“The semester had been in session for over a week but I don’t think any of my classmates realized I was an international student,” said Julia Laot, a junior studying at the College from Nice, France. “One day I asked a question and then everyone turned around and looked at me. Someone asked where I was from, saying they didn’t recognize my accent. Everyone was so interested that I was studying abroad in America.” Most students at the College only think about leaving Charleston to go abroad for a semester, yet what they don’t realize is that there are over 170 students from around the world spending their semesters studying ‘abroad’ in Charleston.
Laot described the process for coming to the College as challenging but well worth the effort. “I had to take the train for 3 hours into Paris to get my student visa and I had to make sure it was ready by the time I was leaving to come to America,” she said. “There was a lot paperwork that I had to complete,” but she said it only helped her to become even more excited about Charleston.
“I’m the only one of my family and friends who has come to America to study.” Laot said she had traveled to the United States before, visiting California, New York and Wisconsin. However, she loves being able to live in Charleston and attend classes at the College.
Laot explained that the university she attends in Nice gave her a list of colleges outside of France they were partnered with, and while she said she considered going to Asia, she finally decided on Charleston.
Melissa Ochal, Associate Director of the Center for International Education (CIE) on campus, said the College partners with 25 universities to bring students to Charleston each semester. The most popular countries that the College’s international students call home are Germany, the UK, Brazil and China. While thousands of miles, continents and oceans separate these students from one another, they all made the common decision to study abroad at the College of Charleston. Their reasons for doing so don’t differ greatly from American students choosing the College.
Jiqiong Yu, a student from China, explained one of the main aspects drawing her here was “Charleston’s culture and background with such an amazing civil war history.”
Juan Carlos from Goais, Brazil said, “the welcoming atmosphere with friendly people and wonderful food” were what brought him to Charleston.
Similarly Rio Speller-Drews from Ontario, Canada said, “I love the location of the school, the beautiful campus, as well as the friendly atmosphere. I like that the school is located in a city but you are also so close to the beach.” Close proximity to the ocean was also a deciding factor for Maria Sarter from Mainz, Germany, “ I chose Charleston because of the nice surroundings and the beach.” While their reasons for selecting the College are similar to American students, their experiences proved to not quite be the same.
Two all-you-can-eat dining halls on campus, unlimited drink refills and weekly in class quizzes were just some of the culture shocks the students had to get
used to when they arrived in Charleston just over a month ago. “Everyone here eats so quickly,” Laot said. She also found it surprising that food and drinks were permitted in class, “it is so different that students can be talking to professors while eating.”
The amount of homework also came as a surprise to Laot. “In France we don’t even use textbooks, everything is on PowerPoint. Here the workload is very heavy. We don’t have weekly reading quizzes in France either, if you don’t read that’s your problem.” Sarter also found that one of the biggest differences between Charleston and her school in Germany, the University of Applied Sciences Mainz, was the amount of homework given.
A special program, called Cougar Ambassadors, was created to help students adjust to the many changes they experience while studying at the College. It is comprised of ordinary CofC students who have either studied abroad in the past or those who are interested in the opportunity to meet and build relationships with international students. Laot’s ambassador, sophomore Julia Thompson said, “being a Cougar Ambassador gives me the opportunity to experience a different culture while still going to an American college in America.”
Thompson described her favorite parts of the program saying, “It’s interesting to learn what is just an American word or habit, versus a human or cultural universal characteristic. It’s also really fun rediscovering Charleston with someone who has never been here or in some cases to America before. And when I get pizza handmade from an Italian for dinner and crepes for dessert made from someone who lives in France that’s pretty amazing too.”
Ochal explained that each Cougar Ambassador is paired up with a student from abroad over the summer, allowing communication to begin before they even arrive in Charleston. The program not only gives international students the opportunity to ask the ambassadors any questions they may have about the College but it also allows them to feel more comfortable when they arrive, knowing that they already have a friend in Charleston.
Laot said she thinks the Cougar Ambassador program was a great idea: “the international center was very helpful, I was worried I wouldn’t know anyone or anything when I got here but the whole program was very well organized.” She said she especially appreciated that the CIE picked her up from the airport, saying it made her feel extremely welcome from the beginning.
“They also took us to Target which was definitely an experience, we do not have any stores like that in France,” Laot said
The CIE and the Cougar Ambassadors work together to plan activities throughout the semester to assure the students get to experience everything Charleston has to offer.
“We took the students on a beach trip to Isle of Palms the first weekend after the semester had started, when of course, there was a 106 degree heat index” Ochal remarked, but regardless of the heat, everyone still managed to enjoy the day. Ochal said further events the CIE has planned for the students include a harbor cruise, an International Night at a Charleston men’s soccer game, a Halloween ghost tour around campus, a trip to Magnolia Plantation, a white water rafting trip over fall break and a Thanksgiving dinner with the provost office. But the activity the students are most excited for is attending a Citadel football game, something Laot described as a true American experience.
Before leaving Charleston at the end of the semester, many students have bucket lists of things they want to do and places they want to see in the U.S. Laot said she wants to shop at Forever 21 and Victoria’s Secret, “everyone loves Forever 21 at home but we only have one in Paris.” She said she also went paddle boarding with the outdoors club, “it was so beautiful and so fun,” she said she would love to go again before she leaves.
Carlos decided on going to California and Disney World in Florida before he returns to Brazil.
Sarter, from Germany, said she intends on visiting the Bahamas, New York, and the West Coast.
Ochal remarked that at the semesters end all of the students are sad to go home and love Charleston, “which I take as a really good sign.”
This article first appeared in the October 2014 issue of The Yard.