Meihui Chen (junior from Singapore, left) and her friend Michelle Roskosch (junior from Germany) are both exchange students at Lehigh University. (Bryan Kim/B&W Staff)

International exchange students study abroad in Bethlehem

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Lehigh offers more than 250 study abroad programs in over 60 countries. In the class of 2016, about 43 percent of students had an international experience at some point during their time at Lehigh.

But what about the students who come to Lehigh for a study abroad experience?

There are currently 15 exchange students studying away from their country for the entire year, while many others stay for only a semester, and they’re gaining a new experience — the Lehigh experience.

“Because I didn’t really pick any lectures, all my classes are quite intimate,” said Meihui Chen, ’18, an exchange student from Singapore. “The ratio of teachers to students is smaller than the ones I had back home. I feel like everyone has one-to-one relationships with their teacher, which I feel is really good.”

For her semester abroad at Lehigh, Chen is studying journalism. She said everyone has been welcoming, which has helped her transition. For her, the key to this was Lehigh’s international student orientation, which made her feel more at home and gave her a chance to build new relationships with other students.

Exchange students go through the same orientation as full-time international students. During that orientation, exchange students meet with Jen Topp, the manager of global partnerships and strategic initiatives, to learn about how she can help the students through their transition.

Chen remembers her encounters with Topp even before coming to Lehigh.

“The (Office of) International Affairs was very friendly to me and promptly responded to my emails because I was quite frantic back home,” Chen said. “I was trying to settle all my stuff like insurance, housing, and I kept sending (Topp) these super long emails and she was so nice to reply to all of them. The Lehigh administration tried to make my life as easy as possible, and I really appreciated it.”

Topp feels it is important to study abroad at some point.

“Having some sort of global experience is becoming more and more important for students to make themselves attractive in the job market,” Topp said. “But aside from that, I think it’s important for much more personal reasons. Going abroad forces you to get out of your comfort zone, challenging you to view the world with a different perspective than you would have if you just stayed home.”

While many international students at Lehigh choose to come for all four years, some do not.

Exchange student Chigusa Hamachi (junior from Japan) poses in Fairchild Martindale Library on Sept. 30, 2016 (Bryan Kim/B&W staff)

Exchange student Chigusa Hamachi (junior from Japan) poses in Fairchild Martindale Library on Sept. 30, 2016 (Bryan Kim/B&W staff)

Akane Mukuta, from Shija, Japan, is spending one year at Lehigh, from last January to this January. For her, attending an American university for four years was never an option.

“It’s so expensive, so I can’t,” Mukata said. “It’s all because of money.”

Each student’s experience varies in one way or another from their school back home.

Japanese exchange student Chigusa Hamachi said the students here are much more active than they are back home.

“Students here raise their hand every day,” Hamachi said. “In Japan, I don’t raise my hand because students are not as active in the classroom. The professor is talking more and it is not as much discussion-based.”

For Chen, Lehigh was similar to her experience in Singapore. She said the professors at home like to engage the students in discussions and ask a lot of questions.

One of the main differences Chen saw was the student-to-student interactions in class.

“People don’t really talk to each other or make friends in class,” Chen said. “I feel like it is a thing that is very unique to America. Because back home you make friends through classes and group work and stuff, but Lehigh is more like there is no group work in class, and we just work. You don’t really connect outside of class, which I feel is a bit sad because there are nice people in class, but it just feels like they are not as open to talk to you as you are to them.”

Exchange students receive support services such as immigration advising and cultural programming opportunities.

“They also have me as their non-academic adviser,” Topp said. “I meet with them as a group monthly, help them with acclimating to Lehigh by making them aware of all the resources on campus and meet with them one-on-one several times during the semester. I am also their contact in case of emergency.”

While at Lehigh, exchange students can also choose to travel.

During the school year, it is difficult to travel too far because of school, so Hamachi spends her weekends on campus studying or exploring North Bethlehem. She said she took advantage of the summer and went to Chicago, California and Florida and interned in New York.

However, there are challenges for exchange students who are stuck behind a language barrier.

Hamachi came to Lehigh for the entire calendar year, January to January, to study sociology. Back home in Osaka, Japan, she studies the English language but still feels the language is a tough barrier to overcome. She said international students who are here for longer know and understand the language much better than she does.

Because she is not a native speaker, she said it is tough to start a conversation or catch up if she gets lost during one. This makes it difficult to engage with other students. She said it was tough, but people are nice and ask about her experiences in Japan, which makes her happy.

Chen has similar experiences with Lehigh students.

“Everyone here is trying to make us feel as much at home as possible,” Chen said. “And they are really taking the extra step to make sure that we feel comfortable. I think that that is really great.”

While students who are here for all four years get to fully immerse themselves in the Lehigh culture, Mukuta said she concentrates on continuing to learn the culture and taking advantage of the opportunity every day.

“For us, we just have one year, and our time is limited,” Mukuta said. “So we try to focus on the studying and the experience for just one year. It is such a short time, we cannot waste it.”

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