Saturday, April 21, 2012

So far from home

The other day at work, my friend Travis offered the opinion that today's parents "baby" their children, making it impossible for college-age kids to truly be independent.

All I can say is: There are a few kids Travis needs to meet.

I've had the privilege the last couple of years of spending time with and getting to know some friends of my son at Iowa State University. Scott is a member of the ISU International Student Council and has been fortunate enough through his work there to meet ISU students from more than 30 countries.

When I was in college, international students were the "smart kids." They had a dorm all to themselves, and they all seemed very serious. I was intimidated by them and didn't take the opportunity to get to know any of them.

I've always known that was my loss, but I didn't fully understand why until I met Onalie and Ahmad and Sarini and Shun and Wiwi and Kanchana and Yeonji and Nidhi and Vishadi and Isaac and Ashvin and so many others.

It turns out one stereotype I had believed in the '80s is true: International students are smart. But they're not magically that way: They're smart because they value education, and because they study. They know why they're thousands of miles from home, and they're not about to squander the opportunity to earn a degree.

But that's not to say they hole up in their dorm rooms 24/7; quite the contrary. They also know that the college experience is not just about studying, so they take advantage of the many extracurricular activities that are available to them. Most of them choose activities such as International Student Council and UNICEF -- ones that can enable them to increase awareness while they're in this country.

But the most important thing I've learned about them is this: For all their intelligence and capabilities, they're young, and they're really, really far from home. And for that reason, I've determined that they're among the bravest people I know.

I visited with many of the kids today about their summer plans. Some of them are staying in Ames and taking summer classes, and some are going home. Of those, many haven't seen their families for a very long time. One young man mentioned today that it's been three years since he's been home.

Another student, a young woman who also hasn't been home in more than a year, mentioned today that the hardest times are holidays or long weekends when her American friends have plans with their families. Although they invite her to join them and she's never alone, it's not the same; the families are not her family. The activities are different, the foods are different, and she's not home.

My son's girlfriend is from South Africa. Her sense of longing for home is ongoing; although she's adapted well during her time in the United States, she longs for familiar sights, smells and tastes. Our vegetables aren't as fresh as the ones she's used to; our meats aren't as savory. Americans don't typically eat the stomach and the chicken feet she loves. Everything is simply ... different.

And yet she -- and all the international students I know -- press on because they're keeping their eyes on the prize. Once they have their degrees, some of them will find good jobs in this country and raise their own children here. Others will go back home to use their educations to benefit their own families and cities and countries.

I'm amazed by them -- and by their parents. How difficult it must be to kiss your 17- or 18-year-old child goodbye and not know for sure when you'll see him or her again, or if he or she will be safe and comfortable and happy so far away. I see my kids weekly, at least; sometimes Scott's international friends can't even make a phone call home because it's too expensive.

I respect these students tremendously because of the people they are: They are unfailingly polite and pleasant and welcoming and appreciative and respectful. And I value them because of they many ways they've enriched my son's life. As he told me the other day, "No matter where I go in the world, chances are pretty good I'll have someone to stay with."

So, thank you, Onalie and Ahmad and Sarini and Shun and Wiwi and Kanchana and Yeonji and Nidhi and Vishadi and Isaac and Ashvin and so many others. Thanks for being so nice to this middle-aged lady with her camera and her questions. And thanks most of all for being so courageous, and for making a bigger difference than you'll ever know, no matter where the rest of your lives happen to take you.

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