Studying abroad is considered to be a brave thing. You’re away from your family, friends and everything that is remotely familiar. However, for 21-year-old Laos native Dalaphet Sengsoulivong, it’s nothing short of a dream to be in a country of opportunities.
Britanny Aranha: It’s great having you be part of the St. Kate’s community, even if it’s just for a semester. What were the reactions from people when they found out you had a chance to come to America?
Dalaphet Sengsoulivong: It’s big, big news. For students in Laos, this is a really a dream! I’m so fortunate I received a scholarship from the Global UGRAD Program. My parents are so happy and proud of me. When I think of America, I think of development, freedom and diversity.
BA: Do people treat you differently when they discover you’re an international student? Have you faced any stereotypes?
DS: People here are friendly and smile a lot which is similar in my country. When they find out I am from Laos, they always say ‘wow, you’ve come from so far! How long does it take to reach America?” They may not be familiar with Laos so maybe that’s it. I’ve joined SEASA and SCISO on campus so I can learn more about other cultures. I’m especially interested in South East Asian countries because that’s where I’m from. Since I have been here, I haven’t been subjected to stereotypes. I think it’s because there are a lot of Asians in Minnesota so they understand a little bit of Asian culture.
BA: How different is the educational system here compared to Laos and what do you think you can gain from your time spent here?
DS: The educational system here is so different! The classes here are varied and I like all of them so far. In my dance class, we do Ballet and Broadway. Dance is an important part of culture so it assists me in my understanding of American culture. I think I’ll be learning a lot of time management skills because US education is quite tense; a lot of stuff to do, a lot of assignments, a lot of readings. It is new for me to have so many discussions, but I try to speak up despite not being fluent in English. I just talk because I want to share my opinion. At times, I may not understand what is happening but my professors are helpful and explain things to me.
BA: I bet those are not the only changes. Apart from family, what are other things you miss from home?
DA: I miss my part-time job; I work as radio jockey for Laos Youth Radio and host two programs. In the first, I teach English to Laotian people and the other has me interviewing famous business personalities and socialites. Fortunately, my program’s available online so I can still listen to it when I want to. The other big thing I miss is the food. Kaoh Piak (noodle soup) is my favorite dish next to papaya salad. Back home, I used to eat these every single day so it’s a big adjustment for me to not have my comfort foods. I had a papaya salad in the Thai restaurant that was good, but it just didn’t quite taste the same.
BA: Have you experienced homesickness here? And who’s your support system in the US?
DS: For the first 2 weeks, I missed my parents because I have never been so far away from home. I cried all the time. Things are getting better and my well had dried up! Talking has helped me to manage my homesickness. I try to talk to everyone, especially the other international students and the people in the MIPS office.
BA: Hopefully, you’ve adjusted well here. According to you, what was the biggest adjustment you had to make?
DS: The weather! My country is pretty much hot all year round. We have a winter, but it’s not cold. My body has to adapt and I have to try to stay healthy and warm. I exercise at the Butler center almost every day. I eat lots and lots of veggies and stay away from cheese. I don’t like cheese and it’s hard for me to find foods without cheese. Americans love cheese! When I ordered pizza at the pulse and I asked for no cheese, they made a strange face.
BA: What helps you feel connected to home?
DS: Facebook helps me to stay in touch and be aware of what’s happening in Laos. I also watch my favorite series on YouTube. Also, I brought noodles from my country so when I miss the food too much, I make my instant noodles and add veggies and eggs.
BA: In light of recent events such as the New York and New Jersey bombings, how safe do you feel here in the US?
DS: Sadly, these kind of acts happen all over the world. I’m not worried too much because the university campus is very safe. I think it also depends on the individual to be aware of everything that happens around them and to take safety precautions when necessary.
BA: We’re in the midst of choosing the next President of the United States of America. You’ve definitely come at a very exciting time. Have you watched the first presidential debate and do you support anyone?
DS: It was very interesting to watch the debate and to watch people’s reactions. . My country’s political system is different; we only have one party and it’s not very competitive. Here, they bash each other a lot! When I was at the Pulse watching the debate, if Clinton ever said something that everyone liked, all the girls would cheer. It was funny! I don’t know either of the candidates very well. Whatever I know comes from social media. I heard a lot of things that weren’t too nice about Trump, but I don’t want to just believe the media. In life, I’ve learnt that people have good and bad sides to them.
BA: Lastly, is there anything you’re looking forward to experiencing in America?
DS: All the holidays, especially Halloween, Christmas and Black Friday! My friends told me that Black Friday is a crazy, violent day and everything is very cheap. Cheap is a beautiful word in college! I want to experience the madness just once. My American friends think it is too wild and that I should just stay indoors.
Maya Angelou reminded us that “in diversity, there is beauty and there is strength.” At St. Kate’s, we are fortunate to be given the opportunity to connect with people of different cultural backgrounds. Once we remove the label and all the stereotypes attached to the “international student,” we get to see the person behind it and truly connect with them. Students like Dalaphet Sengsoulivong enrich our community and it is a privilege to meet and speak with people like her.