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April 28, 2003

International Living Center bridges cultures, builds friendships

By Jennifer McNulty

When exchange student Midori Iwanabe arrived at UCSC from Tokyo last September, she felt nervous about interacting with American students and apprehensive about the U.S. university system. Seven months later, Iwanabe is a successful student with a network of close friends.

The campus is invited to attend the dedication of the International Living Center at College Nine on Friday, May 2, from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. between Apartment Buildings 4 and 5.

Midori Iwanabe shares a two-bedroom apartment with exchange students from France and Australia, as well as two students from the United States. Photo: Jon Kersey

"I have a feeling of belonging here," said Iwanabe, who credits College Nine’s new International Living Center (ILC) with providing support and a sense of community. "When I arrived, I didn’t know anybody. Now, almost every night my friends come for tea. It’s more a feeling of living in America than just visiting."

Iwanabe shares a two-bedroom apartment with exchange students from France and Australia, as well as two students from the United States. Her housemates have helped Iwanabe with English and shared American traditions with her, and she has taught them about Japanese cooking and shared her own traditions.

Like a mini-United Nations, the ILC opened last fall to foster cross-cultural understanding and is now home to more than 100 undergraduates, about half of whom are exchange students from other countries. The center has organized camping and rafting getaways, as well as trips to Los Angeles and San Jose. It even sponsored a trip to San Francisco to celebrate Halloween in the city’s Castro District.

For exchange students like Iwanabe, the ILC makes it easy to meet other international students and to connect with American students who have an affinity for different cultures. "American students have families and friends here," said Iwanabe. "They have someone to call, and we don’t."

Many ILC students, including Carry van Lieshout of the Netherlands, said cultural identities often fade into the background. "Often when I meet people, I don’t know where they’re from," said van Lieshout. "I just talk to them."

Many of the ILC residents from the United States have studied abroad or are planning to study overseas, said van Lieshout. "Other students in my classes, when I tell them where I’m from, they don’t know, and that feels weird," she added.

Sehun Oh is a sociology student from Korea who said he chose the ILC because he wanted to learn about different cultures. "Korea doesn’t have a lot of foreigners, so we don’t know the perspectives of other cultures," said Oh, who shares an apartment with housemates from Turkey, Russia, Japan, and the United States.

Like housemates everywhere, ILC residents have had to work out differences over things like food preparation, study habits, noise levels, and socializing, which sometimes reveal cultural differences. "It’s hard to understand how far you can go and how much you can accept of other cultures," said Iwanabe. As a nonnative English speaker, Iwanabe says she spends more time studying than some of her peers and has felt the sting of the stereotype that "Asian students are quiet and study all the time."

"We have to break down that wall," said Iwanabe. "It’s really good, because we can learn from each other."

Of course, breaking down stereotypes and bridging cultural gaps takes some effort, and many ILC students have firsthand experience with the process.

"You know the old adage, treat others as you want to be treated? It’s really more that you’ve got to learn how others want to be treated," said Andrew Wright, a math student from Edinburgh, Scotland. "You’ve got to talk to them, communicate with them--that’s extremely important. You’ve got to learn how they want to be treated, and then you’ve got to respect it."

Iwanabe’s housemate Andrew Birchett of Mountain View, Calif., transferred to UCSC in September from De Anza College and chose to live at the ILC because he’d "thrived" in De Anza’s diverse environment. Despite differences that emerge in day-to-day multicultural living, Birchett said the ILC provides valuable opportunities for deeper understanding.

"The trivial differences seem unsurpassable in some ways, but when you get beyond those trivialities, you see we’re more similar than different," said Birchett.


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