My First Weeks at Occidental: Tales from an International Student

By Alexander Dong ’23

The unique and challenging nature of studying abroad has been well documented in the Student Voices blogs, but this piece is different from all of them. This is a real-life record of the first few weeks of an international student who is planning to stay here for four whole years.

Hello, everyone. I’m Alexander, a first-year international student born and raised in China. Although this is not my first experience studying abroad, I would still say that it’s always challenging and enriching to live and learn in a host culture.

Many thoughts and questions wandered through my mind before I arrived at Oxy. For instance, I worried about falling asleep during classes or meetings around large groups of my peers. I was concerned because the fields of study I am interested in don’t overlap much with popular ones. My favorite music is classical and I enjoy spending my leisure time reading books. As you can see, there are many concerns for an international student like me. All of them, more or less, point to the same question: is it possible to integrate into this different host culture without losing my own personality?

For now, I can speak with confidence that Oxy is the warm community I was looking for. When I arrived at Occidental College on August 16th, the International Program Office (IPO) held a special orientation for all international students. Ms. Marisa, Ms. Robin, and other faculty members, together with our kind Orientation team leaders, presented the most urgent and important information that helped me settle in smoothly. Out of all the events, there are two flashing vividly in my memory: the campus tour and the information session about culture adjustment. The former was especially helpful because it gave me practical knowledge about the facilities around campus. Soon enough, after Oxy Engage (a pre-orientation program where we venture into LA) and a grand orientation, the formal semester started.

Now, I don’t want to describe my first few weeks as “surviving in college.” That might put an image of a horror movie in your head. But, I might have been a bit ambitious compared to many of my peers as I signed up for two upper level courses this semester. I would rather describe my experience as “striving for progress.” What is great is, the professors teaching here care about their students' progress and obstacles. If my schedule conflicts with their office hours, I can always send them an e-mail to set up appointments. In fact, I have already visited three office hours and set up four appointments with my professors so far this year.

Besides academic life, I also find abundant resources at Oxy for leisure time. One of the biggest and most pleasant surprises I discovered at Oxy was my Applied Music Study class. I have been playing the piano since I was four years old, but I’ve never met a tutor that matches professor Junko Ueno Garrett’s level. She recognized all of my mistakes from a single performance. Her instructions and critiques were clear and easy to understand, while her personality was kind and never pushy. Her effort and knowledge as a professor always pushes me to want to play my best.

Another thing that is worth mentioning is that I have made some great friends within my first few weeks at Oxy. I feel our friendship will continue throughout my whole life. My roommate Jonathan and I shared multiple interests; we talked for 3 hours on a Saturday night without feeling tired or running out of topics. On the other hand, the story of how I met my friend Ben is more dramatic. He was playing the ending song of あの花 on the piano in our dorm’s common room one day when I ran to him to tell him that I recognized it. He stopped playing out of amazement because nobody knows that song in his hometown. We discussed our interests and found that we both play tennis, so we headed to the tennis court with along with my roommate, Jonathan. I have made many more great friends in my time here and wish I could share all my stories about meeting Will, Lucy, Sophie, Nick, Amy, Long, Rachel, Lisa, Miles, etc. It feels nice to know that nobody's judging me because of my different background, which was a concern of mine coming into school as an international student. Instead, they view my presence as a great chance to learn about a foreign culture.

In other words, I’m enjoying my life as an international student here at Oxy. It’s joyful, not judging. It’s fruitful, not frustrating. It’s inspiring, not exhausting. I’m glad that I decided to come to Oxy.

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