For the first four months, the last room in Harnwell 908 was empty. Then in January, Irene Miranda (C’17) showed up with a single suitcase filled with clothes perfect for the warmest city in Europe. Fortunately, her three sophomore roommates knew of a place on Penn’s campus with a familiar 32 degree Celsius climate. And so, in her fourth year of college, Irene walked into a frat party for the first time.
“Oh my god, it’s like the movies,” she thought to herself as a freshman boy queued up the Chainsmokers and people chugged Bankers from red cups. At one in the morning, it was still early for her. Back in Spain, where Irene attends the University of Seville, she starts “pre–drinking” at midnight. “Gin or whiskey with ice,” she says. “And then we leave for the club at four. When the club closes at eight, we go for churros. That’s like our breakfast.” On this night, she was in Harnwell College House by 2 a.m.
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Irene is on a semester abroad at Penn, along with 208 other exchange students. Upon arrival, Irene half–knew what to expect of stereotypical Penn students. “We watch Gossip Girl in Spain, and the characters went to the Ivies,” she says. “So I thought, they must be smart and they must also have money to come here.” Irene's thinks she's inherited her love of America from her parents and feels incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to study in this country. When she found out she was coming to Penn, her mom, a professor at University of Seville, told her, "you're living my dream."
To attend Cornell, exchange students pay half the regular tuition, but Irene saw that University of Seville’s program to Penn allows undergrads to pay the same as what they pay for school in Europe—around 6,000 euros a year, compared to Penn’s $60,000. These students come in under a bilateral student exchange agreement, so “tuition is waived for visiting students on each side of the exchange,” according to Director of Penn Abroad Nigel Cossar, making it possible for Penn students to pay only their Penn tuition when abroad. There are two students from Seville on this semester’s program.
While many of Luis Cayuelas (C’17)’s friends from Seville went on Erasmus, a program where European students go abroad to other EU countries, Luis wanted to improve his English level and “get into American culture.” The attractiveness of a cheaper Ivy experience and the historical reputation of Philadelphia is much of what brings students from twenty different countries to study abroad at Penn.
Adjusting to Academics
Terry Lin (C’17), the Exchange Orientation Leader for Penn Abroad, has taken up the challenge of helping visiting students navigate their new school lives beyond orientation. Terry returned from studying abroad in Belgium with a firsthand understanding of what it’s like to be transplanted in a foreign country and handed a class schedule. He started a Facebook group for exchange students on his own time, which now has 35 members, using it to alert them to campus happenings, to answer questions, and to organize social events.
Terry explains the Facebook group was a helpful addition to the formal Penn Abroad program. “They prepare them for America,” he says of the program, “but they don’t prepare them for Penn.” From an academic standpoint, Dimitri Kremp (C’18), from the Parisian political science school Sciences Po, had never seen so many problem sets and readings due each week. “In France it’s more like you do nothing for the whole semester and you freak out the week before the final exam.”
Terry has noticed that when Penn students go abroad, they have time to consider exactly what they wish to get out of their experience. But for students abroad at Penn, “They don’t have time to think ‘Who am I right now? Where do I want to be? What do I want to get out of my abroad experience?’ They’re more focused on ‘Oh shit, I have to get this assignment turned in. I have to be joining these clubs.’”
Class atmospheres also surprise exchange students. Dimitri was shocked to find that Penn students in class “participate all the time, and it’s weird because they say things that aren’t interesting at all. To earn points.”
Class participation was also foreign to Devin Deng (C’18), who attends Nanjing University in China. “People in China don’t talk in class,” he says. “We don’t have seminars. We have homework, but we don’t have so much due.” Terry often also hears confusion over Penn students’ inefficient study habits. Why would we leave our stuff in Van Pelt, go do something else, and then come back? Why don’t we go to the library, get our work done, and then actually relax?
For Devin, the difficult adjustment is “not just about language”—it’s also about culture. He’s studied English grammar since grade school—but interactions are completely different between his country and the U.S. In China, you can’t talk to just anybody. Here it seems, striking up a conversation with a stranger is the norm. When you do address a friend in Chinese university, you call them “brother” or “sister.”
Devin’s given name is Yaowen—when he was born, a Suan Ming Xian Sheng, a kind of fortune teller, proclaimed him an “earth” spirit. His Chinese name has the same character as that for soil. But when he was in high school, he was given the American name “Devin” so that he would have an easier time in a Western culture.
Devin is talkative in the right environment. “Some daily greetings are fine” in most social situations, he explains. “But if you want to have some deeper conversation you need to find some common point. It’s a little bit hard.” He can’t discuss the latest Netflix original series, for instance, because there’s no access to the website in China. He can’t sing along with you to the song playing at the bar, since music has never been a communal experience at Nanjing. He’s become used to prefacing his stories with “I guess I’m a little bit weird.”
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Exchange students are especially curious to place Penn in a larger cultural context. Since arriving in May, Dimitri has been to Boston, New York, Chicago, and Miami. He’s hoping to go to Texas, New Orleans and Nashville with other French students before the end of the year.
“I don’t want to be a normal traveler,” Devin says about leaving Penn’s campus. “I want to know what economic inequality looks like.” Taking a flyer from the LGBT Center, Devin signed up to travel to Kentucky with Alternative Winter Break. “I thought racial inequality... yeah it’s a problem...but it cannot be so serious. Then when I got here…” he trails off. “One thing that is definitely better in America is people have rights to protest and express their voices.” In China, people don’t. “You can, but then you’ll get arrested.” Is on–campus activism punishable? “Yeah,” he deadpans. “I mean, not so serious. Just for 15 days.” His friend who organized an LGBTQ protest at his university was put in jail, translated as “detention.” Another friend, part of an activist group that calls itself the Beijing 5, was arrested for over 40 days last year for protesting domestic violence in China.
Studying abroad at Penn has also led students to reflect on the connections between America and their home countries. As a political science major, Dimitri sees America as having a domino effect on the world, including France, and so being here for the election’s “historical moment” was important to him. “We have elections in France in May with the candidate Marine Le Pen, who would be like the Trump of France,” he explains. “I thought, if this happens in France, I’m just leaving the country.” His reaction may sound familiar.
For many full–time students, the Penn social structure can seem rigid. “People get caught up in [Penn culture],” Terry says. “People are afraid to break out of their existing social circles.” Exchange students aren’t.
“Anything that we consider taboo, they’ll go ahead and do, because they don’t know any better.” He corrects himself, “It’s not that they don’t know any better. They just don’t care about the norms.” The divide between the Penn student and the Penn exchange student is evident even in the dark aisles of Smokes’. The first night Terry took his new friends out, foreign students went around introducing themselves to tight–knit groups and two girls ordered wine at the bar, while he observed, amused. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone order wine at Smokes’,” Terry later said.
Dimitri is one of the exchange students who frequents Smokes’ as much as Kweder. When he first arrived on campus, he casually printed an international ID on the internet, walked into the FedEx on Walnut Street and asked, “Can you laminate this for me?” After one semester, Dimitri already prefers bars to frat parties. “At the beginning of the year,” he remembers, “everyone was like, ’let’s go to this frat party, Castle, it’s amazing!’ And it’s always really nice but it’s so American.” His adjective “American” refers to a party where people are wasted and “where people carry those red cups. We drink beer, but it’s not this shitty Lager.”
He recounts discovering frat parties one night of first semester. “Once I was inside [Castle], I was pretending I was a brother. I was the king,” he laughs. “This system is so weird, there are these guys who own the house and they decide whether you can go in and you have to have this ratio? People here seem to find it normal. We’d rather just chill in the old European way.”
Although roughly 12% of the undergraduate population is international, those students have never had a non–American college experience. Those who study abroad at Penn, though, bring a fresh perspective since Penn isn’t the first and primary college experience of their adult lives. Many universities outside America have a huge commuting population—college becomes a place where you go to lecture, and then you come home to your other life.
An Incomplete Exchange
It’s natural for abroad students to gravitate towards places that feel closer to home. Dimitri has enjoyed spending time with the French society, where he’s met full–time French students. In search of a similar bridge, Luis and Irene immediately went to a GBM for the Wharton Latino Society. Among the many Latin American countries lining the wall, they saw no Spanish flag. “I always considered myself Latina, but Penn students from Latin America don’t seem to think so,” says Irene. Luis also comments on the American understanding of Latin identity. “Someone told me only one grandmother was born in Puerto Rico. And he didn’t speak Spanish at all. But because of his origins, he feels like he is Latin.” Still, Luis appreciates that Wharton Latino is a place where exchange students and full time students can come together to talk in Spanish about Spanish issues.
Devin finds familiarity in ingredients rather than language societies. His alternative to Fresh Grocer isn’t Whole Foods—it’s venturing into Chinatown. “It’s so expensive here to buy groceries!” he says, admitting that, as “unauthentic” as Chinatown may be, “there are some great markets with great sauces, very familiar to me.” His trips there are often solo.
Penn itself doesn’t have a formal system for introducing exchange students to Americans. “Right now a lot of it is on the onus of the exchange students to go and meet people,” Terry says. “And if you think about it, it is kind of weird. If you’re a new student who’s not a freshman anymore trying to meet people that are your age...21, 22...that already have those existing friend groups, existing clubs, existing whatever, that they’re apart of. How do you break into that?”
“We also come here to speak English and to discover the American culture so it’s kind of dumb to stay amongst ourselves. But that’s just what happens,” Dimitri confesses.
As much as abroad students come to Penn for its resources, they can be a resource themselves, for those who have the opportunity to meet them. It’s not an opportunity many Americans take. Dimitri says he’s found it easier to form close bonds with Penn’s international students, even though he speaks English with them. “I feel like they are so much more open towards us.” Even after joining the Club Swim team and the Running Club, Dimitri hasn’t gotten to know Americans. Like Terry, Dimitri’s perspective on the value of temporary students has changed from being one himself. “When I was in France I wasn’t hanging out with exchange students at all, so I can understand this,” he says.
Even though they recognize the social disconnect, exchange students are usually willing to integrate themselves into Penn culture however they can. Dimitri shrugs. “Since you’re here for only one year, when you have those opportunities, you take them.”
Penn students who have gone abroad themselves are more likely to see the value in reaching out. “If you ask students at Penn who haven’t just gotten back from abroad, they have less of a buy–in for why should they be doing something like this,” Terry says. “But we had native students back in our countries who helped us out in our environment and helped us to have a really good time.”
Terry sees the same value for all full–time Penn students. If you haven’t grown up in a foreign country, he says, “you could just never know about it and your experience will be limited.”