Exchange Students Find Texas Different, but Hospitable
Exchange students from Iceland and Ireland are calling Southwestern home this year
According to new data from the Institute of International Education, the number of foreign students attending American colleges and universities is at an all-time high.
Several of these students have made their way to Southwestern. This year, Southwestern is hosting two foreign exchange students − Warren Armstrong from Ireland and Eva Karlsdottir from Iceland.
Although both say Texas is very different, both are very happy with their experience here.
Armstrong is a one of 100 Irish students in universities throughout the United States in a program called the Business Education Initiative, part of the British Council Program. Armstrong said that Southwestern was one of his top three choices.
“I wanted something Southern, and near a big city,” Armstrong said. “I’ve visited the United States before and knew I didn’t want to live by a tourist city like New York City or Chicago, but wanted somewhere where I could be near a big city environment. Austin seemed like a perfect choice.”
Karlsdottir is at Southwestern through the International Student Exchange Program, and also chose Southwestern as one of her top three choices out of about 100 schools.
“Texas was a first choice for me because of the weather and I read about the Austin area and it seemed warm and friendly,” Karlsdottir said. “Southwestern just seemed very attractive to me.”
Both students talk about the dynamic differences in the weather in their countries and Texas. It rains almost everyday in Ireland and Iceland, does not get as hot, and is much greener.
“I’m used to being able to see mountains and the coast from almost every city in Iceland,” Karlsdottir said. “Really, everything is very different here. The houses are different, street signs are different.”
Because the European countries have much older civilized histories than the United States, the students quickly noticed the stark differences in the landscapes and buildings.
“Texas is newer than Ireland and it doesn’t have the old hills and fields that are so common in my home,” Armstrong said. “I never thought much of the landscape but now I miss the old houses. In Ireland, the buildings are built around the landscape. Houses are strategically built around rocks, or churches put on hilltops. Whereas here in America, it seems that the landscape is built around the buildings and roads. Take the campus, for example. Trees are cleared out to put a building in and then more trees are planted up around it. It’s very different.”
Karlsdottir experienced similar culture shock with the buildings. She said, “When I was on the plane coming over, I had my first culture shock looking out my window as we neared the airport. We were flying over houses in America and they looked like something from an American TV show. I thought to myself, ‘Wow! I’m really in America!’ They were so big and delicate. It looked like you can touch them and they would fall over. In Iceland, we need big, sturdy houses. I love driving around Georgetown and looking at the big houses, with their front porches, American flags and rocking chairs. They’re beautiful!”
Other difference both students have remarked on is the population and the traffic. Belfast, the largest city in Northern Ireland, has a population of more than 270,000, whereas Austin has a population of more than 750,000. Many cities here have four lanes of traffic here, where as in Ireland, most cities have only one because the roads are much narrower and fewer people own cars.
“Going into Austin is an experience for me because of its size,” Karlsdottir said. “I had never seen a crossover before and just kept taking pictures of the highways.”
Beyond the structural and landscape differences, the students also remarked on the cultural differences. Drive-throughs were a new phenomenon and they were not used to eating out as much as Americans do. The students also had not experienced living on campus before. Many students in Ireland and Iceland do not have on-campus living options.
“Its more like a community here,” Armstrong said. “People live on campus, whereas in Europe most people live with their parents or friends. There isn’t really a campus environment. It feels more like a home, which is a great for meeting people.”
Armstrong is a property investment and development major, also called commercial real estate. He is taking mostly business classes at Southwestern. Because Southwestern is a liberal arts school, his course plan includes classes outside of his major as well, unlike his track in Ireland, which only includes major-related classes.
“I’m taking some classes that I will never use it my life,” Armstrong said. “Sometimes I don’t feel like I can really get interested in the work because I know that I won’t ever need it. But, it has been good to find new things that I like. For example, I’m taking French, which I wouldn’t have taken at home, and I really like it.”
Karlsdottir is a political science major, taking mostly classes about international relations. She is excited about signing up for classes. “We only focus on European politics in Iceland,” she said. “Next semester I’ll be studying about Tibet and Africa, and other countries I would not have had a chance to study at home.”
Both students are a part of the International Student Organization. Karlsdottir said that she likes that there are a lot of organizations and that students are very involved in activities outside their majors. She is considering joining a few organizations next semester.
Armstrong played for the Southwestern varsity soccer team in the fall. He played for club in Ireland. The significance of college teams in the United States is very different than that in Ireland, where people usually either play for fun in the club leagues or play professionally. There aren’t really important college teams.
“When you tell people you’re not from Texas, their eyes get wide and when you tell them you’re not from the United States, they become interested and are very helpful,” Karlsdottir said. “In our classes, as soon as professors found out that we are exchange students, they offer help.”
Both students like the closer relationship between the students and professors at Southwestern. They didn’t have this in their classes in their home university, in which they might have been one of 600 students in a class.
“I like having the freedom to speak up in class,” Karlsdottir said. “I also really like how friendly the faculty is. My professors always ask us how our weekend was and how we are doing. One of my professors brought us Halloween candy a few weeks ago.”
This is Karlsdottir’s second time to study abroad. As a high school student, she studied abroad in Italy and had a very positive experience. “Iceland is an island that is not doing well economically, and I just get the urge to get out and do something when I had the chance,” she said. “I’m planning to see New York and Chicago and visit friends in Wisconsin during my stay here.”
Armstrong visited America once before to attend at a summer camp and was excited to come back as a university student.
“Once you get degree, you’re expected to get a job,” he said. “I wanted to be abroad while I had the chance. I also wanted to have a proper college experience. I’m used to driving to my university and never have been able to meet people and hang out.”
Armstrong has plans to travel to Las Vegas, New York, and Nashville. He is interested in taking a road trip to Miami to visit less-traveled, Southern cities along the way, especially Civil War sites. He also wants to spend more time in Austin, even looking into doing a real estate internship at the end of next semester.
Mikaela Santini ‘10