‘I wouldn’t change anything’: International students’ struggles, endeavors in transition to USF

Sophomore international studies major Ariana Perez said she keeps close contact with her family in Ecuador by frequently texting and calling them to provide updates on her life. INSTAGRAM/@arianaperez_p

Coming to USF was an exciting opportunity for senior marketing major Nicole Bejaran, but the initial feelings of isolation from her family and friends back in Panama made the transition tougher than expected.

“For the first goodbye. I was still in the honeymoon phase. I was like, ‘Oh, a year. Everybody does that.’ Then the second year, I was like, ‘Well, I’m gonna see them again during the summer,’” she said.

“Now [saying goodbye this semester] did feel a little bit more distant, because my parents were already used to me leaving, but I didn’t realize I wasn’t gonna see them for a long time. I cried for the first time. So the goodbyes are not too good. You feel sad for like the two days or one day before leaving because you’d be like, ‘Oh, back to the same thing again.’”

Leaving Panama, as well as her birth country of the Dominican Republic at the age of 8, meant more than just departing the comfort of family and friends. For Bejaran, it meant temporarily missing memories that shaped her childhood.

She recalled memories like smelling her mother cooking in the kitchen as she watched the mashed plantains, salami and fried cheese come together to form Mangú, her favorite Dominican dish. She also remembered the frequent sleepovers with all 20 of her cousins packed tightly into one room, laughing and playing clapping games when the power would go out.

Although she may have physically left the place she called home, Bejaran said its memories like these that keep her company despite being so far away.

To combat the sense of loneliness that comes with moving thousands of miles from loved ones in Ecuador, sophomore international studies major Ariana Perez said it was her involvement in clubs and organizations that allowed her to become acquainted with others around her.

While her first semester gave her the opportunity to improve her English and learn more about the culture of the U.S., it wasn’t until her second semester when she joined Latin organizations such as the Latin American Student Association that Perez truly felt at home.

“I made friends from places like Colombia and Peru, so I actually felt more at home which made me feel better in some way,” she said.

“At first, even though I was happy I was [questioning if] I made the right decision. Now, if I were to go back in time, I wouldn’t change anything. I like my major. I like my classes. I like my group of friends and I like Tampa. I’m happy being here.”

As an international student, Bejaran is required to work a university job with hours that cannot exceed 20 hours in order to keep her visa. While her experiences as an orientation leader helped her socialize easily and become more acquainted with the university, the restrictions surrounding her work make it difficult to pay for certain essentials.

“You can’t [have other jobs], because that would affect your status somehow. So it’s not the best thing, obviously, because on campus jobs are not the best paid jobs. And sometimes that doesn’t give enough for rent or food, it probably just gives you ‘treat yourself’ money. It’s kind of frustrating,” Bejaran said.

“Then after that, it’s the process that goes after your graduation. When you have to find someone who either wants to sponsor you or has enough time to help make your dream come true. Me and my friends are constantly thinking about this, like what are we gonna do for graduation. We don’t want to go.”

Bejaran’s concerns of keeping her visa are validated through personal experiences. Friends of hers have had their visas redacted, and the limitations placed on international students holds unnecessary stress for her and her friends.

“I saw some students that got their visa rejected. I had one of my friends have that experience, and I felt so bad because it takes time off of your schooling or how you want your experience to go,” she said.

“So there’s a lot of factors [to being an international student], like getting an appointment and getting here on time, missing the first week because you missed your flight or they canceled your flight. And then coming here and keeping your visa.”

For some students, attending USF meant traveling from out of state, or even driving 30 minutes down the road. For Bejaran and Perez, however, it meant adapting to a whole new language and culture.

Bejaran learned English during her high school years in Panama, which she said made it easier to get comfortable living in the U.S.

“I had to learn before coming to the U.S., but it wasn’t as difficult because my high school was bilingual, so I had classes in Spanish and English,” she said. “It was the first time I was learning English, so I only knew how to say things like ‘Hello.’

“I had to force myself to understand it because the professors would literally force us to speak English. But it wasn’t a struggle because … the people that I met there were really helpful. I also would read books and look up what some things meant in the dictionary.”

The cultural differences in the U.S. took Perez some getting used to. The warmth of hugging people when meeting and greeting them was missing compared to her experiences in Ecuador. She noticed restaurants featuring pizza and burgers crowded the streets of Tampa, a far cry from the common salads and natural juices she would enjoy for multiple meals in her home country.

Though their time at USF has given them a chance to meet new people and become exposed to different cultures and ideas, both Perez and Bejaran find returning home after an extended period of time away to be the most rewarding part of their experiences.

For Perez, home is baking in the kitchen weekly with her grandmother. Home is tasting the comfort of juices and foods made freshly by loved ones. And home for Bejaran is being able to spend time with family on Thanksgiving and other important holidays.

But most important to Bejaran, home is rounding a corner in the airport to witness her family standing with signs and balloons, welcoming her back to her true home.

“You know when you go to the airport and you see people greeting you there? My family is always standing there for me with balloons, and I always feel so special,” she said. “They treat me extra special because they only get to see me once a year.”