This post is part of a series featuring conversations with MU international students. They talk about life and culture in Missouri and at MU, as well as their experiences as international students and perceptions of American culture inside and outside the classroom.
Year at MU: Second year master’s student
Area of study: Mechanical engineering
Home country: Iraq
What was it like coming to MU? How did you make the decision to come here?
I didn’t exactly choose MU, but I did want to come study in the United States. I had a dream to study in the United States a long time ago and my dad played a role with this. He was always encouraging me to study abroad. He wanted to do his master’s in Germany in the 1960s, but when he went there, there were some issues with the syllabus and it wasn’t compatible, so he couldn’t make it into the program. He wanted to come to the United States but he didn’t have the opportunity, and I guess he looks through me, his opportunity to see it. After I finished high school, I had a dream to study in the U.S., but I couldn’t find anything at that time so I worked hard through my undergraduate years in Iraq. When I graduated I applied for a lot of scholarships and I actually got two to the United States. I was chosen for the Fulbright program and I was chosen for the Iraqi scholarships, so I canceled the Fulbright and came here with the Iraqi scholarships.
That’s really great! Most don’t even get one so that is incredible you got two. What’s your experience been like since you arrived at MU?
I didn’t attend the orientation so I was very confused because I came like 20 days late. That motivated me to volunteer every semester after that because I missed the opportunity to go to mine. I had some issues with paperwork, so instead of coming in August, I came September 8, which is really late.
Yeah, that is a bit into the fall semester.
Yeah, if I came one day later then I wouldn’t have been able to enroll.
We’re glad you made it! What were some of the big differences when you first arrived? I know that was probably stressful to come later in the semester.
Well, differences can be uncomfortable, I can’t tell. There are a lot of differences with respect to culture, weather, academic, community, etc. For example, one of the first things I was shocked about that I see a lot of different colors here. In Baghdad, in summer especially, there are a lot of sandstorms so almost everything is yellow, so you can’t really see a lot of colors because everything is covered with dust. You know, dust is not like snow, so it won’t disappear unless you wash it. In Columbia, I was like, “Wow, I see all of this green grass, trees, flowers!” You know, everything has color here. With respect to community, I didn’t mix with a lot of foreigners in Iraq, except American soldiers. Because of the bad situation in Iraq, there are not many international people who wish to go there, so entering the international community here was a shock to me. Whenever you watch American films, you almost always see typical Americans, but when you come to the United States you see there is a lot of diversity. Basically, you see the world inside the United States. It’s amazing! For some reason, I thought that I was going to be the only international student here. (laughs)
What were some other differences? I know you mentioned academic, weather, etc. Were there any social differences?
Well, social differences are big. Here people tend to stay out very late because it’s very secure and it’s OK to stay out for a long time. In Iraq, it’s not, because of the bad situation there. And at some point there was a curfew, so people tend to go back home around 5 or 6 p.m. I spent one year, along with all other Iraqis, whenever we would finish our classes, we would immediately go back home and study because we were scared to go back outside in the dark. Also, it was hard to deal with American culture at first.It seemed weird that Americans are always on the go and very busy and sometimes they don’t say “Hi” in passing. People in Iraq start with greetings and say, “Hey, how are you?” Even if they didn’t see each other for one day. That is not as common here. I remember the first time when I went to class and said, “Good Morning!” nobody answered me, and I was like, “…What? What’s wrong with everyone?” (both laugh) Then I learned it’s just a culture difference.
So it’s very fast paced here and time-oriented.
Yeah, school is also different here. Because of the bad situation there I would say that school is like the club for students. In Iraq, students wear their best clothes whenever they go to school because it’s the only place to have fun. Sometimes they don’t go to classes and go to other places because they know they have a limited time to have fun. They can’t really do anything after they go back home. For the academic side, I think it’s influenced by the Russian system. It’s not a GPA system, it’s percentage based. In each academic year, you have a percentage out of 100 and in each class you have to get more than 50 percent in order to pass. For graduate school, it is more than 70 percent to pass. Also, students do not choose their classes. Everything is pre-chosen for them. Say I wanted to go into mechanical engineering. Each year has eight to 10 classes and the academic year starts in September and ends in May or June. Students study like nine classes at the same time. It’s not like here where you have semester classes and each semester you take three or four classes.
So that’s a big difference.
Yeah, besides that I would say that almost everything here depends on the Internet. The Internet is not reliable in Iraq. It’s kind of slow. The download speed here reaches more than 500 kilobytes per second, while in Iraq it is like 14. You can’t really watch videos or Skype. Everything is old school, you know, paper, pencil and books.
So that sets a different tone for school work. I imagine in engineering, though, you use computers a lot.
Yeah, for example, there is a class called engineering drawing, so you make figures and drawings for engineering, mechanical parts and other things. In Iraq, most of this is made on big boards and you use all of these protractors, rulers, etc. Here, no one uses this method. It’s all made in computers using AutoCAD or other programs.
Did you start using that when you got here then?
Well, I had some knowledge in it when I was home, but I would say my knowledge became better when I came here. Whenever I want specific information I can look it up. I wasn’t able to do that in Iraq.
Is classroom culture a lot different here?
The casualness is a big difference. Here it is very acceptable to skip a class, go to the restroom or eat in class. That’s not considered to be OK without permission in Iraq. It’s offensive to eat in class, even chewing gum.
Really? I ate breakfast in class this morning. How are professor and student relationships in Iraq? Is it a different dynamic?
The definition of professor is different in Iraq. Here the professor is kind of like running a business in the university; he or she goes to conferences, tries to get funding, does research and then hires students to work on his or her research. In Iraq, professors are only employees for the university so whenever they want to work, they don’t have their labs. There are university labs and then they get permission to work on specific things and they do everything by themselves. They don’t have students working for them or funding. There are no big research facilities in Iraq. Also, professors here are very busy and not always available. It’s sometimes difficult to find professors and sometimes you have to talk to the teaching assistants. In Iraq, it is not a big problem, professors are always there. There is a big routine in universities in Iraq. Everyone is not independent, they follow rules. When professors go to school in the morning they have to sign in and then sign out when they go home. They can’t have independent schedules. It’s the same thing for students and everyone else at the university. They have to be around.
What have you liked about being a graduate student at MU?
I like the way that I can arrange everything by myself. I can divide my time according to what I want to do. That’s a very important thing. The availability of instruments, devices and research is great. When I talk with friends getting degrees in Iraq, they complain that it is so expensive to buy materials and some things have restrictions on being brought into Iraq. It might not be possible for them to do some of the research that I do here.
What do you like to do for fun in Columbia? Is fun a strange term for graduate students? We don’t really get a lot of free time anymore.
I really like to travel a lot. Also, I like socializing, meeting new friends, volunteering and sometimes I participate in sports. I don’t participate as much because I’m scared of being injured! It’s not fun to get hurt here, it’s very expensive! (laughs)
What sports do you play?
I played volleyball for a little bit. Some soccer and I like swimming. Whenever I have time here, I mostly just work out in the Rec Center. The Rec Center is great. I met some students that transferred here because the Rec Center here is better, which is crazy.
That’s really funny. I don’t know if I would transfer for a Rec Center.
Well if you are a sports major maybe you would.
Yeah, that would make more sense. Do you have any favorite restaurants here?
Well, for fast food I would say Chipotle. (laughs) That’s the closest thing to campus and sometimes during finals, I don’t have enough time to cook so I eat out. I like to try different stuff. Whenever my friends and I go out we try to pick some new places and try something new. I’ve tried Thai, Indian, Chinese, everything here.
Do you have any advice for incoming international students?
I would say just mix with the community. It might be difficult at first to mix with Americans because of cultural differences. First, try making friends with international students and then try to take every opportunity, for example volunteering, participating in events, anything, and you will get used to the culture and make friends step by step. It will take time depending on where you are coming from. If someone comes from Canada, it’s not like someone coming from the Middle East, but still both are international students.
The last thing I’ve been asking in these interviews is to tell me a phrase from your native language and what it means.
In Iraq, we say “Shaku maku?” (sheh-koo mah-koo). It means, “What’s up?” but in Iraq we don’t say it as a method of greeting. They say, “Hi, how are you?” and then “What’s up?” When the American soldiers came to Iraq, they learned “Shaku maku?” and would say it to Iraqis and we would be confused by them saying it like that (laughs) because we don’t use it as a greeting.