Many of us take for granted the fact that we were able to attend school close to home, or at least, in the same country as our loved ones. A few graduate students at the Kennedy Center are not so lucky, but they consider themselves blessed in other ways. We spoke with three of our international students to learn about their motivations for coming to the center, their experience so far, and to see if they feel that leaving their parents, spouses, and in one case, children, was worth it.
Gondomono, who is from Indonesia, likes that Provo is a fairly small city because it has “much less traffic and pollution than Jakarta.” Gondomono was enticed here by Don Holsinger, director of the Kennedy Center, who offered him a scholarship when he visited the University of Indonesia, where Gondomono was studying. He related, “When offered the chance to study in the U.S., I grabbed it without thinking. I had heard a little about BYU—I knew it was large—but I had no idea what it was all about at first. I knew who Brigham Young was, but that’s about it. I had to look it up in the Fulbright Center catalogues.” With his tuition scholarship, and a research assistantship lined up with a Japanese company, Gondomono set out for Provo last fall with high expectations.
Scholastically, these expectations have been well met. “BYU has great facilities. I am amazed at the library—it is much more advanced than Indonesia’s or other developing countries’.” Gondomono has met other difficulties, however. First, he suffered setbacks regarding funding for his research job. Unfortunately, he was not made aware of these problems until he flew to Japan—three weeks into the school year. Gondomono is still working for the Japanese company, but they cannot pay him as much as he needs to remain at BYU. When Professor Phil Bryson, associate director of the center, learned of Gondomono’s troubles, he set up a research assistantship for him here, which has allowed Gondomono to stay. Because of efforts such as this, Gondomono stated, “Even without good planning, I’ve thought about it, and I still think it will be a good experience.”
The other item that he neglected to realize fully was just how much he would miss his family. He has been married for five years, but was forced to leave his wife in Jakarta, due to the grueling process involved in bringing international dependents into the United States. “It is hard for her, but she is aware of the good future that is in store for us when I graduate from an American school,” Gondomono said, “In the meantime, I am just trying to finish as soon as possible.”
He and his wife e-mail every day and talk to each other weekly, to make up for the distance. “I am very homesick,” he expressed, “I miss my wife, and my parents are elderly. Plus, the country is going through a crisis. I am looking forward to going back to help my country.”
Although he is not a Latter-day Saint (he is Catholic), Gondomono affirmed, “I have a good relationship with my classmates. I have found the people here are very religious, but they are also generally open-minded and knowledgeable about other cultures—probably due to the missionaries’ world experience.” He has been impressed by this and noted, “I have learned that there really isn’t one ‘American’ culture. BYU students are so unlike the Americans I have perceived. I was surprised to learn of their focus on the family—it is quite admirable. We feel the same way in Indonesia, but never have I seen so many small children on a university campus!”
He also quipped that “the number of children per family is surprising—very much like Catholic Indonesian families.” Gondomono has met several other BYU Catholic students since he has been here and has had the opportunity to worship with them.
Next to family focus, Utah weather is the second major change Gondomono encountered.
“At home, it is very humid—you are always sweating. Here it is too dry,” he indicated, but he also feels that the “view of the beautiful mountains” mostly makes up for this. He has never experienced snow before, and was surprised when he saw his breath one morning and snow on the mountains. He also mentioned that “shopping is strange here. Lettuce is cheaper, so I eat salads all the time. You have to cook all your vegetables in Indonesia, but you can get them fresh here. It’s a great thing that raw vegetables here are healthy.”
As for his future plans, Gondomono definitely plans to return home to Indonesia upon graduation. He hopes to teach at his alma mater, but would also like to work in an environmental NGO, especially in the war against forest fire pollution. “Because I am one of the few who can study abroad, I have to help the bigger community. You avoid ‘brain drain’ in your country by improving conditions with your knowledge. If there is no facility, you have to create it. Your study in an advanced country is only half of the story—the other half is how you implement it to help your own people. Even though it’s only a small contribution, at least it is one.” He was quick to say that he knows his time at the center will be worth the struggles he has gone through to stay here, remarking, “I think this is a great experience. I will not regret it.”
Negash came from Ethiopia to study at the Kennedy Center. She is a convert to the Church and also learned about the center’s graduate program from Holsinger. She was willing to leave her husband and family behind to journey to BYU for this year-and-a-half in order to take advantage of the high standard of education, and, like Gondomono, use it to help her country when she returns. Negash would like to work in an NGO in Ethiopia, but she also hopes to help her country spiritually—an area where she is no stranger. According to Negash, “The reason the Church is not growing in my country is because 80 percent of the members cannot understand English.” In Ethiopia, the missionaries teach, and the Book of Mormon is available only in English. Negash herself was not very fluent when she followed the footsteps of her brother and took the missionary discussions in 1995. As she attested, “I didn’t speak much English, but I learned it in school. I read the Book of Mormon and then asked the missionaries to help with the interpretation.”
Not long after her conversion, Negash was approached by the Church’s Translation Department to translate the Book of Mormon into her native Amharic. At first, she refused. Her job required her to travel extensively, and transporting her translation materials would have been difficult. When asked to fit it into her spare time, she relented. Three-and-a-half years later, the translation is complete and has been sent to Africa.
Negash was excited, but didn’t have time to dwell on her anticipation very much. Since beginning graduate school August 2000, she has found it somewhat difficult to adjust to the rigors of the BYU experience. In Ethiopia, there are not enough textbooks available (usually only three or four are supplied in the library for a class of about seventy students), so she is not used to daily the homework grind—she and her classmates were tested solely on their lecture notes. She is also unused to the access to technology that she has been privy to at BYU. “Here, you are blessed with computers. I am very thankful for that,” she affirmed.
“At home, you become successful by yourself. And your mind is narrow because you only have one teacher’s outlook—you don’t get other people’s opinions.” With the perks of broader knowledge at BYU come the hardships as well, however. “The school system here is very different from what I am used to. There is a lot of reading, and it is difficult for me because I need more time than the rest—time to read and time to comprehend.” Negash said that it is all she can do just to keep up, “I come to class, I go home, I read, I sleep, and then it’s time to wake up and start over again.”
When asked what she does for a social life, she responded, “I get the perception that nobody is interested in socializing here because they are too busy doing homework all the time. This is very different from at home, where everyone is very friendly and sociable.” Negash also noted that, because her husband is not here, she is not very interested in extracurricular activities. It is hard not to be homesick in such a situation, but Negash simply stays focused and keeps in contact with home when she can. “I know that this is a great opportunity, and though it is hard, I have to thank my God very much.”
Reijonen is from Finland, and his story is somewhat different from his classmates’. Since his conversion to the Church when he was just nine years old, he has known about BYU. In fact, Reijonen received his BA in history from BYU–Hawaii. He chose to come to the Kennedy Center, after working at home for a year, because he wanted to work in international relations and heard that BYU had a good program.
That, and because “my wife kicked me here to get my master’s,” Reijonen quipped.
Like the other two students, Reijonen has had to leave his spouse behind, but, he said, “she wanted me to come over here. She knows how good this will be for us in the end.” Reijonen met his wife at BYU–Hawaii. She is from South Korea, and doesn’t speak much Finnish, so he feels bad that he had to leave her behind. He is also sorry that he had to leave his two baby boys (twenty-two and eight months). He e-mails his family everyday, however, and returned home for Christmas, for which he is grateful.
Reijonen’s experience also differs from Negash’s and Gondomono’s in several other respects. His previous stint in Hawaii removed the need to obtain a new visa to come to Provo. Also, he was accustomed to North American culture because of the continual exposure to missionaries at home, his own mission to Eastern Canada, and his previous college experience.
In spite of those experiences, he has found that Provo has its own quirks, and he has been disappointed in his perception of many BYU students. “There are only 5,000–6000 members in all of Finland. I was the only member in my high school, and the next member lived on the other side of town. I think that there are too many members here. A balance of members and non-members helps keep you from narrow-mindedness. Many people here need to realize that there are other ways of doing things that are not necessarily bad.”
He added, “The education is good though; I like it.” Classes are much larger than he is used to, but he likes his Kennedy Center teachers. Dr. Valerie Hudson is his mentor. “She is more formal. She makes you sweat, but it makes you learn a lot. (I think that maybe ‘no pain, no gain’ is her unofficial motto.) Her class has opened up a totally new way of thinking for me. I wish I had known part of what I know now during my undergraduate experience.”
Overall, Reijonen feels that he has been treated well as an international student. “You are not treated differently—except language problems. And that doesn’t bother me. I don’t mind people correcting my English, because that is the only way to learn.” He is disappointed with the help he has received with his writing. “I have found it difficult to find help specifically with grammar. It is frustrating to know that there are still many mistakes in my paper that I won’t be able to find.”
Besides being away from his family, Reijonen has also found that “there are too many distractions when I need to get my homework done—recreational books in the library and cable are the worst. It is difficult to remain focused.” He also misses his wife’s cooking, but he still gets to be part of the Korean culture—he is part of the Korean club on campus. After all, he said, “I’m half-Korean now!”
Other social opportunities are few and far between, mostly because of the homework load, but also because, similar to Negash, “I don’t want to go anywhere to hangout—my wife is not here so what would be the point?”
Reijonen doesn’t have specific career plans as of yet. “That depends on my wife. I am very flexible—I could work with the European Union, UN, Finnish Government, or any other international organization. It really depends on her.” Reijonen feels secure that he will be able to find something worthwhile once he obtains his degree from the center. Despite his longing for his family, he declared, “I am glad that I came—it has definitely been worth it so far.”