Editor’s Note: This story is part of a continuing series about international student life at colleges and universities across the United States. Please join us over the next several weeks as we bring you stories about international students and the American higher education system as a whole.
It did not take long for Louise Rosa Paulsen to recognize that she needed something other than the traditional Danish higher education experience.
Paulsen is from Copenhagen, Denmark. The now 27-year-old started seeking a bachelor’s degree at the University of Copenhagen in 2010.
But right away she felt that she was very different from the other students there. For one thing, she was completely uninterested in the culture of parties and drinking alcohol that was widespread at the school.
So after a year there, Paulsen decide to leave the school and travel for a while. She moved to the United States and completed an internship with the human rights group Amnesty International. Then she moved to London, England to volunteer for the Mormon Church.
Paulsen joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in her teen years, although she had been raised as a member of the Church of Denmark.
In 2014, Paulsen decided to restart her education, but not back home. Instead, she found a school that shared her religious beliefs: Brigham Young University.
Brigham Young University, or BYU for short, is a private, non-profit research university. The school serves about 33,500 students and is located in Provo, Utah, a 45-minute drive south of Salt Lake City, the state capital. Mormons led by Brigham Young founded the city in 1847 and the Mormon Church established BYU 25 years later.
In the end, Paulsen says the relatively low cost of attendance is what interested her the most about studying political science at BYU. But she also liked the idea that she would share similar beliefs with the other students, even though she was from a different country.
And, at the very least, partying would not be an issue. Alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and even coffee and tea, are all banned on campus because of the Mormon religion bars their use. The school also does not permit members of the opposite sex to enter each other’s bedrooms in on-campus housing. They can only enter the shared areas, and they may not enter each other’s on-campus housing at all during most late night hours.
Utah holds the largest Mormon population in the United States. However, Paulsen says, even though she had joined a familiar community, she still felt a little like an outsider.
"The community is different here in many ways. Mostly here I associate with … people who’ve been Mormons for their whole lives. I have not always been a Mormon, and I’m kind of made to be a minority, I think. … Here a lot of the people are culturally religious. I’m much more faith-based, as well. You kind of have to be, because culturally, Mormonism and Danish-ness does not really match."
Paulsen says she had worried about the possible beliefs she might find among people in Provo. She considers herself open- minded and politically liberal. She had heard that many people in rural America were very conservative.
But she says, the more American students she met, the more friends she made. It did not matter if she disagreed with some people about issues like gun control or immigration, for example. She says almost everyone she met was open to discussing differing opinions respectfully. And some were even willing to change their opinions based on such discussions, she says.
Faris Naffa is a 22-year-old BYU student from Amman, Jordan. During his final year in high school, he decided he wanted to attend a college or university in Europe or the United States.
Around the same time, BYU representatives visited Naffa’s high school. Naffa liked what they said about the school. So, in 2013, he began studies at BYU for a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.
Naffa is not Mormon. But, he says he did not care that he would be part of a small, non-Mormon minority at the school. Naffa grew up Christian in a majority Muslim country, so he is used to being different. Also, he says his parents liked that the school has firm rules governing student behavior.
In time, Naffa says, the school would have a greater effect on him than he could have expected. He was placed in on-campus housing with an American who quickly became his best friend. This friend brought Naffa to meet his family, and before long, they were treating Naffa like one of their own.
But more importantly, Naffa notes, his friend taught him to really enjoy outdoor activities.
Back in Jordan, Naffa says he never was that interested in activities like hiking or skiing. However, Utah is home to five national parks, and is relatively close to three other national parks out-of-state, including the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Utah also has many areas in which to ski.
Naffa says the natural beauty around Provo made the outdoors impossible to resist.
"Going from just doing normal stuff every weekend to doing really extreme, outdoor sport activities has just been a life changing experience for sure. … I definitely feel changed, because I’m not doing what I used to do before coming to college. Now I’m experiencing new things."
Naffa liked these new experiences so much that he ended up staying longer than he had first planned. He also changed fields of study and decided to join a BYU program in accounting. This program let him finish his bachelor’s degree in three years, instead of the usual four. Then he was immediately accepted into a two year BYU master’s degree program in 2016.
He was able to take part thanks to financial support from the school and its international student office.
Louise Rosa Paulsen says she also plans to stay in the United States after receiving her bachelor’s degree. And, she wants to seek a master’s degree beginning this fall at a school on the east coast.
Paulsen says the secret to feeling at home in a strange land is holding on to things that make you remember the place you are from.
"Find ways to have your fun little cultural niches and stay normal and stay sane. Because you will get homesick … but you can find ways to be happy here anyways."
I’m Pete Musto. And I’m Lucija Millonig.
Pete Musto reported this story for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor. We want to hear from you. How do you avoid getting homesick when you are far from home? What do you think would be the most interesting thing about living in an unfamiliar place? Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.
Words in This Story
bachelor’s degree – n. a degree that is given to a student by a college or university usually after four years of study
internship – n. a position as a student or recent graduate who works for a period of time at a job in order to get experience
teen(age) – adj. relating to people who are between 13 and 19 years old
campus – n. the area and buildings around a university, college or school
familiar – adj. used to say that something is easy for you to recognize because you have seen, heard, or experienced it many times in the past
associate – v. to be together with another person or group as friends or partners
faith – n. strong belief or trust in someone or something
outdoor – adj. done, used, or located outside a building
hiking – n. to walk a long distance especially for pleasure or exercise
skiing – n. the activity or sport of gliding on a pair of long narrow pieces of wood, metal, or plastic that curve upward slightly in front, are attached to shoes, and are used for gliding over snow
accounting – n. the skill, system, or job of keeping the financial records of a business or person
master’s degree – n. a degree that is given to a student by a college or university usually after one or two years of additional study following a bachelor's degree
niche(s) – n. a job or activity that has the qualities that are right, needed, or appropriate for someone
homesick – adj. sad because you are away from your family and home