DeKALB – Oleg Grachev said he was able to break a lot of stereotypes about the U.S. since he came to study from Russia three years ago via a U.S. Department of State-sponsored Future Leaders’ Exchange scholarship program.
Now a 19-year-old sophomore at Northern Illinois University studying finance and economics, he started his journey as a high school senior living with a host family outside Paw Paw.
Grachev said he did have to overcome the culture shock he first faced after arriving in the U.S. from Blagoveshchensk, Russia, a city along Russia’s border with China .
Grachev said he remembers seeing the golden cornfields surrounding his new home, and doing unfamiliar chores such as feeding cows and horses and hauling buckets of water.
“My first month, of my senior year high school here, I remember sitting just in the classroom and everything just seemed so strange; the way the teachers were lecturing, the way they were talking, the broad range of topics they were covering,” he said. “It was definitely an interesting experience because in so many ways it was so much different from Russia. It’s like two sides of the world, not just geographically, but literally.”
Grachev is one of 1,050 international students at NIU this year, according to the data released by the university for the 2014-15 school year. In fall 2014, there were 495 international students from India, the most of any country. That was followed by China with 167; and Saudi Arabia, 102. South Korea and Taiwan sent 35 and 21 students, respectively.
Deborah Pierce, associate vice president of NIU’s Division of International Affairs, said international students’ economic impact on the DeKalb County was estimated at $19.8 million.
Although international students bring economic benefits to the region, Pierce stressed that they also bring the diversity of thought, culture and experience to NIU.
“By joining our campus community, they challenge us all to expand our horizons and to learn more about our own cultural assumptions,” she said.
And while some exchange students are able to integrate into the community, make friends and acclimate to the academic environment, others still say they face vast cultural differences on a daily basis.
Rhandy Barba, 27, of Panama City, Panama, said he first came to the U.S. as an exchange student in 2008, when he completed the last year of his bachelor’s degree at the University of Mississippi. Barba said coming to NIU to get his Master of Science in management information systems last year took some adjustment.
“It’s the first time that I’m in a place that is actually colder than my freezer,” Barba said citing the frigid Midwestern winters.
Professor Judy Ledgerwood, the director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at NIU, said the shock of the rigorous academic environment and cultural contrasts are common among both undergraduate and graduate exchange students who come to NIU.
“It’s wonderful that people open their homes, and they learn about other places in the world, and then they really give the students an emerging experience from what an American family is like and spend time with their kids and go shopping,” Ledgerwood said about the DeKalb-Sycamore community.
“I had a girl from Burma and from Cambodia at my house, and just going into the grocery store was an experience,” she said.
Despite certain inconveniences, such as with the transportation system or cold weather, Barba and Grachev said they were able to adjust to their new environment with the help of friends, host families and community.
“I personally experience lots of problems with the buses at NIU,” Grachev said. “I’m used to just hopping on buses running every 10 minutes, and here, you might not see a bus for another hour.”
Barba, who lives at NIU’s rugby house, said the university gave him a lot of support from different perspectives from administrative offices to rides from his friends.
He said he had received a lot of support from his fellow rugby players, as well as the NIU community, when he needed a ride or had questions for NIU’s administrative offices.
“For me, NIU is an entity that is actually a partner that I work together with,” he said. “It helped me to go toward my academic success, so I really appreciate that. It gives you all of the tools that you need.”
“My American friends have helped me a lot, in terms of transportation, integration into community,” Grachev said. “Even social life, going out to like restaurants. Even going to a gym together. And any questions that might arise, they are there to answer. It’s been amazing.”
For Grachev, the key to his success has been an open-minded approach. If an exchange student tries to immerse themselves in a new environment, Grachev said they will find help and support because domestic students and faculty are always eager to help.
“I can admit, I became very Westernized by living here,” he said. “[I] definitely like Mexican food. We don’t have any Mexican food where I’m from, and I really like it.”
Ismael Montana, assistant professor of history at NIU, said it’s important to minimize culture shock for exchange students, so they can become part of the NIU community and further help with internationalization of the university.
“These students aren’t only coming to study and gain experience, but they are enriching that international experience that is essential in advancing and promotion [of] internationalization here, at NIU,” he said. “It is the presence of international students that is helping us actualize and materialize the objective of many of these international programs that we have here.”