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: Public affairs
Home country: Rwanda
What’s your experience been like with the international community here in Columbia?
When I came I didn’t know what to expect. I knew it was going to be difficult to adjust to life here, knowing that everything is different. Coming from school in Rwanda to the school in the U.S., that’s a difficult thing. It was difficult starting school here and knowing what to do in classes. We had people here who were coming to us and made it easier. The first time I got here we spent two days coming here and then we met some international student advisers during the orientation and we invited them for dinner at our house. One thing we had mentioned was that it was difficult for us to cook. We had never done that because boys don’t cook in our country. Everyone was feeling sad that we couldn’t cook, so two advisers volunteered to come and teach us the basic cooking skills and what students do to cook. They showed us easier things for breakfast and lunch for students. We were very happy for that. We made two friends from the International Center and they would come help us cook. It was a very good, welcoming sign. We realized that it was going to be an interesting thing to explore because this is a very big school so it is not always easy to interact with people. There were not many students from Africa when we came. More are coming now, but I didn’t see them when I came. The only way we could know about different things in the U.S. was by connecting with people here. The International Center was helpful in the beginning of our life here. We couldn’t figure out how to go to church here because we didn’t have a car and we didn’t know any churches close to us. We didn’t even know that we could search online and see. We had an adviser who took us to church every Sunday. We were so surprised! It was amazing that she was able to take us every Sunday.
Were Mizzou and Columbia what you expected?
I would say yes and no. We had heard about Mizzou and Columbia because we had people who connected us to the school from here. When you are in my country and you think of the U.S., you think of everything in terms of being big, but when we came it was good for us to find that Columbia wasn’t a big city that was going to blow our minds. We can find ourselves and know where we are. It wasn’t that kind of city. That was helpful that even though you come to this big school of more than 30,000 students, it is not that difficult to get around. You can go to class, go downtown and go to the store pretty easily.
So you heard about Mizzou before coming here. Was that a part of your decision making process for coming to Mizzou?
I would say that my decision was mostly because of the friends that I had here. If you had a friend in another country, you think of that country through this friend so where they are, that is where you want to go. That’s going to make life easier and it was! These people helped us in so many things, like we didn’t know how to get an apartment here so they helped us. The very first day we moved in we had almost everything we needed. I imagined going to another place where I didn’t know anyone and I had to go through all these things. I was used to my country where everything is close and we don’t drive that much; we take buses. It must be difficult to come and have to buy stuff that is so spread out in different stores.
What helped you with that adjustment?
It was mostly asking people and trying to interact with people a lot. In Rwanda, everything we thought about America was that no one cares about anyone else and you have to be just you, independent from everyone. When we came it was different. We realized if you asked questions people were more than happy to help you and, if you asked anybody, almost anyone would help you. We thought that when you asked someone they would not answer or help. We were happily surprised by that by asking, people would help you.
Were there any other things about American culture that were surprising?
It is difficult to talk about culture because it is such a wide topic to discuss. We used to post pictures to Facebook of things we see that are different. When we came here, in my culture we tend to respect older people and refer to them as old and they like to be called old. My mom would be happy for everyone to call her old lady. There is a word in my language that means old lady, umukekuru (pronounced oo-moo-che-chu-roo), and almost all of my neighbors call my mom, “Mom.” It is not culturally acceptable to call her by her name so you call her mom or auntie, but all that is because they want to be referred to as old. That comes with benefits because we respect them. If you are on a bus and there are no more seats, a younger person would stand up for an older person to sit. When we came here, everyone refers to each other by their names and people hate being referred to as old. Very, very much. No one wants to hear that! And we were so shocked! Sometimes I call my mother and joke that she should go out for a jog and we laugh. People would think she was mad for running, but I go to the gym and there is a 60-year-old woman who is doing the same kind of stuff I am doing in the gym. That is a big difference. If you go to Rwanda, you probably won’t see that unless you spend a lot of time trying to understand the culture.
Also, calling people by their names, like professors, it doesn’t happen in Rwanda. You call them professor, not by their names. Something else that was not easy to adjust to was that professors were willing to talk to you. This doesn’t happen in my culture. Professors are higher and you are lower. You don’t interact outside of class. That was a good thing here. Also, in classrooms people tend to talk a lot, even those who don’t have a good idea (laughs). People here just talk and professors encourage talking in classrooms. There is even a grade for participation. In my culture, we don’t tend to talk that much. I participated in an African forum and I was the only Rwandan represented. I thought not talking was an African thing, but it must just be a Rwandan thing. They think we are reserved and we don’t tend to talk that much. We just want to speak when we are given a time to, in conferences or what. We train our kids not to talk that much and you have to listen. You won’t see our kids trying to talk much, but here you have to talk all of the time. Even in classrooms, you hear someone talking at the back and people don’t care. It is just small things like that that are difficult to adjust to. You don’t talk and it is perceived as that you aren’t participating in class, but it is more than that. You can’t just start from the first day and do what others do. Something cultural takes time to change.
Is socializing different here in the U.S.?
Yes, I would say it is totally different. In Rwanda, there are no specific socialization events. Every moment is a social event. That’s who we are. That is difficult to change when you come here. Social life is measured here. If you are a student and the school has social events planned at the end of the month for just 30 minutes that is not enough time for students to talk about things outside of class activities. It might be difficult, especially for Africans. When the Africans meet on campus, we start talking and talking and talking… And we can’t finish. We spend hours and hours talking, even now that we are used to the speed of life here. We still talk like Africans. It’s not the same. Our societies are more community oriented; life is one long social event. Here it is more individually oriented, where you structure your time. We don’t have many organized events because our lives are continuously social. Here you have to measure your social life and adjust it to the speed of the environment.
It is very time oriented here! Very scheduled. (both laugh)
You guys get paid by the hour here. To me that explains why people value their time a lot. We pay per month and we don’t have those measures of hours, even for the lowest paid people. People are paid per month so it doesn’t put a value on the period of time they spend. We put the value on the whole month. We tend to say we have time. Africans have time. Americans don’t. That’s probably why you don’t want to get old.(both laugh)
That’s probably true! I like the idea of being paid by month as opposed to hours. That’s a great system. Well, what do you like to do for fun here in Columbia? Places you like to hang out, restaurants, etc.?
There are always opportunities to go to events here. You just have to get time for that! If you are going to graduate school, there is not a very good chance you will have enough time for many fun activities. I like Chipotle a lot. My classmates make fun of me a lot. Every day when we meet they say, “Have you been to Chipotle today?” They think I eat there all the time! Part of it is that they serve rice and we eat rice a lot in my country. It was a big part of my meals. I like rice a lot so I started eating there, even though you just grab a burrito and go. There are so many places you can go to! The Blue Fugue downtown teaches you to dance the salsa. Some people are really good who go there and they are so good that you feel bad when you are stepping on someone’s toes there! (laughs) But it’s a lot of fun.
If you could have known one thing before moving here, what would it be?
I think knowing more about the academic environment would have been helpful. It would have been good to know what professors expect you to do. It is such a shock when you come for just two years and you have to spend six months just trying to understand the environment. It takes time to get adjusted. Life outside of the classroom was what I expected, but class, the main thing that you are here, for you need to know that it is going to be different.
Tell me a phrase in your native language and what it means.
It means, “How’s it going?” This is how we greet one another in Rwanda.