During the month of August hundreds of international student essay entries poured in from all corners of the world, and after countless hours, lots of coffee and some tired eyes our judges were able to narrow down the list to 6 finalists - all with their unique spin and inspiring words about a specific travel or study abroad experience.
We are proud to present our International Student Essay Contest Winners:
- $200 First Place:
- Milan Djurasovic — “Mother's Fear Means She Wants You Near”
- $75 Second Place:
- Sofia Camacho — “Parents Are Always Right”
- $25 Third Place:
- Eshul Rayhan — “Culture Shock Or A Lesson Towards Life?”
“Mother's Fear Means She Wants You Near”
It needed to be done. I put it off as long as I could, but in the end I had to do it. “Mom,” I said almost inaudibly, “There is something I need to tell you and I need you to stop vacuuming and sit down next to me.” “Did you get someone pregnant?” Mom asked. The question was meant as a joke, but her knitted eyebrows and squinty eyes told me that she was genuinely concerned. “Of course not,” I muttered automatically, having fallen into the habit of excusing myself for all kinds of things my mom was suspicious of. “It’s something else I need to tell you, I am going to move to Russia to study Russian literature,” I uttered gruffly, heartened by some mysterious force. I even had enough courage to uncurl my shoulders and look straight ahead as I spoke. “I want to learn Russian so that I can read Dostoevsky in the language in which he wrote his masterpieces. Translations of these works can deliver only a snippet of the original art and thought.” I was startled by the words that flowed out of my mouth. None of this was planned.
“What do you mean you’re moving to Russia?” my mother said. Mom stood up and started pacing around the room for five unbearably long minutes. When she finally stopped, she steadied herself against the chair, drank a full bottle of water in three gulps, and started to unleash the anxiety that was accumulating and sloshing in her chest. “You’ll start drinking!” she said with quivering lips. “You’ll start drinking and you’ll fall somewhere in the street and freeze to death. Everyone drinks there to keep warm. Russian winters are like nothing you’ve ever seen before. And there are bears everywhere! What if a bear attacks you? You don’t even have boots! You’ll have to wear thermal underwear and you know how much you hate wearing tight clothing.” I remained silent and allowed her to expel everything that was on her mind.
There was so much on my mother’s mind that it took over a month before she started to repeat herself, and it took another two months before she became tired of doing it. Warnings and terrifying stories ceased at the end of the third month and shopping for warm clothing began. At the end of the shopping spree we ended up with three full suitcases of woolen sweaters, hats, ski masks, thermal socks, and even military coats and boots. When it was time for me to leave, I was forced to take all three suitcases with me to Saint Petersburg. I have been living in St. Petersburg for almost a year, and although I haven’t started drinking, I have seen a bear (in a zoo of course), and I have also learned the importance of having a good quality pair of boots. Most importantly, I would like to say that I am very thankful for having such a loving mother.
"Mother's Fear Means She Wants You Near"
“Parents Are Always Right”
Parents can often be right, however, as a child living in Colombia I was positive that the opposite was true. My parents felt that learning to play a musical instrument was crucial in “rounding out” my personality. Initially, I was unconvinced. Nevertheless, they decided that I was ready and signed me up for piano lessons. After a hectic week of academic and extracurricular activities, the Friday afternoon piano class seemed an inescapable torture. Señor Jose, my instructor, uptight and overbearing, sat in my house waiting for me. At 5pm sharp, the battle began. “Sofia, have you no passion? Music must ride on a passion,” he scolded as I held back tears. “Play it again.” I desperately wanted to quit, but I persisted. By approaching the hard work with a desire to improve, I threw myself into the arpeggios and scales until I completed my first piece. Little by little, the rhythms and melodies filled our Bogotá home and I realized that my piano teacher gave me the greatest gift: love for music, as well as the priceless character values of commitment and discipline.
Moving from Colombia to New York City in 2010 was also a battle. Mastering conversational English and immersing myself in an American school was no different from the “torture” of my early piano instruction. Señor Jose, the memory of him forever burned in my mind, helped me to navigate these new obstacles. After arriving in New York City, an amazing public transportation system took me to school. I received a free newspaper, the Metro News, but could not understand much of the text. What train was I supposed to take? Was I going uptown or downtown? I took the wrong train, but I did not panic-- instead, I looked at a map and asked calmly for directions. After finding my way to school, I was the first girl to arrive.
With some time to relax before first period, I entered the cafeteria and noticed a derelict and dust-covered piano. As I opened the lid and played one of my favorite Colombian songs, several girls entered the room yet I was unaware that they were behind me. They awaited the conclusion of the piece and then stated to clap. I was stunned to discover girls, who just were like me, eager to learn about different cultures and meet new people. Moreover, in only a couple of weeks, I became an expert at navigating the subway system to the point that I was also giving directions to newcomers who felt lost on their few first days in the city. Soon, I will advance my piano playing to a more demanding composition. I have learned something precious from my dear teacher Señor Jose: I will not pick up a musical instrument for the first time and expect to know how to play it, when I do not get immediate results, quitting is not an option. Instead, commitment and taking diligent actions are the elements that drive me to a day-to-day success.
"Parents Are Always Right"
“Culture Shock Or A Lesson Towards Life?”
"That is a rude way of saying it," said the sales staff when I asked for a bottle of water by saying, "Give me a bottle of water." I never knew that saying it in that way might offend someone, I never had the intention to. I was later corrected that it should be said, "May I please have a bottle of water?" I did not feel upset but I was embarrassed to think that is that how I represented myself and my country. It was the first 'culture shock' I received when I first went to London, UK from Bangladesh. But I would not refer to it as a shock, but a lesson which I was never taught and was still in the process of learning.
Deciding to visit London for 3 years to study was never easy, as I am the only child of my parents. It was shocking for both me and my parents when we found out that my visa was granted. It was only then we realized that we are going to be far from each other for a long time. In spite of the depression and stress we had to call for a decision and going abroad had the highest vote. I started to learn lessons from the very beginning, when boarding the flight as I never travelled by plane before. It was overwhelming and I had a mixed feeling of immense joy and utter sadness. I was confused what to feel and what not to. In the end I just let my brain decide by itself, I was feeling too tired to decide.
I would not say I had the worst time of my life when I was travelling but it was not the best either. It took me 15 minutes to buckle my seat belt and the hostess was frustrated as she was training me through it. It made me think of myself as being from the prehistoric age and behaving similar to a cave man. Somehow I managed to do it, but I was pretty sure, I did not do it right and did not want to bother the hostess anymore. I assumed she'd had enough for a day.
As soon as I landed in Heathrow and was out on the streets, I felt that I was nowhere in this world. I had no one whom I knew; I felt like a complete alien and almost booked the next flight back to Bangladesh. But this time, I did not let my brain decide by itself, I was the one who was in control. I took a deep breath and whispered to myself, "Embrace me, Oh London!"
That was it, the motivation took 3 long years to fade. I completed my studies, made tons of friends and above all, I learned. I learned how to speak and what not to speak. I learned only a simple smile would say a thousand words. I learned how to make friends and not hurt people. I learned how things work and how things need to be done. I learn not only how to program software but also how to program my life so that it is free of any calamities. I strongly agree to the fact that going abroad was one of the best decisions of my life and taught me many lessons throughout every step.
"Culture Shock Or A Lesson Towards Life?"
Congratulations to the other finalists:
“Amazing English Language”
My educational year as an international student in USA started out very odd. I arrived at my school late in the night and tried to check in, however, the room I was supposed to move into was still occupied. Moreover, the room was not just merely occupied but it had so many clothes on the floor that I thought some sort of kid who likes playing in pillow castles stayed there. Luckily after four times, I finally understood the security guard whose accent was hard for me to pick up, that I can stay the night in the other empty room. Being tired after the flight I just fell on the bed and didn't care much about the person next door who was playing loud music.
Only in the morning when things cleared up I beheld that things are not too bad. The campus was small and cozy. Students walking around seemed nice, especially the girls. The first person I happened to talk to was a track guy from Jamaica. We had a longest conversation with the word used most being "what?" I had a hard time learning this new accent. Both of us had accents and we had a hard time trying to understand what we were talking about. Maybe for a while someone third in our conversation would think that we were deaf. It was funny how a third guy later joined our conversation and did translations for each of us. It was a guy from Kenya who said: "Guys, we all speak English but for some reason I am being translator to both of you, maybe you should pay me for that." Those guys are now my good friends. It took me a month to first, understand the Jamaican accent and second, to imitate it. Now I can speak somewhat with a Jamaican accent and pretend to be from Jamaica.
Another really hard accent for me to understand was the African American accent. There were some guys on campus who were talking too fast and speaking in an African American accent with words that I'd never heard. Like when someone called my style Swaggy I thought they are trying to make fun of my clothes or the other time when someone called me a homeboy, I thought it was an insult. Many words were new to me and some regular words would have weird meanings. I had so many questions for my local friends about phrases and new words I heard. Sometimes my friends would laugh and sometimes they would explain in a very serious way. I think so far I've learned most spoken African American dialect words but there are still a horizon of words and accent use that I have to discover for myself. To my amusement, I have a better understanding of Spanish speakers. Even if they lack some vocabulary in English, their accent is easier for me to understand. I almost have "no hay problema" with understanding Spanish-English. Good for me, all my teachers had distinct American English accents that I understood with ease.
I found it so exciting that I could learn English in couple accents and use it. I found that in every social group the accent I spoke made people more friendly to me. For instance I was trying to speak in an American English accent when talking to my professors and tried using an African American accent when I talked to my African American friends. I enjoy being able to sound like them. I feel like I am learning more than a language, I am learning a culture in every accent. Of course it was hard in the beginning and annoying that I couldn't hear people because of accents, but now when I am use them, I feel like I can express my ideas in at least 3 ways in the same English language.
"Amazing English Language"
While the crew recites instructions before take-off, the passengers recite their own instructions—a promise to the people they are leaving or are returning to. The roar of the engine echoes the roar of my heart, a stifled scream filled with anticipation and a sense of longing.
Time seem to pass slowly until the packing begins, when I have to decide which shoes to bring, which pair of boots to leave behind and whether I would need my shades. All this packing takes some good amount of time but the things I want most are the things I cannot bring. Packing brings out the best and worst in people. The worst are the hoarders and unfortunately, I am a hoarder. The undying struggle to decide what to bring and what to leave has made me reflect on the people closest to me. Have I been a good daughter? Will Mum be sad? Who is going to bake cookies and wait for Santa for me? All these personal questions hit me when packing and I choke back a tear. Packing involves organizing and digging for that necklace that seems to go missing whenever I want to wear it. Sometimes I feel like even my clothes are hiding from me, pulling me back to stay home. A few months ago, going away seemed all exciting and nothing more. But emotions hit me most while packing. I feel like I’m packing my entire life at home away. So I leave some of me behind, and arranged my books like how I left them the day before, for some things should change and some should be left the way it was. I vaguely remember I was supposed to count what items to bring but organizing what to bring suddenly morphed into counting blessings and priorities. Should I bring that watch? Yes, it was my graduation gift. Should I bring that top? Yes, a good friend gave it to me. It hit me suddenly how I took most things for granted till they are about to be taken away.
So, the life lesson I learned from packing is the reemphasize of the phrase “we start dying once we are born.” Morbid as it might sound, it is the reason we should savour a moment, down to the last second. With that I resolved to appreciate my university moments for the next 3 years since they would be my last few years of studying, and perhaps I might miss examinations in the near future. I flipped open my computer and compiled together an album named “Home." The folder contained pictures of my family, my friends and the people dearest to heart. I can do without that pair of jeans or that top for I need that luggage space to store my heart—a photo album filled with the smiles and happy moments, a piece of home to take with me. I know that for the past month, Mum has been creeping in to my room quietly, watching me sleep and it feels strangely good to be a little girl once again. She wears a smile and says “take care” but in her glistening eyes I see fear amidst love. While the plane prepares for take-off on the runway, I cross my fingers for an adventure.
“Trip of a Lifetime”
Like any person my age, the word "traveling" is enthralling. Many have tried it, whether internationally or locally. But to me, a 15 year old, it was always a word that linked to a dream, a word I never experienced the true meaning of. A son of two extremely busy workers, brother of 6, I was the only one I knew who just never traveled, never even got on a plane. "Why?" you may ask. Well it's simple, my family just couldn't afford it. So I waited, and waited, and waited till the day came, the day I've always wanted: the day I'm going to see a new world. I'll get a new perspective.
It was July 1st, 2011, when both my parents shocked me with their decision. "Son, we both think it's time for you to finally accomplish one of your dreams. You're going to Europe!" I stayed quiet for a few seconds. Not knowing if this was one of the dreams I'd always had and I was going to wake up, but when I didn't, I just started shouting and, yes, cursing! I was so happy, the happiest person in the world. The day finally came, I was going to travel, to get on a plane. Now another person would've probably asked instantly where they're going, but I didn't care. Turned out, I was going to the UK to take an English course in one of the most popular institutes there: St. Giles. Two weeks later, I had my visa, passport, bag, and everything I was ever going to need to survive all by myself. And the crazy part that everyone was impressed with was I wasn't even a bit scared. Traveling all by myself is part of the process of me becoming independent. The independent man I've always aspired to be.
8 hours on a plane. 8. Hours. It was the most boring 8 hours of my life and I didn't know what to do. I usually take advantage of the time where I'm not doing anything and DO something. But I couldn't do anything. It was too crowded to sleep. Too noisy to read. And the food was just toodisgusting to eat. It was not the way I imagined my first time on an airplane to be. But the second I got off the plane, it was just magical, I had a new feeling. A feeling I can never find words to express.
Living in Saudi Arabia for as long as I could remember, I was mesmerized by the silliest things. Raindrops on roses. Taxis. Even Skyscrapers! Which I found out later is an object that impressed people. I found my way to an old man holding a yellow sign that said "St. Giles" and hopped in the taxi with him. I overwhelmed him with my questions but he answered them all. Before I got off, I asked him for advice and he gave me a great piece that I'll remember for as long as I remember; "Leave a good impression of your culture on the countries you are visiting." Throughout the story, you'll now how I much I treasure that advice.
Two weeks in, met some of the most sophisticated people in my life. Hung out with the funniest, most passionate teachers in the world. Learned about so many cultures: French, Italian, Spanish and Indian. It was all so fascinating. But the part that really wasn't what I expected were the people of my country. The place was filled with Saudis. I was happy that we all could be a good example of our country, but it was the complete opposite.
They were obnoxious, arrogant, ill-mannered…they did things I never knew anyone could do. To girls, to guys, even to teachers. They had no respect whatsoever and people were disgusted by them. Whenever I tried to be talk to someone and they found out I'm Saudi, they just slowly backed off. That's when I realized that I can make a change. Even if it's going to be hard, I will. I'll just go and apologize to everyone they ever insulted in the camp. And I did. I just went to them and said: "Hey. I just want to apologize on behalf of my country and I want you to know we're not all bad." That seemed to impress everyone. I gained friends in a matter of days when before, I'd tried to in two weeks and never succeeded. And most importantly, I did leave a good impression before I left the place. The trip changed me. It gave me a focus. A drive. A goal. And it's really important because a life without meaning, without drive or focus, without dreams or goals, isn't a life worth living. It made me realize and understand a quote I've always read, but before that trip never understood. "You don't get to pick where you come from but you always have control of where you're going." It was indeed a trip of a lifetime.
"Trip of a Lifetime"