She never used public transportation. She never met a Muslim.
But both her parents had been international students, and they encouraged her to study abroad. Her mother earned her master’s degree at Marymount University in Virginia. Her father earned his undergraduate degree at Cornell University in New York state and his master’s from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
They wanted Rojas and her sister to see the outside world, too, she said. Her father often told them how much he loved his experience, and how much it changed him.
“So he wanted that for us, too,” she said. “They always encouraged us to apply to universities, to take the SAT, take the TOEFL, go look at universities.”
Rojas wanted to attend a large school for her undergraduate studies, she said, thinking a big school would have international students and American students of different races and backgrounds. But her high school guidance counselor asked Rojas to consider a smaller college or university. In the end, in 2016 she chose Roger Williams University to study psychology.
Roger Williams is a private, liberal arts university formed in 1956 in Bristol, Rhode Island. It is named after a prominent early leader in the 13 colonies that became the United States. He promoted “scholarship in language, theology and law, and fearless advocacy for freedom and tolerance,” according to the school website.
The school has about 4,800 students on a campus overlooking Mount Hope Bay, a sparkling body of water typical of the ocean and rivers around Rhode Island, the smallest of the United States.
Rojas said she was a little worried whether the student population at Roger Williams was diverse enough for her. The U.S Department of Education’s College Scorecard says 73 percent of the students are white. Rojas said she worried that as a foreigner and a Latina, people would treat her like an outsider.
But she quickly found friends at the Intercultural Center at the school that helps international students with their academic and social lives. The center offers study help and hosts special events, as well as being a place for international students to relax with friends.
Rojas said she made friends from all over the world, including people from countries like Rwanda and Saudi Arabia.
And while she first thought her race or nationality would separate her from American students, she could not have been more wrong, Rojas said. Americans are much less open to meeting strangers than people in Costa Rica, she said. But once her classmates learn she is an international student, they are happy to talk and have many questions about her life back home.
But for Roger Williams student Qiming Li, the language barrier made talk and communication difficult. It was difficult to make friends with Americans, and he struggled to be treated equally, he said.
Li first came to the United States in 2009 from Guangzhou, China. He graduated high school from the Darrow School, a private high school in New York state in 2012 that “offers a comprehensive, dynamic and supportive program for English language learners,” its website says.
A few months after graduation, having applied to several U.S. colleges and universities, he began his undergraduate studies in history at Roger Williams.
Even though he had lived in the United States for three years when he started at Roger Williams, Li says his English was still not strong. Classmates on a group project tried to do his share of the work, he says, thinking he could fulfill his part.
Ever since, Li said, proving himself has been important to him. He completed his undergraduate studies in spring 2016, and started a master’s degree program in historical preservation at Roger Williams the following fall.
Like Rojas, Li says he is grateful for the support he received from the Intercultural Center. He says students and staff he has met through the center never judge him. And while he has faced some difficulties dealing with American students, he still has learned a lot from them.
“If I did not came here ... I think my views on a lot of things would be different. In this school you have students from everywhere, people from U.K., South Africa. And you have people from the southern part, the West Coast of the U.S. You kind of get an opinion of how everyone feels about different things.”
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