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Building Life, Home, Better World at the University of Southern Maine

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Building Life, Home, Better World at the University of Southern Maine

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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.

The American state of Maine was a completely foreign place to Chi Bui when she first arrived in the fall of 2012.

The 21-year-old is from Hanoi, Vietnam and she had not researched much about Maine before she got there.

Bui came to the United States to complete her high school education as part of an international student exchange program. The program she chose was through Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School, a public high school in South Paris, Maine.

On her first flight to the northeastern U.S., Bui looked out her window and saw the state’s rocky, coast along the cold, dark Atlantic Ocean. She says she could not tell if Maine was an island or part of the mainland.

USM undergraduate student Chi Bui in one of her classes.
USM undergraduate student Chi Bui in one of her classes.

Bui was shocked to learn about the weather in her new home. In Hanoi, the average temperature in winter is between about 13 and 20 degrees Celsius. In South Paris, Maine the average winter temperature is between about -11 and 2 degrees Celsius.

The area also gets between about 152 and 229 centimeters of snow each winter.

Yet Bui says, after a while, she was able to adapt to the new environment.

"Going outside and actually having fun in the snow make(s) me feel like, ‘Oh it’s not that bad.’ And also, you just have to accept it. Around the world, every place is different. You just need (to) get used to it."

Bui adds that she also soon favored the education system in the U.S. to that in Vietnam. There, she says, students often study six days a week. But at almost every level of education in the U.S., most students take classes only from Monday through Friday. Bui says she liked the less intense system that gave her more time for social activities.

So, when Bui finished her high school education in 2013, she decided to stay in the U.S. for college. She applied to schools across the country. She chose the University of Southern Maine because it offered her the most financial aid.

The Gorham campus of the University of Southern Maine
The Gorham campus of the University of Southern Maine

The University of Southern Maine is a public university established in 1878. The school has buildings and classes in three cities: Portland, Gorham and Lewiston. A total of about 7,700 students attend the university.

Bui began her undergraduate studies in environmental science in 2013. Ever since, she has also been heavily involved in the University of Southern Maine. She has worked as a guide for new students, helping them find resources and feel welcome. She has also worked as a teaching assistant, helping students improve in academic subjects in which she is strong.

Bui notes she has become so involved because she wants to build strong connections to her school and her friends. There were fewer than 100 international students studying at the university in 2016. And Bui says she is the only one from Vietnam.

So, although she still misses things like the food and culture of Vietnam, she says she works hard to feel just as much at home in the U.S.

Solomon Nkhalamba has also worked hard to make a life for himself while living and studying in the U.S.

The 31-year-old is from a small village outside of Lilongwe, Malawi. He first considered coming to America after meeting a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in his village almost ten years ago.

USM graduate student Solomon Nkhalamba at home with his two daughters.
USM graduate student Solomon Nkhalamba at home with his two daughters.

Nkhalamba’s friend from the Peace Corps persuaded him to seek an education in the U.S. and helped him apply to his first school. That friend was from Maine. So, in 2007, Nkhalamba began an associate’s degree program in business at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland. He earned that degree in 2009. Then, he continued his education at the University of Maine in Orono where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics.

Last year, Nkhalamba began a graduate study program in statistics at the University of Southern Maine. Like Chi Bui, he says he fell in love with the teaching methods and learning styles in the U.S. Yet, he says what he likes most is the close, personal relationships he has built with people.

He often meets with professors outside of class. Nkhalamba says teaching comes naturally for him, so he has also worked as a teaching assistant. He believes experiences like these are very important for any international student.

"There’s a lot of things in the very beginning you don’t know. So, you really have to develop some close-knit relationships with people; classmates, staff and faculty. And that helps to give you an ease to pursue your career."

In 2015, Nkhalamba’s wife and two daughters moved from Malawi to live with him in Portland. He admits it can be difficult to manage his time between work, studies and family responsibilities. But, he says, having his family here has made him feel more like part of the Portland community. Together, they have joined a religious group and have made many friends.

The ties to the University of Southern Maine are very strong for both Solomon Nkhalamba and Chi Bui. They both agree they will carry all that they have learned there for as long as they live. And as they reach the end of their university studies, both want to take the knowledge they gained back to their home countries.

Nkhalamba says he will use his understanding of business and information systems to grow development projects in Malawi. And Bui plans to fight pollution across Vietnam.

I'm Anna Matteo.

And I’m Pete Musto.

Pete Musto reported this story for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor. Lucija Millonig produced the video. We want to hear from you. What are some ways you can build connections in a new place? How do you make yourself at home in a foreign country? Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.


Words in This Story

adaptv. to change your behavior so that it is easier to live in a particular place or situation

class(es) – n. a series of meetings in which students are taught a particular subject or activity

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

financial aidn. money that is given or lent to students in order to help pay for their education

undergraduateadj. describing a student or an entire program at a college or university who has not yet earned a degree

academicadj. of or relating to schools and education

associate’s degreen. a degree that is given to a student who has completed two years of study at a junior college, college, or university in the U.S.

graduateadj. of or relating to a course of studies taken at a college or university after earning a bachelor's degree or other first degree

close-knitadj. used to describe a group of people who care about each other and who are very friendly with each other

facultyn. the group of teachers in a school or college

pursue v. to try to get or do something over a period of time