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Foreign Graduate Students Learn American Culture From New York Students

  • Barbara Schoetzau

One hundred 40 graduate students from 80 nations recently met with one of the world's most diverse student populations, New York City secondary school students.

The foreign scholars are part of the U.S. government-funded Fulbright program, studying for graduate degrees at universities across the nation. They traveled to New York to learn about American education, and the immigration experience and to tell the students about their own countries.

Computer science student Zeeshan Usmani brought a Pakistani flag and taught the students how to say hello in Urdu. He also brought a message.

"I want to create mutual understanding. I want to declare the uniqueness of Muslims," he said. "Some of the terrorists are, unfortunately, Muslims, but that does not mean that all of the Muslims are terrorists."

Small groups of scholars met with students at New York secondary schools with large international populations, schools like Manhattan International High School, which is dedicated to students who have lived in the United States for less than four years.

Mechanical engineering student Yee Kan Koh also had a special message for the students when he made a presentation about his native Malaysia.

"I would guess that for them learning English and integrating the culture into U.S. culture is the prime goal for them to come to the school," he said. "But I encouraged them also to keep their culture because I think if they have more than one culture and one language that is something very good for them."

Linda Wafti, a Palestinian studying development, says she wanted to encourage the young people to reach for their dreams.

"I remember when I had speakers when I was young in school and how inspiring it was. And also to make them understand that they can make it in a different culture even if it is hard," she said.

English is a second language for all of these students. But Chalak Muhammed, an Iraqi graduate student in public health, found the young people confident and interested.

"It is natural to expect the students to have questions about Iraq because they have been hearing for the last two years at least a lot about the war in Iraq and the situation now," he said. "They were interesting questions and I liked the way they were formulating their questions."

Not all of the questions were serious. Elisabeth Moolenaar a doctoral student in anthropology, says the young people had lots of questions about customs in the Netherlands.

"It really seems they are very curious. They ask us all kinds of questions," she said. "Let me see. What were fun ones? They asked me about the kissing part. They think that is very interesting that we do all the kissing. And of course they ask about different rules we have regarding marijuana."

The scholars also learned about the students and American education. New York officials say students in the city's public schools speak more than 150 languages. The diversity amazed Yee Kan Koh.

"In Malaysia we have different races, but not from all over the world. This is really form all over the world," he said. "You have [students] from Asia, from Africa, from South America, everywhere. This is something that I think is very special for New York."

Chalak Muhammed was equally surprised by the freedom in the classrooms.

"The nature of the classes, the way that the students behave inside the school, the more freedom that they have in posing questions and making a conversation with the speaker, all of these things are a little bit different from the way that we are used to studying in our classrooms back home. So this is a very nice experience," he said.

The school visits were part of a Fulbright program on immigration and the idea of the United States as a melting pot.