By Sherry Sokolowski
Grand Rapids Community College attracts students from all over Michigan, but it is also home to 65 international students from all across the globe. I met virtually with three international students during the past fall semester who call Grand Rapids home.
Abigail Chiyeni, 20, is from Zambia.
Moral Patel, 21, is from India. Moral is currently back home in India.
Susana Pabon, 19, is from Colombia, Cartagena.
What made you first want to come to the United States?
Abigail: Just for studies.
Moral: My uncle. He came here first, and then he thought it would be good for me to get education outside of India. So like, people who value more here than in my own country. I was like, “Yeah, it’s a good chance, I’ll learn, I’ll get a lot of experience,” and it made me come here. I don’t want to just live a normal life, let’s go out, explore, meet new people, and here I am! I made a good decision coming here.
Susana: I came to the United States because that was my dream since I was little, my brother came five years ago and did college here so I thought it was the perfect opportunity to come here, and he would help me out, which he did.
Out of everywhere in the United States, why did you choose to come to GRCC here in Michigan?
Abigail: I did some research about GRCC. Here it’s one of the affordable colleges. It was much cheaper. My other reason was because the cost of living here is so high, but I have an aunt here so it’s much easier.
Moral: Same thing – my uncle. My aunt went to GRCC and she took a couple of classes there, too. She also went to Ferris but she was like, “GRCC is more diverse and it gives a lot of options, opportunities, and it’s like really flexible.” You can work on campus, and like you can work and then also take your classes, so my experience at GRCC is great. It’s amazing. No complaints at all.
Susana: I chose GRCC, because my brother was living here and I already knew the city so it was great to start my journey from here.
What are you studying and why?
Abigail: RN. I think to begin with for my part, nursing is more like something I wanted to do. I like to help people and it’s more like a calling for me. It’s something as a job I like doing like being around people, encouraging them, helping around people – I think that’s the thing that made me do nursing.
Moral: Nursing. I came here for nursing. I like helping people, and I was like, when I was young, my grandmother, she had asthma and I was really small so like doctors were like “No, we don’t need kids in the hospital,” like you know how hospitals can be. So it was really sad and I was like, I wish I knew something and I would be able to help her, where I could spend more time with her. So it really took me back. And then my grandfather he had some gallbladder problems so again, the same thing – I was small and then I came here so I was like – “I like helping people, it’s interesting, and it’s also really fascinating to learn about your own body and then to help people.” Seeing all this COVID stuff going on, it just really pushes me like yes, I can do this.
Susana: I’m doing an associate’s in business administration, and I want to transfer and finish my bachelor’s in marketing. I chose business, because it fits with my personality. I like numbers and it would help me get into the fashion path that is what I want to do.
How long have you been living here?
Abigail: It’s been a year now.
Moral: This December it will be three years.
Susana: I’ve been living here for almost two years.
And do you plan on staying here after you’re done with your studies, or will you go back home?
Abigail: I was given actually a choice. But of course, when I’m done with my program I have to go back home. But I would like to finish my studies, so probably I’ll have to go back home and then come back again.
Moral: Well, so far, it depends on how the government goes. I want to stay here, get a job, and you know, change my status, get my work permit and stuff. But with all this going on, I’m not really sure but I would love to stay here. If not, then we’ll see where it takes. I have worked hard here, made friends, started everything from scratch, so why not?
Susana: I would love to stay after I finish my studies. Even though I love my country to death and I feel proud of being Colombian, unfortunately, I can’t find the same opportunities as here. So, if I can, I would love to stay here after I finish with my degree.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you?
Abigail: Just with the masks to begin with, and the online classes. Like it’s been a lot, you know? For the online, like, I prefer in class – because you don’t really want to take notes, you have to take notes. But the online, I have this time or this due date so I feel like for my part online has disadvantages.
Moral: So this summer I was supposed to go to Canada and my Mom and brother were going to come there because I haven’t been back since I’ve came here and I haven’t seen my family in three years. So it was really a bummer when COVID happened, like everything canceled, borders closed, so I was not able to go back. I was going to drop this semester – like drop everything here and go back to India. Like I had this crazy mental breakdown, I was like, “Nope I cannot study one more semester, I cannot take one more class, like I need to see my family.” And all this going on, got canceled, and I was like, “Yeah, I don’t think I can hold it anymore.” My parents were like no, they pushed me a lot like, you can do this, you have got so far, let’s take one more semester and then come back. So it was really tough but I made it through and then GRCC was helping in all the ways this semester. And also like their food distribution thing, and then we don’t have a car, and we didn’t have jobs because we can’t work off-campus. Like we can only work on campus. I was like, yeah, no job, no money, no food, like, what are we going to do? So it helped a lot and it was tough but it affected a lot. I learned a lot about myself, too, like how I can do stuff – it was really good. I think we all needed that time – especially me.
Susana: COVID has affect in different ways, first because of COVID I had to change my plans for studying here. I was supposed to transfer next year to a university in Georgia, but because of the pandemic going, I decided that I’m going to finish my associates and work for a year while things with COVID settle down a little bit more. On the other hand, I got COVID couple weeks ago, and thank god I didn’t have severe symptoms, but I had to quarantine myself for two weeks so it was pretty lonely and depressing.
Did your home country handle COVID-19 differently? If yes, how so?
Abigail: I think like here it’s much higher than home, because I feel like here it’s because of the sort of people compared to home. Here it’s more populated as compared to home – that’s the reason.
Moral: So they went into a complete lockdown for 21 days and then my parents were not working. My mom, she is an elementary teacher, so like they all went online. But like my dad was staying home. Nobody even opened the gate and went out, especially my brother and my mom. And my brother was like last year, he was in high school almost close to graduating, but all this came up and their exams got postponed and postponed again – because the education system there is way different. Like here, if this happened, it was easy for professors and us to go online – I know professors had a tough time converting all the materials online, but the transformation was kind of smooth. There, we don’t have such a thing as online school – like, we don’t understand that. So it was hard, plus they were studying, and the universities wanted them to go back and give them exams, but the kids protest – not protest, but like social media was a huge thing. It took a while, they were like, “Well, we pay this much money this and that, and then you want us to come there and give exams? What if we get COVID? You are not going to give our hospital charge or the days we have to stay in and all that.” So they postponed it again, canceled it again – it was just crazy. I called my friend and I’m like, “Alright, how’s school? And they were like, ask about everything but school.” It was crazy.
Not comparing any countries, but I was worried about India – like it’s a developing country and we have a lot of poverty and poor people waiting on the roadside. I hoped they handled it better. It’s not going to (go) away completely, but you know. But they did a good job. We have huge transportations in trains so of course everything was locked down so they shut down everything. And then the hospitals were getting full, no beds. So what they did was the train has like three compartments, so they converted three beds in one compartment on one side. So they converted those beds into medical beds and they put equipment in there, so it was ready and clean. Like I have never seen any local trains this clean my entire life – they cleaned it. All of this they did in less than a week. All of the trains, they got medicine. They’ve been handling it pretty well so far.
Susana: My home country was more strict with the quarantine and they had to stay in lockdown until September/People were and still more scared about COVID because they know that they don’t have enough resources like here.
What is the biggest change or difference in America from your home country?
Abigail: The education system. Here, I feel like it is much easier than home. Here, it’s just so high in terms of the education offered, and I feel like at home it’s much (harder) compared to here. Like I said before, here it’s better and advanced. The advancement here is like too high, you know?
Moral: I would say culture. A huge difference. The way I grew up, I studied in a convent school, only girls until 10. And then 11-12 I went to a mixed school, like boys and girls, but I was like shy and I don’t know how to talk with boys. Like, I have never done that my entire life, and I didn’t have boys as friends either, like all girls. And then my parents were like very conservative, like no, you can’t go night out, parties, birthday parties – like, it was a lot different. After coming here, like drinking is like not that bad as it is there, because my state is (a) dry state, so people drink – that’s another issue – but yeah, like alcohol and smoking and stuff, it was a huge cultural difference for me. But I would not say shocking because we all have our own thing, so I was like, “Yeah, you learn from each other.” The one thing I like about here is kids after 14 or 16 or maybe 18 you guys get a job, and like you’re independent, you don’t rely on parents. I love that. So, we don’t have that – even if we’re 20, 25, you still live with parents, you are still dependent on them. I’m like, “I think we should change that.” Here, I work, buy myself my own expenses and stuff, and then I was like, I feel proud. Like if I was living (with) them, I would not be able to do that. Like I would not be earning money, be responsible as I am, like it has done a huge change in myself, too. Like I can live by myself, it’s like running a whole house by ourselves – like nobody is going to be here helping you. You have to do your own laundry, make your own food, everything. It was a big difference but I like it. It’s a good difference.
Susana: I would say that the biggest difference between here and Colombia is the culture, and how people are here. For example, people in Colombia are more friendly and open. Everyone knows everyone’s business. People here are more independent in that way and nobody gets into other ones’ business. Also, the food is different.
Do you miss your country at all?
Moral: I do miss it. What makes it hard is all the festivals, like we have festivals going on all year long, we don’t take a break from enjoying and celebrating and holidays. So it starts in January until December. Every month we have like one thing or another going on for sure. I’m a really social person so seeing it I wish I was there celebrating with them. But I’m leaving after our finals on (the) 19th and then I’ll be celebrating one of my favorite festivals there.
Susana: I miss my country every day of my life. I miss the food, my family and friends but I’m happy and grateful to be here.
How do you stay connected with your friends and family back home?
Abigail: WhatsApp, we talk on WhatsApp.
Moral: So it’s a huge time difference. They are like ten and a half hours ahead of us, so I call them when I wake up in the morning. If I don’t have a chance to talk with them in the morning, I do it at night when I’m going to go to bed and they start their day. They understand if I don’t talk everyday and we talk maybe once or twice a week and then we talk for like hours to catch up on everything. Friends too, like we Snapchat, this and that, and then they’re like, “Okay, it’s been a long time, like we got to talk” and they understand like, “you live outside of the country.” But it’s hard catching up with them. I have noticed I had a lot of friends in India. I was a social butterfly. But after coming here I knew who were the good friends, or the close ones – like, you don’t have to text them everyday, they’ll still be there. The one big thing is nobody knows I’m coming back after three years except my Mom, Dad, and brother. So I’m so excited for that and I’m going to record everybody’s reaction.
Susana: My parents and I talk every day, morning and night. The same is with my friends, I don’t talk to them every day because we are all busy with school but we stay in touch as much as we can. And also, every time I go, I see them for sure.
*This article has been edited for clarity