Alex Nørby, 21, was walking home with a bottle of wine when she was stopped by a policeman who asked to see her license and then wouldn’t let her leave.
The sophomore international affairs major, from Norrkoping, Sweden, was carrying her Swedish license, which the policeman believed was a fake. The situation was resolved, but now she must carry her international visa with her for extra proof.
Nørby is one of about 320 international students at James Madison University, and this was one of the culture clash moments they sometimes experience.
Certain things in U.S. culture can be very confusing.
“The whole idea of saying, ‘Hey, how are you?’ when you meet someone is foreign,” said Thomas Lavenir, assistant director of the Office of International Students and Scholar Services. “It’s not necessarily a question you need an answer for. Some people are caught by that.”
English does not seem to be the biggest worry for many of the international students. Sophomore psychology major Kathrine Storm is from Oslo, Norway. Storm started learning English in elementary school and said it did not get serious until eighth grade, when they actually had to start putting sentences together. But sometimes, back home, she finds other ways to perfect her English.
“In Norway, we hear a lot of English, because we get all the shows from [the States],” Storm said. “Like ‘Friends,’ ‘Two and a Half Men,’ ‘Grey’s [Anatomy],’ ‘Oprah,’ and ‘Ellen DeGeneres.’ But we don’t dub them, we just put subtitles on it.”
The countries most represented at JMU are China, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and India. Many of the students are business or computer science majors.
“JMU is a nice place to be an international student,” Storm said. “Tech or UVA didn’t even respond, and then the other school only sent me a link. Then JMU sent me so much information … and they replied immediately.”
Lavenir came to JMU in 2004. At that time, Lavenir said, there were only about 25 international students.
The ISSS reaches out to students while they are still in their home countries in order to provide advice on things such as what to pack and class registration. The students then come a week earlier than other students and the ISSS sets up bonding activities such as volleyball and barbecues to help the students relax and get adjusted.
Freshman business major Nikola Wessels is from Münster, in West Germany, near the Netherlands. Wessels said schools in Germany are different from schools in the States: The breaks are shorter, the amount of time in school is different, and the classes are much larger.
“We don’t have general education classes,” Wessels said. “You finish high school and go right into your major … My major would take three years for bachelor’s and then two for master’s.”
Many international students decide to come to JMU because of the highly ranked business school and the education they would receive in general.
“U.S. has the greatest education,” said freshman business major Lingling Xu from South China. “A lot of people choose Canada or Australia, but I think U.S. is the best choice.”
Some international students chose the school for sports as well. Wessels came to JMU after being recruited by the women’s golf coach, Paul Gooden. She was contacted by other schools, such as Arizona State University and Towson, but still chose JMU.
“The coach here, when I talked to him, I could tell he was really proud of the university and the golf team,” Wessels said. “I looked at the business school and it’s really, really good, so that influenced my decision as well. But it was mostly because of the golf team.”
Gooden has found no real barriers while working with international students and praises their work ethic.
“They’re really devoted and that’s part of their culture,” Gooden said. “Their parents and themselves […] put in the time and effort to achieve high goals.”
American football is foreign to most international students, and so are other aspects of our sports culture.
“I like the games a lot,” Storm said. “It’s a very American thing, the whole spirit thing and dressing in the school colors. I work at a summer camp in England, and everyone thought it was so weird that I was ‘repping’ my own school and would wear JMU shirts. They don’t do that there. It’s mostly a tourist thing.”
For some, the most enticing aspect of studying in the States is the degree.
“If you apply yourself in college here, the possibilities are endless,” Nørby said. “It opens a lot of doors. When I go home to Sweden, I’ll have a degree from here and that’s priceless.”
Many do not plan on staying in the States after they graduate, but hope to use all that they have learned here to help them back home.
“I have never regretted my decision to come here,” Nørby said. “It’s good coming here, because you see the value of your own country.”