The idea of studying abroad has a fascination that catches everyone’s attention. The thought of traveling away from home and visiting another country, not as a tourist limited to hotel rooms but as a traveler, living and eating the way the citizens do, sounds exciting and adventurous.
Carnegie Mellon offers its students ample opportunities to go on an adventure and learn from another country (read about students’ study abroad experiences in Tales from Abroad), but, for many students, studying at Carnegie Mellon itself is an adventure. International students come from all over the world, ranging from far-east countries like South Korea to European countries like Scotland.
Why the U.S.?
The reasons for studying abroad in the United States are many. Some are studying abroad for the cultural experience, while others because of the academic excellence that the U.S. offers.
Vicki Johnstone, an exchange student from Scotland and a junior English major, sheds some light on her reasoning behind coming here. “I always wanted to do a study abroad but never knew exactly where…. I had been to America twice before on vacation and have always really liked America and all that it offers. I had hoped when I was growing up to be able to live some place like America and felt that going on an exchange to here would enable me to gain some experiences and see how life works here,” she said.
Tubtim Eawchoowongse, on the other hand, focuses on the quality of education she can gain by studying here. She is from Thailand and is a sophomore electrical and computer engineering and economics double major. She traveled here “because the U.S. offers a more flexible education. At Carnegie Mellon, for example, I could take classes outside my department and pursue other areas of my interest.”
Other students base their decision on the difference between the education system in their country and that in the U.S. Young Woong Park, an international student from South Korea and a first-year electrical and computer engineering major, explained in an e-mail that admission into South Korean universities is very difficult and is solely based on academic performance. “However, in the U.S., students are highly encouraged to develop their own interests by participating in club activities,” he went on to write. “Even if a student in the U.S. has a bad GPA or bad SAT scores, if he/she has interesting extra-curricular activities, he/she has a very good chance of getting into a good university. People might have different preferences about these two educational systems; however, I didn’t like the Korean educational system as it forces students to study, no matter what their aptitudes are.”
One of the most interesting things to note is how other countries differ from the U.S. Be it a variation in the units of measurement used or the side of the road on which vehicles are driven, many differences are noted by international students between the way things function in the U.S. as compared to their own countries.
Johnstone complained about the confusing and unhelpful nature of the banking system in the U.S. that constantly results in her getting overcharged with hidden fees. She also noticed that taxes aren’t added until the item is billed at the register. “I always think that I have the right amount and then go to the register to pay and they stick on another 7 percent….!”
Stefan Gutstadt, a junior business administration and French double major, comes to Pittsburgh from Johannesburg, South Africa. According to him, one of the most notable differences between South Africa and the U.S. is that while in the U.S., the predominant language is English, South Africa has 11 official languages. This makes communication in the U.S. much easier.
Gutstadt also thinks that South Africans are more politically active than Americans. “I feel that people back home take current events extremely seriously, and there are often public marches, rallies, or gatherings concerning pertinent issues,” he explained. “Once, I remember a national union stopped the traffic in Johannesburg for several hours during a government wage dispute.”
Park pointed out that the diversity that exists in the U.S. is not present in South Korea. “There is only one race in Korea, but in [the] U.S., there are many different kinds of races living together,” he wrote. “Also, [the] U.S. is much larger than Korea; we can go everywhere by a car in Korea but not in here.”
You say po-tay-to, I say po-tah-to
One of the main difficulties in transitioning into life in a new country is adjusting to the ever-present cultural differences. These differences may be small, like the usage or pronunciation of a word, or large, like the way people interact with each other in social situations.
Manasi Patil, a sophomore electrical and computer engineering major and an international student from India feels that culturally, “the way [Indians] define friendship…, the way the weather does or doesn’t affect, the way [Indians] behave with our professors” are just some of the vast differences between Indian and American culture.
Johnstone feels that the major difference between American and Scottish culture is the use of words in different contexts. “I would say the main differences are to do with speech.... We’d say ‘bin’ instead of ‘trash can,’ ‘rubbish’ instead of ‘garbage,’ ‘petrol station’ instead of ‘gas station,’ ‘sweeties’ instead of ‘candy,’ ‘juice’ instead of ‘pop,’ ‘plaster’ instead of ‘Band-aid,’ ‘crisps’ instead of ‘potato chips,’ and ‘chips’ instead of ‘French fries’” she said. “It can get a little confusing!”
In countries like South Korea, China, and Thailand, on the other hand, the cultural differences extend beyond just everyday speech. In these countries, behavior in social situations differs remarkably. It’s important to note these differences so you don’t make a faux pas when you visit.
“Body language,” Christine Lee, a senior economics and philosophy double major, immediately identified a cultural difference between China and the U.S. She emphasized that while people in the U.S. find it normal to hug while greeting guests, this is not the norm in China. Excessive touching is not typical, and people prefer handshakes instead.
The code of conduct in classrooms in South Korea is slightly different. “The first thing I was surprised about when I came to the U.S. was when I attended classes, students crossed their legs and put their legs on other chairs in front of professors, which is viewed as rude in Korea,” Park wrote. In order to be respectful, Koreans maintain decorum in front of elders.
Eawchoowongse seconds this difference in behavior toward older people. “Thai people tend to be more polite and reserved. They also tend to be respectful to elders and would not make fun or tease them unless they are really close,” she said. “Whereas I found that in the U.S.,... a sense of humor is always a bonus, and the best way to connect with others is to approach them actively with a smile.”
Looking more closely at the differences in ways of living, Gutstadt emphasized that “South Africans … tend to have a more relaxed outlook on life.… Several of my friends working in Cape Town have a strict ‘rad waves’ policy to stop work and go surfing if the sea and sun are right.”
Overall, studying abroad is a great opportunity for students to get out of their comfort zone and experience something they have never seen or heard of before. All the students mentioned above affirm that life at Carnegie Mellon has been interesting and exciting, and all the initial adjustments, whether it’s language or weather, are short-lived. So, take a chance and discover another country.