take turns cooking and spend time together.

When it comes to food, Galaz had never been a fan of sweets. He’ll eat the main course of a meal but didn’t grow up eating dessert and never really understood it.

Galaz says his culture helps him to be unique.

“I stick out a lot compared to everyone else,” Galaz said. “That’s pretty cool, … I think.”

Galaz has recommended that people learn how to cook Mexican food.

“It’s cheap, it’s good, it’s easy,” Galaz said. “Everyone should learn. Also, put some more spices in your food, bro.”

Galaz bought a bag of extra-spicy hot Cheetos and gave one to Vasiuk on one occasion.

“He almost died,” Galaz joked.

Mfalme Ang’ila is a junior studying mechanical engineering. He brings a rich and unique perspective from Kenya to the school.

A candid photo of Ang'ila in Kenyan attire with his mother.
A candid photo of Ang'ila in Kenyan attire with his mother.

“I’ve been here for so long that, in a way, I’ve had more horrible experiences than good ones,” Ang’ila said. “Coming from where I come from, we have a very welcoming culture. Growing up, I thought ‘that’s the way it is’ when you go to a foreign country until I came here. It’s not the same. It’s more of an ‘every man for himself, good for us all’ mentality.”

The first time someone asked Ang’ila how his day was going, Ang’ila told them the truth about his day being somewhat bad. It was hollowing for him to come to understand that when someone asks you that here in the United States, they don’t actually care how your day is going. He struggled with learning those social differences.

“In a way, it made me lose a part of me,” Ang’ila said. “To fit into the society, you have to become what the society is like. It kind of affected how I communicate with people. I didn’t make a lot of friends because of the small, useless talk. If I wasn’t having a meaningful conversation, I wasn’t interested in it.”

When it comes to food, Ang’ila feels most American foods are too sweet. He loves a good pizza or cheeseburger just like anyone, but many American staples like macaroni and cheese don’t sit well with him.

“For me, meat should be more savory,” Ang’ila said. “When it comes to food, I still really like food from my country. I don’t think it’s something I’ll ever give up.”

Ang’ila does, however, concede that he enjoys driving here more than back in Kenya.

“There’s more order on the road,” Ang’ila said. “Back home, it’s very chaotic. It’s very disorganized. Driving in the city is an adventure, but not in a good way. You never know when someone is going to scratch your car. I had to shake off that mentality because that’s the way I used to drive when I first got here. At a stoplight, I’d get so close to the car next to me because back home, you had to be that close if you wanted to keep moving because people would keep cutting you off. You had to be aggressive when driving. You had to be an aggressive pedestrian as well and just pray no one would hit you.”

Ang’ila has been asked many questions in his time here at BYU-I and believes some people can be brazen and make assumptions without realizing the biases underlying their own questions.

“Oftentimes, people will ask, ‘Where are you from?’ and I’ll reply ‘Kenya,’ and they’ll say, ‘Oh, you speak really good English for someone from Africa.'” Ang’ila said. “And to them, oftentimes, they’ll feel it’s a compliment. But to me, it’s not a compliment because it kind of shows you what their initial impressions are about people from Africa. ‘They don’t know how to speak English,’ ‘They’re mostly ignorant’ and ‘You are an exception.'”

Ang’ila said that people who ask questions like these seem ignorant to him.

“If you knew anything about Africa,” he said, “you’d know there are a lot of countries that speak English.”

He has been asked if he knows how to use an iPhone as he is actively using it.

He has gone out in a group to Buffalo Wild Wings and was asked by his party if he could afford it or if it was too expensive where he came from. This was in the presence of one of his other friends from Kenya who is rather affluent.

“I don’t want to have shallow connections, so it’s hard for me to form relationships now because if it’s not authentic if you don’t want to have a good friendship, I don’t want it,” Ang’ila said. “I’m more reluctant to go out and make friends because I don’t want to run the risk of having a bunch of shallow friends who I don’t really relate to.”

He feels that in an attempt not to come across as racist, many people can make assumptions only viewing his race and not him individually.

Ang’ila wants people to shed the stereotypes that they have.

“If you are really curious, look up stuff about the country and the culture,” Ang’ila said. “They can tell the authenticity of your inquiry — if you’re asking questions to really learn, or just being vague about it. Then you won’t end up asking some stupid questions. For example, you won’t end up asking, ‘Why do you speak English?’ They’ll tell you that Kenya has two official languages, English and Swahili. Then you’d know that I had to learn about English in school.”

There are biases that we have that we need to shed as a student body if we want to grow and learn about other cultures. Biases that are condescending and assume the worst have no place in a school where our international students are expected to excel and feel known.

To be more accepting, students should really get to know their international friends for who they are and ask honest questions that they really want to know the answers to, not just questions to seem politically correct. Being genuine is important, and international students can tell when someone is really curious about their culture, and when they just want to keep up appearances.

As we become more and more of a melting pot here at BYU-I, the message of the international students seems to be that respecting individuals of different groups is what actually constitutes respecting that group. Having an understanding of culture begins with understanding individual people.

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