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Fitting in at the University of Texas at Austin


EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is part of a new ongoing series about international student life at colleges and universities across the U.S. Please join us over the next several weeks as we bring you stories about these amazing individuals and the American higher education system as a whole.

Diana Ayoub did not think she would study in the U.S. after finishing high school.

Ayoub was born in Cairo, Egypt. She says the Egyptian education system is all about memorization. There are few chances for students to get experience using what they learn in the classroom.

Making the choice to attend a university in a foreign country is never easy. But Ayoub felt the education system in her home country lacked the resources and methods she desired.

By her first year in high school, Ayoub knew she needed to leave Egypt to get the kind of education she wanted. So she enrolled in the African Leadership Academy, or ALA, in 2012.

The ALA is a special private high school in South Africa. With students from 45 different countries, the ALA trains leaders to help solve issues across the African continent.

Diana Ayoub (right) gets feedback on her presentation from her professor

Diana Ayoub (right) gets feedback on her presentation from her professor

Ayoub did not know how to apply to schools in the U.S. The ALA college counselors helped her move through the complex application process. She also applied to the African Leadership Bridge scholarship program to help pay for her education.

"I had no idea what was an SAT, I didn’t know what was a GPA. I didn’t know I had to write college essays and applications … But thank god I got good support from my college counselors."

Then, Ayoub chose to seek an undergraduate degree in economics at the University of Texas at Austin in 2014.

The University of Texas at Austin, or UT Austin, was founded in 1883. The public research university is one of fourteen schools in the University of Texas system. UT Austin is located in Austin, the capital city of the state of Texas.

With a world-class music scene, Austin is called the “Live Music Capital of the World”. The city is also famous for its wild outdoor art and ethnic food trucks. In recent years, many technology companies have moved into the city. The cost of living has risen.

The Congress Street Bridge in Austin, Texas

The Congress Street Bridge in Austin, Texas

Some people are worried that Austin is losing its artistic spirit. There is an effort to support local business called “Keep Austin Weird.” This motto appears on T-shirts and bumper stickers around the city.

Every year the city holds a large festival celebrating new music, art and technology called “South by Southwest.” President Barack Obama spoke at the event in 2016.

Ayoub is a Coptic Christian, a religious minority in Egypt. She knew what it felt like to be different from most people before coming to the U.S. But Ayoub says that in Austin everyone is different, so everyone is accepted for who they are.

"There is no one weird in Austin. It’s normal to be weird. … I knew that I’m never going to be judged for my culture or my background."

Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium at the University of Texas at Austin

Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium at the University of Texas at Austin

The decision to study at UT Austin was not as difficult for Carlos Galdeano. Galdeano is from Mexico City, Mexico, a four-hour flight from Austin. He says moving to Austin did not require much money.

Galdeano also received a scholarship after enrolling at UT Austin in 2012. The scholarship came from the Mexican government agency called The National Council for Science and Technology.

Galdeano is earning his doctorate degree, or Ph.D, in civil engineering, studying how water and energy are used.

He wanted to study under some of UT Austin’s more well-known professors. Daene McKinney, David Maidment and Michael Webber are all experts in Galdeano’s field of study.

Galdeano says the main problem for him was what he thought about the U.S. before arriving. The U.S. and Mexico have long had a difficult relationship. The media in both countries often comment on the negative beliefs that people in the U.S. have about people from Latin America.

Some people in the U.S. believe the border between the countries should be closed.

Galdeano was concerned he would be treated poorly because of his nationality or race. But soon he learned many people in the U.S. are welcoming to foreigners.

"Every time someone asks me … if I feel threatened or not wanted in this country I would say no. … Not all Americans think that way. … I was expecting people only thinking about themselves. But I really found that they also care a lot about other causes outside the U.S."

Galdeano had other problems when he arrived. His wife had an F-2 visa at first, which meant she could not work or study. This made life in the U.S. difficult for her. Also, Galdeano had to learn that some common Mexican customs were unacceptable in the U.S.

For example, people in Mexico often kiss each other on the cheek when they meet. Most people in the U.S. avoid physical contact, unless they know the other person very well.

But Galdeano says willingness to be open to new ideas makes life as an international student in the U.S. easier.

"You definitely have to be more tolerant. … So I think I’ve been growing more as a person … that way."

Galdeano is now a teaching assistant, or TA, for a class called “Projects with Underserved Communities.” Graduate students often work as TAs for professors in the same academic department.

Carlos Galdeano (standing) high fives a student

Carlos Galdeano (standing) high fives a student

Galdeano and the professor help the students in the class design projects serving rural communities in developing countries. The students work with non-governmental organizations in these countries.

If the students can raise the money needed, they can travel to those countries and make their projects happen. In 2016, Galdeano’s students were able to travel to India, Tanzania and Guatemala.

He says everything he learned about fitting in at UT Austin has helped him teach his students. Understanding differences and accepting different opinions is very important, he adds. The more people try to understand each other, the easier it is for them to solve the world’s problems.

I’m Pete Musto.

The Texas State Capitol building in Austin, Texas

The Texas State Capitol building in Austin, Texas

Pete Musto reported on this story for VOA Learning English. Adam Brock produced the video. Hai Do was the editor.

We want to hear from you. What different parts of American culture do you think would be the most difficult for you to accept? What do you think life would be like for you as an international student at UT Austin? Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

memorizationn. the act of learning something so well that you are able to remember it perfectly

enroll(ed) – v. to enter someone as a member of or participant in something

applyv. to ask formally for something such as a job, admission to a school or a loan, usually in writing

counselor(s) – n. a person who provides advice as a job

applicationn. a formal and usually written request for something such as a job, admission to a school or a loan

scholarshipn. an amount of money that is given by a school or an organization to a student to help pay for the student's education

SAT n. a test where all test-takers take the same test under the same or reasonably equal conditions, widely used for in the process of accepting someone as a student at a college in the United States

GPA (grade point average) – n. a number that indicates the average of the numbers that indicate how a student performed in a class or on a test

essay(s) – n. a short piece of writing that tells a person's thoughts or opinions about a subject

undergraduate degreen. a degree that is given to a student by a college or university usually after four years of study

weirdadj. unusual or strange

motton. a short sentence or phrase that expresses a rule guiding the behavior of a particular person or group

bumper sticker(s) – n. a strip of paper or plastic that has a printed message and that is made to be stuck on the bumper of a car or truck

doctorate degreen. the highest degree that is given by a university

unacceptableadj. not pleasing or welcome

tolerantn. willing to accept feelings, habits, or beliefs that are different from your own

classn. a series of meetings in which students are taught a particular subject or activity

academicadj. of or relating to schools and education

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