Zihan Xia knew the words to every song in The Little Mermaid before she understood a word of English. Though her DVD copy had no Mandarin subtitles, she had the entire animated film memorized by the third grade. Today, she admits that she identifies more with American culture than Chinese, shifting her infatuation with The Little Mermaid to sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory and Friends. So, when Zihan arrived in the U.S. for the first time in 2021 as an International Guest Student at Penn (IGSP), she introduced herself as Drea, inspired by one of her favorite American rappers, Dr. Dre. She hoped this Westernized name would help her fit in and avoid the stress of correcting people’s pronunciations of her Chinese name. 

When asked what shocked her most about her new surroundings, she eagerly explains how her definition of "foreigner" has evolved. “Most of the time in China, there’s only Chinese. If you saw a white guy on the street, you would identify them as [a foreigner],” she explains. She’s pleasantly surprised at how accepting people are of different nationalities on campus and how diverse Penn’s population appears. “There’s no idea of a foreigner when everybody’s a foreigner,” she says.

Zihan is a member of the IGSP cohort of 2021. Regularly confused with the Exchange Student program, IGSP is a distinct community that brings students like Zihan to Penn each year. The exchange program admits students while simultaneously sending Penn students to partner universities. Instead, the IGSP is a one–way street, which includes written partnerships with universities, organizations, and governments to welcome students to Penn. And unlike in the exchange program, IGSP students pay Penn’s tuition. 

Facilitated by the School of Liberal and Professional Studies (LPS), the program offers a chance for international students to study at Penn for one or two semesters, giving them the opportunity to choose courses across Penn’s various schools to meet their requirements back home. Students can live in on–campus housing and gain access to all campus facilities. 

IGSP began 15 years ago with 15 students. Now, in 2021, the program has grown to admit 160 students from 44 universities across 15 countries. While IGSP students come to Penn for a variety of reasons, a common thread linking their goals is a desire to share their cultures and absorb those of others. 

Photo courtesy of Zihan Xia

At the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, Zihan studies financial engineering, but during her semester at Penn, she’s able to take courses like Introduction to Queer Art that weren’t available back in China. Zihan says that because her university is a tech school, there are very few art courses, and the ones that are offered are treated as electives. “The course at Penn is about queer art, which is a brand new perspective for me and a topic I’m super interested in,” she says. 

Being admitted to the IGSP was an unbelievable opportunity for Zihan to explore a culture she naturally gravitated towards—and instead of shying away from the culture shock, she embraces it. This open–hearted enthusiasm for stepping out of their comfort zone is a shared sentiment among the IGSP community. 

It’s certainly felt by fellow IGSP student Daffa Pratama. He’s one of 1,000 students selected by the Indonesian government to participate in the Indonesia International Student Mobility Awards, an initiative by the new Minister of Education and Culture, Nadiem Makarim. Having selected the IGSP from 60 study abroad options, Daffa and 38 other Indonesian students arrived on campus this year as the first ever batch of the government–run scholarship. 

2021 Penn cohort for the Indonesia International Student Mobility Awards. Photo courtesy of Daffa Pratama

“I didn’t even know I was enrolled in the IGSP until the government connected us with Penn to begin registration,” Daffa says.

When asked about his most interesting experience at Penn so far, he doesn’t mention Locust Walk on a sunny afternoon or the thronging masses at frat parties. What’s absurd to Daffa is something ordinary for most American students. “The idea that a professor would set aside time where you could come to their office and ask about anything is so, so exciting to me,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief. 

During the online hell that defined many of our college experiences during the pandemic, Daffa found himself longing most for the minute interactions that occur before and after lectures in a classroom. His home university, the University of Indonesia, never offered office hours, and when Penn did, he jumped at the opportunity to attend. When his personal conversation with a Wharton professor was included in the following week’s lecture, he was elated. Studying at Penn was an unprecedented possibility to Daffa, and without the government’s efforts, it's unlikely he could have accessed it during his undergraduate studies. “This chance does not come twice,” he tells me.

Photo courtesy of Daffa Pratama

While Zihan registered for IGSP directly through her home university and Daffa joined with the help of Indonesia’s Minister of Education, Hala Al Habob is at Penn through a program run by the American government itself. A Yemeni citizen, Hala grew up in Sana’a as the youngest of eight siblings. 

“[My family has] always seen me as the smart girl, saying it was unfair for me to have to study in Yemen,” Hala says. She speaks about how a diploma from a Yemeni university isn’t recognized worldwide, and instability in the region has put institutions of higher education in jeopardy. With her family’s support, she applied to the U.S.–Middle East Partnership Initiative's (MEPI) Tomorrow’s Leaders Program, an initiative run by the U.S. State Department that helps Middle–Eastern and North African students study at U.S.–accredited universities. 

Through MEPI, Hala was admitted to the American University of Beirut, where she has lived for the past four years. The IGSP came as a natural next step for her, as the Tomorrow’s Leaders Program includes a study abroad experience. “When I left, my family told me they knew I would make it and I should do what I loved,” she says. 

Upon arriving at Penn, Hala felt as if she had jumped across space and into another universe. On her first day in her Harnwell apartment, she struggled to switch on the lamp and adjust the shower. After the initial confusion settled, she realized her assumptions of what life would look like at Penn didn’t reflect her new reality. 

“People here love each other,” she says, continuing that “they see you and say how pretty you look even if they don’t know you.” 

Hala’s biggest fear in coming to America was facing discrimination because of her hijab, but she’s relieved that she hasn’t had any such negative experiences so far. “I was expecting people to see me and turn away,” she says.

Despite the already jarring change from Beirut to Philadelphia, Hala is constantly looking for more ways to become a global citizen. She’s joined African Rhythms, a traditional African drum and dance troupe at Penn, and passionately describes the pleasure that learning about other cultures brings her. 

Photo courtesy of Hala Al Habob

“It’s so fascinating to me how different we all are,” she says. She tells me that the first question she asks a person is what they like to eat. 

Lauren Fiori, associate director of Penn's international programs, is committed to ensuring this cultural exchange continues. “The goal I have for the program is that it continues to diversify. I would love to see us welcome students from countries we haven’t before,” she says. 

Fiori began working at the English Languages Program housed under LPS in 2011, before leaving for three years prior to her work with IGSP. “I always felt like I would find my way back to Penn. Working with IGSP was the perfect way for me to combine my desire to work with international and degree students,” she says. It’s no surprise that Fiori’s love for her job has transferred to students, with each IGSP student quick to mention how supportive and responsive she’s been throughout the process. Given the myriad of challenges presented by the pandemic, this was no simple feat. 

“When COVID–19 happened, we took a huge hit. IGSP was just a handful of students taking online courses,” Fiori says. However, this dip in participation didn’t last long, and in 2021, applications to the program shot up again.

The IGSP has no shortage of opportunities, and it provides visiting students with a close look at the American collegiate experience, whether that’s attending office hours, living in a dorm, or bustling to new and interesting classes. However, after talking with Zihan about how many nationalities are included in her group of friends, hearing Daffa describe his plans for an Indonesian cultural fair, and speaking with Hala about the inclusivity of being a Quaker, it became clear that what tied these three together was not the IGSP tag, but the excitement and intimacy of forming new relationships—ones that transcend cultural barriers. 

If Penn students are open to this exchange, maybe we can take a leaf from Zihan’s book and begin to collectively redefine what it means to be a "foreigner."