International students share BYU experiences, struggles

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Panelists at the International Students PEN Talks event on Feb. 12. From left, Sam Brown (moderator), Bon Lee, Seen Tarawhiti, Nori Gomez, Fatma Luka, Jyles Datoon, Lauren Woolley and Israel Selway. (Julia Cottam)

Seven international students took the stage at the semester’s penultimate BYUSA PEN Talks event to discuss about their experiences adjusting to the United States and life at BYU. 

BYUSA Vice President Kyrie Papenfuss began the evening by reminding the audience that the purpose of PEN Talks is to “foster a culture of inclusivity and respect.” 

Kyrie Papenfuss opens PEN Talks panel event on Feb. 12. (Julia Cottam)

Questions for the panelists were submitted anonymously. Papenfuss referenced last week’s controversial submissions at the Black and Immigrant panel, and told the audience that this was a safe space and derogatory comments would not be tolerated. 

Sam Brown, director of BYU’s International Student and Scholar Services Office, moderated the panel.

“International students stimulate and enrich our campus here at BYU,” Brown said.

Panelists started off by talking about things they miss from their home countries: poutine, Vegemite, free food delivery and drivers who use their turn signals. 

Jyles Datoon, a Filipino exercise science major from Toronto, Canada, talked about finding community in a place that is known for lacking diversity.

“It does lack diversity here, but if you actively look for people who share the same cultures and values, it’s definitely there,” Datoon said. “You just have to go looking for it rather than it being presented to you.”

Israel Selway — an art major from England with Jamaican and Thai heritage — agreed. She talked about how she has involved herself with various ethnic groups on campus to find community, but she said BYU did not make it easy. 

“It took six years for BYU to allow the creation of the Women of Color club,” Selway said. “I feel like BYU could improve on offering help to us rather than us having to fight to find help and community.”

Seen Tarawhiti shares his international student experience at a PEN Talks event on Feb. 12. (Julia Cottam)

Seen Tarawhiti, a junior from New Zealand and Australia studying experience design and management, said he has been told his acceptance to BYU was just a way to boost the school’s diversity ratings.

“That’s something that can get upsetting,” Tarawhiti said. “I was admitted just like everyone else, but it makes sharing my background tough.”

Tarawhiti also talked about the difficulty of supporting yourself financially as an international student. By law, international students are only allowed to hold campus jobs and are not allowed to work more than 20 hours each week without risking losing their visas. 

“You’re not able to support yourself, really,” Tarawhiti said. “Campus jobs don’t really pay the best, so if you don’t have anyone supporting you, it’s hard to just basically survive.”

The panelists then turned the discussion to inclusion and what it means to be a minority.

Bon Lee, a journalism major from South Korea, said she enjoys when people are excited to learn more about her and her culture.

“Just treat me like a normal person,” Lee said. “I don’t think you have to treat minorities any differently than anyone else, just be excited about the individual.”

Fatma Luka shares her international student experience at a PEN Talks event on Feb. 12. (Julia Cottam)

Fatma Luka discussed becoming a minority for the first time after moving to the United States from Sudan. 

“I walk down the street and I always wonder why people are staring at me,” Luka said, chuckling. “Then I look down and remember I’m black. Being treated differently is hard.”

Luka also talked about interacting with new people on campus who want to know her background.

“It’s exhausting having to explain to people all the time and share my whole story,” Luka said. “I always feel empty because I give so much and they never give anything back about themselves.”

Nori Gomez is a sociology major and a recipient of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Gomez’s parents came to the United States from Venezuela when she was four years old and she has lived here ever since. 

“I think there’s this really odd stigma that people from other places have bad intentions when they come here,” Gomez said. “That’s not true. We all have something to offer regardless of where we’re from.”

Lauren Wooley shares international student experience at a PEN Talks event on Feb. 12. (Julia Cottam)

Gomez continued by pointing out the similarities students have as a BYU student body and human race.

“Everyone’s primary identity is that of a child of God,” Gomez said. “That’s the most important thing, before race or ethnicity or social class; we are all created with that divinity within us.”

She encouraged BYU students to remember that similarity in their interactions with people who they view as foreign or different.

“As part of the student body of a religious school, we can create a lot of difference if we choose to see people in that light before anything else, and treat them as such,” Gomez said.

Lauren Wooley, a journalism major from Queensland, Australia, closed the night by talking about how being among so many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has helped her feel comfortable despite being far from home.

“It makes it easier to understand each other,” Wooley said. “We all have that one thing in common. I think focusing on that would really help the diversity problems that do exist.”

The semester’s final BYUSA PEN Talks event will discuss mental health and will be held on March 18.

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