International students face successes, challenges during UNL transition

International student Shawn Wong says it has been easy to make friends with people at work, classes and other organizations.

Story and photos by Megan Mandel, NewsNetNebraska

Ask most international students about their transition to America, and they will probably tell you it’s not always easy.

Language barriers, classroom situations and social norms all pose a radical lifestyle change. For students like Shawn Wong, the process was fairly painless. For others, like Phuong Pham, it helped to have someone there to show them the ropes. That’s where UNL’s LINC program can be a real asset.

But let’s start with Wong.

The Hong Kong native came to David City, Neb., in the fall of 2006 as a high school exchange student. He said that getting used to life in Nebraska was a little bit of a culture shock.

“Everything (in Hong Kong) is all packed together and basically we don’t have any downtime,” Wong said. “It’s pretty peaceful here, pretty laid back. In Nebraska, you have some time where you can just relax for a little bit.”

Wong is now a senior economics and marketing major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Although he knew a few high school classmates coming into college, Wong knew he had to go through what every college freshman does: making new friends. 

He wasted no time and got a job as a lab consultant for UNL Information Services and joined Delta Sigma Pi, a business fraternity. He started up conversations with classmates and coworkers and quickly began forming relationships.

For an international student, Wong said that making friends is all about the effort.

“Once you know a small group of people, you automatically can branch out from there,” he said. “You can’t just sit there and expect other people to branch out to you. I mean, sometimes that might be the case, but most of the time you’re kind of on your own.”

Mattos, an international student and scholar adviser and LINC adviser, says that the program can be beneficial to international students and the people who mentor them.

Guiding lights at home and abroad

According to the UNL Factbook, there are currently 2,479 international students enrolled at the university.

Wong has had a pleasant experience at UNL. But for those international students that face a challenging transition, UNL’s LINC program can be of service.

The LINC program joins mentors and international students at UNL. The goal is for international students to feel comfortable in the university setting, and also learn about culture in the rest of the Lincoln community.

Click here to see how Phuong Pham and her family have adjusted to UNL and Lincoln.

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For mentor Chelsey Charlton, a senior business administration major, getting involved was a no-brainer.

The Lincoln native studied in Spain in the spring of 2011. She knew that she wouldn’t get the full experience if she stayed in her comfort zone.

“All I wanted to do was be a European, be a Spaniard and learn the culture, live it and learn the language and I knew I wasn’t going to do that by hanging out with a bunch of American students,” Charlton said.

She discovered that seeking out mentors and friends would help her adjust to Spanish life – and they did.

Upon returning to the states, Charlton knew she had to become a mentor, just like the ones that she met abroad.

“Coming back I totally had a heart to help students at UNL,” she said. “We just think they have their foreign friends, but if my Spanish friends had thought that, I would not have learned as much as I learned.”

According to Stephen Mattos, international student and scholar adviser in the Office of International Affairs, it’s people like Charlton that make the LINC program a success each semester.

“For the most part, it works pretty well,” he said. “I think we made 80 matches for this semester. We have certain mentors that keep coming back, so they must like it. We don’t get a lot of complaints, so I think students are benefiting from it.”

Mattos said the four or five-year-old program is still growing, but is always available to the students interested.

“We got over 350 new international students and about 80 signed up for LINC,” he said. “We advertise it through every means at our disposal, but it’s up to the students whether they want to sign up for it.”

Charlton says she has learned a thing or two about herself while mentoring Jia He. Courtesy photo, used with permission.

Mentor/mentee relationships crucial to international students

Programs like LINC teach both the mentors and mentees lessons on respective cultures, mannerisms and ways of life. But, most importantly, the program teaches both partners about each other.

“The need for mentors is really abundant,” Charlton said. “She (her mentee Jia He) had been here for a year and a half and I was the first American who actually took her somewhere and spent time with her…I just wanted to cry. That was a really big wake up call.”

The program aims to create the best possible matches, but sometimes it’s almost impossible to cater to everyone’s specific requests such as age or background. Still, Mattos said, a mentor is an important tool in helping international students learn.

“It’s a one-on-one flesh and blood human being simply helping them find their way around, helping them with their English, every issue you can think of to help them deal with that,” he said.

By learning how to adjust to various cultures and situations, it’s these relationships and life lessons learned in transition that make students like He and Wong succeed not only at UNL, but beyond.

“I want to go to as many places as possible,” Wong said. “I’m still young and there are a lot of different places other than Nebraska and Hong Kong.”

And where does he want to go the most?

“Australia,” he said. “Spotting a kangaroo would make my day.”