The morning sun crested the horizon and cast shadows throughout the rolling expanse of the Badlands. Four years ago, a Panamanian student dreamt of American cities and their promise of advancing technology, celebrity and success. But after two trips to New York City, he found his American dream in a Midwestern sunrise.
Senior David Gonzalez knew no English upon arrival and spent his first year at the university learning the language, he said. The hardest parts about learning English for him were all of the different sounds vowels make and slang-related language barriers, he said.
Gonzalez’s peers were kind and supportive as he learned their language. They understood that learning a new language is a difficult process, he said.
“When I came to the U.S., the person that picked me up from the airport told me that he liked my outfit. I just said ‘yes,’ and I left. He was looking at me so weird, and I was like, ‘bye,’” he said.
Gonzalez came to the UofA as part of the exchange program. His first impression of the U.S. was that it is just like the movies he watched back home. Manhattan in mind, he expected many large cities and a lot more modern technology, he said.
“I had never heard of Arkansas before coming here,” he said, laughing.
Before arriving at the UofA, Gonzalez was nervous about people treating him differently because of his accent and his status as an international student, he said.
“Everyone is actually very nice and helpful. I was pleasantly surprised,” he said.
For Gonzalez, the most significant difference between Panamanian and American cultures is devotion to family, he said. Despite being over 2,000 miles away from home, Gonzalez remains very close with his family and talks to them every day.
“If I don’t answer [the phone], they’ll be mad at me,” he said.
Since coming to the U.S., Gonzalez has visited five states: New York, Florida, Texas, Colorado and South Dakota. Gonzalez has visited New York City twice, and it is his favorite American city, he said. His favorite American vacation was to South Dakota, where he spent a week camping in the Badlands. His trip to the Badlands was his favorite since coming to the U.S. because of plentiful hiking, beautiful scenery and the fact that he had never been camping before, he said.
Senior Anna Albert is from Ukraine and has been in the U.S. for four weeks. Albert’s vision of the U.S. was formed through depictions presented by Hollywood, like the New York City in “The Devil Wears Prada,” she said. When she visited the U.S. for the first time last summer, she was surprised to see that the realities of America were just as she imagined, she said.
“I have always thought that this is the country to make my dreams come true,” she said.
There are some significant cultural differences that Albert said she has observed since arriving in the U.S. For instance, Americans smile all the time, almost indiscriminately. When a person in Ukraine has a problem, they refuse to smile, she said.
“And we only ask ‘How are you?’ if we really care to know. In America, people are always asking ‘How are you?’ and they don’t really care about the answer,” she said.
Albert’s experiences from studying abroad have taught her many skills, she said. Her ability to communicate, think critically and solve problems has improved because of some challenges she has faced this semester.
“I am in a class that is taught by a professor with a heavy [Chinese] accent,” she said. “It is very hard to figure out what he is trying to say, but I am learning to understand him better.”
Another challenge Albert has been facing is keeping up with homework while staying engaged with extracurricular activities, she said.
Sophomore Yok Lin Ong is from Malaysia. He has been in the U.S. for a couple of weeks, and says that he finds the Arkansan air refreshing. Even on the hottest summer days, Arkansas is not as hot as Malaysia, where taking a walk down the street is a sweaty affair all days of the year, he said.
Before coming to the U.S., Ong said he expected to find large houses and even larger food portions. He was not wrong, he said.
“The hardest thing to get used to here is the food. American food usually grilled, deep fried, and has lots of cheese,” he said.
After graduation, Ong says that plans to return to Malaysia to work, mostly because he misses Malaysian food so much. Malaysian food is cooked by wok and is not heavy in fat, contrary to American tradition. The majority of any given Malaysian meal is rice, he said.
Studying abroad is an experience that allows people to broaden their horizons and explore new cultures, Ong said. He recommends an international education to every college student that has the chance, he said.
Information about studying abroad and the UA international exchange program can be found at the Office of Study Abroad and International Exchange on North Storer Avenue.