Silence is Stronger Than Hate Speech

by Phillip Dube - Posts (4). Posted Wednesday, January 9th, 2013 at 4:52 pm

Phillip vow of silence

I never expected to be a victim of hate speech at a progressive institution like Bates College.  I had heard hate speech before – “Bitch!” “Fag!” “Nigger!” “Cracker!” – but it was always something people shrugged off, convincing ourselves it was okay because we did not want to speak up.  It was a traumatizing experience when, for the first time in my short life, someone used a racial slur directly at me.

It was a Saturday night and my roommates and I were chatting when a young lady walked into our room. I had seen her at one of the many orientation programs for incoming students and we sometimes hung out on her floor. Except for those encounters and the occasional hellos we exchanged around campus, I did not know her. She waved hello to us from the doorway and then closed the door to our room to chat to her friends who were outside.

A few seconds later, I laughed at something one of my roommates had said and I guess she thought I was laughing at her because she walked back into the room, looked at me, and asked, “Why are you laughing, nigger?”

It took my mind a few seconds to process what had happened. Then it registered. She had used a racial slur and it was directed to me. Realizing the gravity of the matter, her girlfriends forcefully pulled her out of our room. I was left upset and confused.

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Hook Up Culture in the US: Encountering it and Navigating It

by Yu - Posts (3). Posted Tuesday, January 8th, 2013 at 6:30 am

There’s something that tends to happen every Saturday morning in my house.

In our respective rooms, we wake up early, usually to the sound of one another’s stirrings. Someone goes to the bathroom, brushes his or her teeth, starts to get ready. Eventually, when we’re all awake and have our doors open, one of us will emerge, hair tousled, eyes lidded with sleep, and say, “So, how was your night?”

Although my housemates and I usually begin our evenings at the same party, we often drift off our own ways, either to other parties, back to our rooms, or to other people’s rooms. Asking what happened last night is the process of filling in the gaps, and our answers vary: sometimes we’ll talk about who we hung out with or ran into, and sometimes we’ll talk about who we hooked up with.

[International student opinions on partying at U.S. colleges]

It’s funny to think that hooking up – something that now seems so ordinary and so ingrained in my university’s party culture – used to be wholly unfamiliar to me. Prior to coming to the U.S., I had never heard or known of the concept.

A completely different culture

I grew up in a culture where sex definitely happened, but was never discussed. You didn’t talk about sex or physical desires, and you never saw any hints of it on TV or the media.

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New in the Glossary of Confusing Words: Seminary

by Jessica Stahl - Posts (449). Posted Monday, January 7th, 2013 at 3:48 pm

dictionary and thesaurusIt’s been a while since we had a new entry in the Glossary of Confusing Words, but we’re finally back on the case with a great suggestion from Muhammad: seminary.

Muhammad asked:

Under which category a seminary can be placed: college, university, institute, etc?

First of all, you may remember from our previous discussions of the words “college” and “university” that there is no official difference between these terms.  Dartmouth College, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Princeton University all offer undergraduate and graduate degrees. However, you’ll often see “college” used to describe undergraduate programs, while “university” is used to describe schools that offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees, or only graduate degrees.

A seminary is an institution of higher education focused on theology (the study and practice of religion).  Most seminaries are graduate-level schools offering master’s degrees, particularly the Master of Divinity.  Seminaries also usually offer academic M.A. degrees in fields related to religion.

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The U.S. in Words #5: Like Apples and Oranges (Learning to Greet Americans)

by Paula - Posts (11). Posted Saturday, January 5th, 2013 at 9:00 am

The fifth in a series looking at U.S. life and culture through its idioms.  View previous entries.

Like apples and oranges = completely different from each other, not comparable

How to say hello? Maybe with a sign!

One thing I was confident about before I arrived in the U.S. was that I knew how to greet people there.I come from a Latin American country where we keep a very close physical distance, we touch and hug continuously, and kiss hello, even with a person we’ve just met. I was prepared to curb that practice in the U.S. and was sure I’d greet Americans with a wave and a light-hearted, “Hi.”

But oh, did I find unexpected scenarios!

Since I arrived, I’ve been able to pick up on a lot of the common greeting patterns, like shaking hands with people I’m being introduced to and answering “I’m good” instead of the long-practiced “fine, thanks.”

But it turns out there are lots of greeting patterns, and deciding which one to use can be curious and confusing. Some people you’ve met a couple of times, or even your friends, will go for the smile and “Hi,” but others will give you the typical “American hug” and some even kiss!

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Top Posts of 2012 #1: Taking Responsibility is the Key to Academic Success

by Jessica Stahl - Posts (449). Posted Sunday, December 30th, 2012 at 7:05 pm

In the few days before 2012 ends and 2013 begins, we’ll be looking back at some of our top posts from the past year, starting with number five and counting down to number one. If you missed these articles the first time around, now’s your time to see why we’ve found these particular pieces so compelling.

The Best Advice I Ever Got For Writing in English: “Treat the Professors Like Idiots”
By Sunny Peng

Our top post for 2012 was also one of best revelations we’ve ever had on the blog. It was Sunny’s recounting of a piece of advice she got during her freshman year: “… to treat the professors like idiots …”

Read it: “The Best Advice I Ever Got For Writing in English: ‘Treat the Professors Like Idiots’

Lots of reading!

Creative Commons Photo: Stephanie Graves

“In my first semester,” Sunny explained, “I would always receive comments on my papers like, ‘Try to be more clear (explicit),’ no matter how clear and explicit I thought my papers were.”

A savvy teaching assistant eventually helped her figure out the problem:

My high school Chinese teacher always reminded us to not tell readers everything, but rather to leave space for their “reconstruction” of our words. This does not work in the U.S., where you are expected to be very explicit in making your arguments and not make assumptions without fully explaining them.

Or, as her TA put it, in what Sunny described as a “very blunt and funny way,” she needed “to treat the professors like idiots, and explain everything very clearly to them in my essays.”

This idea generated a lot of discussion among our readers. Some commenters suggested that Americans may be trying to avoid critical thinking, but Sunny countered that “critical thinking is one of the most important things I have been learning from Americans.”

Commenter Dana eventually explained, “It is precisely because they *do* apply critical thinking skills to what they read that most Americans tend to prefer that writing be more direct.”

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Top Posts of 2012 #2: Keeping Standardized Tests in Perspective

by Jessica Stahl - Posts (449). Posted Sunday, December 30th, 2012 at 11:08 am

In the few days before 2012 ends and 2013 begins, we’ll be looking back at some of our top posts from the past year, starting with number five and counting down to number one. If you missed these articles the first time around, now’s your time to see why we’ve found these particular pieces so compelling.

Why a Weak SAT Score Didn’t Kill My College Dreams
by Phillip Dube

It’s not that standardized test scores, like the SAT or GRE, aren’t important, it’s just that they don’t have to make or break your college dreams. That’s what Phillip concluded in his post about what happened when his SAT scores didn’t meet his expectations.

Read it: “Why a Weak SAT Score Didn’t Kill My College Dreams

“I thought it was unfair for my college preparedness to be judged on the four hours of mental torture that is the SAT, and on a test result that belied my actual abilities,” he wrote.

My high school transcript was stellar, my essays were well-written (so said my EducationUSA advisor), and I had dedicated a lot of effort and energy to making my community a better place.

I don’t know for sure that my SAT score is what hurt my Amherst application, but I felt that surely all those achievements were worth something. Did they not reflect my potential to succeed at an American college better than the SAT exam?

Phillip eventually applied and was admitted to a test-optional school that didn’t require him to submit an SAT or ACT score at all.  ”Without the option of leaving that score off my application …, I’m not sure I would have had the opportunity to study here,” he said.

It’s good news for anyone whose test day didn’t go exactly as they had planned. Anyone like Shree, who chronicled his disappointing SAT experience in one of our most unique posts of 2012.

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Top Posts of 2012 #3: The Cultural Nuances of Language

by Jessica Stahl - Posts (449). Posted Saturday, December 29th, 2012 at 4:28 pm

In the few days before 2012 ends and 2013 begins, we’ll be looking back at some of our top posts from the past year, starting with number five and counting down to number one. If you missed these articles the first time around, now’s your time to see why we’ve found these particular pieces so compelling.

The ‘Wrong’ Way to Answer ‘How Are You?’
by Zita MF 

Do you know how to answer when an American asks, “How are you?” Zita discussed the slightly confusing protocol in another post that garnered quite a bit of attention in 2012.

English spoken here

Photo by Nick Hoang

It’s not a real question, she explained. “I’m expected to respond, ‘Good’ or ‘Fine,’ and ask the other person how they are, to which they will also respond, ‘Good.’”

Read it: “The Wrong Way to Answer ‘How Are You?’

“To this day, this style of greeting strikes me as an abuse of a question with which people show care and concern to one another in my culture,” Zita wrote, but it says something important about American culture:

In general, people from the U.S. do not like to express their emotions to strangers or acquaintances. They prefer to put on a permanent smile and mask their other feelings. The U.S. culture is based on individualism – the idea that one should only rely on one’s self and family – and this often leads them to avoid getting too close to others, including by using meaningful expressions in ways that might seem superficial to foreigners.

Zita decided, “[O]ne of the challenges and the beauties of living abroad is embracing the peculiarities of the host country. To me this means learning how to speak not only the language but also the culture.”

Learning to speak both the language and the culture takes practice, and a willingness to make mistakes, a fact Anil was kind enough to share in one of our most brutally honest and funny posts of the year.

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Top Posts of 2012 #4: The Surprising Links Between Food and Identity

by Jessica Stahl - Posts (449). Posted Saturday, December 29th, 2012 at 11:24 am

In the few days before 2012 ends and 2013 begins, we’ll be looking back at some of our top posts from the past year, starting with number five and counting down to number one. If you missed these articles the first time around, now’s your time to see why we’ve found these particular pieces so compelling.

Why do International Students Crave Food From Home?
Contributions from Mohammed al-Suraih, Sebastian Sanchez, Javaria Khan

A common complaint among international students is how much they miss their native cuisine, so it’s no surprise that one of our most popular posts of 2012 was one examining just what it is about food that makes it so important to international students.

Hamburgers v. Vietnamese food, by Nick

We learned that food interacts with your brain in some unique ways. Not only do you start forming your food preferences before you’re even born, so that by the time you study abroad some of your tastes for native food are pretty deeply engrained, but food is also deeply tied to memory, so nostalgia and food cravings become intertwined.

Read it: “3 Things You Don’t Know About Food and Why International Students Crave Cuisine From Home

But one of the most interesting things we learned about food is that what you eat is part of who you are; food and identity are linked together.

In fact, one reason why international students miss native food so much is because they’re also missing the stable sense of identity they had back home.  Studying abroad redefines your sense of who you are, what you want, and what you believe, and it can be a difficult process.

We saw just how difficult in Senzeni’s examination of how her self image changed during a year in the States, one of our most moving posts of 2012. ”The certainty I once had about what I wanted to see and achieve is gone, the answers replaced by more and more questions about myself and my path,” she wrote.

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Top Posts of 2012 #5: Navigating and Defeating Negative Stereotypes

by Jessica Stahl - Posts (449). Posted Saturday, December 29th, 2012 at 12:36 am

In the few days before 2012 ends and 2013 begins, we’ll be looking back at some of our top posts from the past year, starting with number five and counting down to number one.  If you missed these articles the first time around, now’s your time to see why we’ve found these particular pieces so compelling.

On Being an African in the US: Navigating an Endless Web of Stereotypes
by Simba Runyowa

One of our most read, and most thought-provoking, pieces from 2012 was Simba’s moving look at how Africans are perceived in the U.S., and his plea for a more balanced perspective.

Harare (Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Martin Addison)

Harare, Zimbabwe. Would an American know that this is Africa? (Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Martin Addison)

“Do you live in a ‘real’ house back in Zimbabwe?” Simba said he’s been asked. “Do people have cars in Africa?” “How come you speak such good English?”

Read it: “On Being an African in the US: Navigating an Endless Web of Stereotypes

But, he added:

While these comments all made me cringe inwardly in disbelief, none of them topped a remark I received while eating in the college dining hall early this semester, when somebody (Let’s call him Boy Z) remarked, ‘It must hurt you to see people throwing away food when so many people in Africa are starving.’

“It’s high time the world moves beyond these parochial, dated frames and seriously reorients the way it engages with African people,” Simba concluded, adding that while Africa certainly has its problems, so does America.

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My First Christmas in America: Why Did My Host Ask for a Gift at His Own Christmas Party?

by Sunny Peng - Posts (5). Posted Thursday, December 27th, 2012 at 1:13 pm

“I just got an invitation from one of my anthropology professors for a Christmas Eve dinner at his house. Would you like to go with me?” I asked my Chinese roommate while she was struggling with some high-level econometric problems. She immediately lifted her head up, “Nice! I’d love to!”

Wrapped gifts

Why did my host ask us to bring him gifts? Read on to find out!

“Wait a second. This is funny,” said I, as she was about to go back to numbers and equations, “The professor asked me to bring a dish and a gift to the dinner. I can understand about bringing a dish. But how could someone invite you to his house while asking you explicitly to bring a gift?”

I found out eventually what the gift was for, but first I spent a lot of time getting excited about this Christmas Eve dinner, even when I was studying for my finals. I had traveled home to China during last winter break, so this year’s Christmas would be another of my “first times” in the U.S. Besides, as an anthropology major interested in America, being able to celebrate Christmas in the U.S. with Americans fascinated me.

My roommate and I got up very early on December 24th, Christmas Eve, to start worrying about the food we would bring to the dinner. We had no idea how to cook American food, and almost everything in our fridge was from an Asian market in town. “You know what? We can just make Chinese food. It would not look that weird. He is an anthropology professor, so he would probably be very interested in what we cook.” I said to my roommate.

My professor knocked on our door to pick us up at 5:50 pm. We said “Merry Christmas” to each other as my roommate and I came to his car, carrying a high-pressured cooker with Chinese pork rib soup inside. Of course we had our wrapped gifts in tow as well. “I am curious how Americans will react to a Chinese soup at a Christmas Eve dinner, and how they are going to eat the ribs in the soup,” my roommate whispered to me in the car.

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The Beautiful Traditions: My Christmas and Thanksgiving in America

by Sarah Bosha - Posts (4). Posted Thursday, December 27th, 2012 at 10:13 am

My family on Christmas

My family on Christmas

My American Thanksgiving was a truly wonderful experience and gave me a glimpse into what the holiday means for Americans and those living in America. I was privileged to have two Thanksgiving feasts with all the traditional foods, turkey, apple pie, green bean casserole, and the works! The first was at my church the week of Thanksgiving where the whole church sat down for a meal cooked by the ladies’ group. The second was a more intimate affair with my pastor and his family in their home.

What I loved about the Thanksgiving holiday:

• Turkey and apple pie are wonderful foods; either I ate food made by really good cooks or I just love food, but I am thinking it’s the cooks. The overindulgence of Thanksgiving is quite enjoyable and the truth is you can’t help but be overstuffed after digging into a lavish Thanksgiving feast!

• The significance of sharing with those without, including people far from homes or their families, is the best part of the holiday. Communities, churches and individuals don’t just make a huge meal and eat on their own, in a way they seek out those with whom they may share with so that the true meaning of the holiday is celebrated. I remember seeing multiple signs at churches for free thanksgiving dinners to all.

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Where to Travel for Christmas: Washington, DC

by Javaria Khan - Posts (6). Posted Wednesday, December 26th, 2012 at 10:52 am

One year ago: December 2011. A girl’s bags are packed and she is literally “ready to go,” just like John Denver was. She is leaving her home, her family to go miles away, halfway across the world, to the land of dreams, the U.S.A. Yes, she is scared. Yes, she is nervous. However, there is this small part of her which is jumping with excitement. And the reason for its excitement is not a normal one: after 19 years of Christmas in Pakistan, she is excited to finally witness the holiday in her dream land. Today, I, that girl, have come full circle, back to Washington, D.C. for that same holiday.

When my plane landed at the Washington Dulles airport on December 27 last year, I won’t lie, I felt a bit lost. It was a new country, with new people and it was just so cold. But as I rode away from the airport, every house that was decorated with Christmas lights and reindeers and Santas would just make me so happy.

Decorations on a house in Queens, NY (Photo: Reuters)

Decorations on a house in Queens, NY (Photo: Reuters)

A house all decorated for Christmas (Photo: AP)

A house in Alabama all decorated for Christmas (Photo: AP)

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Getting Into the American Obsession with Running

by Sunny Peng - Posts (5). Posted Friday, December 21st, 2012 at 12:00 am

Running at night (Photo: Reuters)

One of the first things I noticed when I got to school in Virginia was how many people ran outside.  They seemed to be everywhere, at all times of day or night – people jogging through the main quad, students walking around in exercise gear, traffic jams as runners tried to navigate through slower-moving students on their way to class.

I was not a sporty person before I came here.  My high school life was pretty hectic, and when I had time away from schoolwork I was too tired to work out.  Even when I went to college in China and had a bit more spare time, working out was not part of my regular routine.

Coming to university here totally challenged my belief that working out is something you only do when you have lots of free time.  I hear my friends say, “I have so much work to do,” and then a minute later, “I’m going for a run.”

One of my housemates is incredibly busy during the day, so she started getting up very early to make time for running.  She is not obligated or forced to, but she wants to.

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The Surprising Thing I Learned about the GRE

by Guest Post - Posts (71). Posted Wednesday, December 19th, 2012 at 9:42 pm

This guest post comes from Yun Ye, who is not only interning at VOA this semester, but also applying to graduate school. She recently attended an information session for her top choice school, and came back with a new perspective on the role of the GRE in admissions.

More and more Chinese students are attending graduate school in the U.S. – 88,429 at last count, an increase of 15% from the previous year – and how to get into the dream school is something weighing on the minds of many Chinese students.

Among my friends in China who, like me, wanted to pursue higher education in the U.S., the conversation was often about what schools we were planning to apply to and how we planned to get in – and when we thought about how we planned to get in, we often thought about our test scores.

In Chinese education, grades are the most important thing to a student. When I was at school, I remember striving for an excellent grade had been almost everyone’s goal. With that mentality, when my friends and former classmates started applying to U.S. grad schools, they put a lot of pressure on themselves to get a high score on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). The GRE is a standardized test required for admission at most graduate schools.

People who got a good score on the GRE would share their study experiences on online forums, which others would read in the hopes of emulating their performance.  Chinese students preparing to study abroad get very familiar with forums such as “,” “Taisha” or “Jituo.”

I also know people who spent a lot of money on classes to prepare for the GRE test, and people who dedicated a couple of months to studying; some people even took half a year to study.

I’m sure all that studying will eventually pay off in their scores, but I learned something valuable when I visited graduate schools recently in preparation for my own applications: the GRE score isn’t as important as my Chinese classmates made it out to be.

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Anil Explains Why You Should Never Be Embarrassed to Speak a Foreign Language

by Guest Post - Posts (71). Posted Tuesday, December 18th, 2012 at 10:03 pm

Recently Sunny shared her story of arriving in the U.S. for the first time, and suddenly feeling she had forgotten all the English she ever learned – asking for the phone seemed an impossible task.  Anil wrote in to share a similar experience.  When he arrived at J.F.K. airport this fall, coming from Turkey to attend a graduate program, he was overwhelmed.

For a while Anil says he avoided communicating with people and joining in with activities because of how he struggled with his English, but then something happened that got him over his fears:

I can clearly remember that day. I felt like I had to do something, as usual, and I jumped from my couch.  I gave myself a simple purpose for hitting the road: buying some raisins for my oatmeal (if you are an oatmeal fan, you already know that oatmeal and dried fruit are perfect matches. If you are not, I suggest you give it a shot. After that experiment you will understand me more clearly).

After I started my journey to the shop, I was just happy to be outside.  I said “good afternoon” to some folks and I received some smiles.  I was thinking that a day could not be more awesome.  I entered the store and I started searching for raisins in an aisle of dried fruit. But they weren’t there. I was so disappointed, but because my task was finding raisins for my next day’s oatmeal, I decided to ask a staff person.

I found a staff member and walked up to her.  “Hi, how are you? I have a problem.” After a second she asked me, “Yes sir, how may I help you?”

I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t remember the word: raisin.  I felt my face was burning, but I also knew I had to cope with the problem.  Suddenly, I found an exit door for my situation.  I decided to try and describe raisins.

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The Student Union is…

A place to hear stories about studying in the U.S. Our bloggers have come from all over the world to U.S. universities, and they'll be sharing their experiences, advice and more.

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Glossary of Confusing Words

Find definitions of confusing words and terms about studying in the U.S. in our Glossary of Confusing Words.

All the words were submitted by YOU, so visit the glossary to see the words that have been defined already and to suggest your own.