Cal Poly business student Celia Lausson looks and acts like many students on campus. But once Lausson speaks, she reveals her thick Swedish accent. While the 23-year-old international exchange undergraduate shared her thoughts during a group project, she was immediately isolated by one of her peers because of her gender and accent, she said.
“For the first time in a long time I actually felt that a guy looked down on me because I was an international girl,” Lausson said. “He kind of didn’t listen to me… I’m pretty outspoken and know what I want, so I got really mad at him because he didn’t listen to my ideas. (Maybe it was my) thick accent or because I am a girl; I don’t know if there was some feminine or masculine thing. I haven’t met that anywhere else.”
Although Lausson said she does not want to stereotype Americans and the experience is probably an isolated incident, adjusting to life at Cal Poly poses obstacles for international students who are often overlooked by the average undergraduate.
“I was a little bit desperate sometimes because I thought that I had good friends; I met them several times and it was good,’’ said Michael Gramm, a 24-year-old electrical engineering graduate student from Germany. “We talked in class and we even had fun on the weekends but now they don’t even talk to you anymore… I write them text messages or something and they don’t even text back. Sometimes I have the feeling they are very friendly and stuff but it is just on the top and they don’t want a deeper friendship.”
Lausson said that although Californians are easy to get along with, people don’t often value friends as a part of their family as they do in Sweden.
“It’s a different friendship here than it is back home, they kinda act like family and take care of each other (in Sweden),” Lausson said.
Cal Poly doesn’t attract many international students compared to other California State Universities because of its rural environment, said Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) specialist Susan Tripp of International Education and Programs.
In the 2008-2009 school year, Cal Poly has 178 international students on campus, 138 of them undergraduates.
Most of the students enrolled during fall of 2008 came from Germany, Japan, France, Korea and Sweden; 34 percent studied engineering and 24 percent studied architecture and business. Gramm said his friend who attends UC Santa Barbara told him there are 170 German international exchange students alone.
“I think maybe the attitude at Cal Poly needs to change a little bit,” said Barbara Andre, associate director of International Students and Scholars. Since California residents have priority in the CSU system, it’s harder for international students to get in, Andre said.
“There is no real recruiting because it is so popular and so in demand that folks overseas don’t even know Cal Poly,” Andre said. “I don’t see that changing in the near future.”
Adapting to a brand new social life takes time, especially without a large international population on campus. But getting used to Cal Poly’s class structure is a feat in itself, said Lausson, who had never taken a multiple choice test before and studied predominantly one subject at a time in her semester system back home.
“Studies are hard in a different way here, you have homework all the time; you have to produce, produce, produce,” she said. “Back home you have to stay focused and know, OK, I have this exam in a couple months, here is a little stressed out because you have assignments… It took me a quarter to adjust.”
While Cal Poly teachers are generally more helpful than the ones in Sweden, some are more apt to make students regurgitate facts rather than writing essays and doing projects, said Marcus Larsson, a 25-year-old Swedish international exchange business student.
“It makes you more self-confident (when) you have to think on your own and there’s not a teacher feeding information anymore,” he said. “You have to grab it yourself.”
“I feel that teachers here are giving you a paper and all the info you need; just shove it in and memorize it,” he added.
The language barrier prevents Larsson from being his quick-witted self around friends and has some effect in the classroom as well, he said.
“I usually know what (teachers) mean… the problem is you can’t really be yourself both in school and outside because you want to have quick comments,” Larsson said. “(When) I have to think 10 seconds before I decide to put a sentence together, it is frustrating… it’s hard to be the guy I am in Sweden.”
It can also be difficult to understand some of the technical terms discussed in his electrical engineering classes, Gramm said.
“In (the) first quarter it was really hard… sometimes in engineering classes it is more hard because there are special words, which in German I know (but not the English counterpart),” Gramm said.
All the international students interviewed recognized the distinctive Cal Poly “learn by doing” approach that sets it apart from universities overseas.
“(Every week) we had a lab and we built circuits; I studied three years in Germany and haven’t (dealt with) any circuits,” Gramm said.
Class is more practical at Cal Poly because German universities focus on the theoretical side, he said. Students in Germany go to lectures and do calculations, but are forced to simply imagine how technical processes play out, Gramm said.
Cal Poly is unique because teachers are able to specialize their curriculum on what they think is important and what they are more experienced with, contrary to more structured teaching in Sweden, Larsson said.
“I like that teachers can be more flexible; they can focus more on… their own experience,” he said, noting two 400-level business professors that have completely different styles.
Lausson attributes the Swedish teachers’ common instruction methods and material to Sweden being somewhat socialistic. Aside from school, Lausson said international students enjoy the adjustment to warm weather and sandal-sporting lifestyle of the San Luis Obispo’s population, but often do not factor in unique customs regarding drinking.
“What really surprised me that when you turn 21 you are supposed to get so drunk and so wasted that you can’t remember anything,” she said. “So we compare that to 18 (in Sweden when) you kinda wanted to do the classy thing, have nice drinks with your girlfriends, dance and have fun — not get so wasted you forget about it.”
The emphasis on Cal Poly athletics also surprised Larsson, who was amazed that someone would get a scholarship for “putting a ball in a basket or running fast.”
“Everyone is very sporty; I have never seen a fitness center big like Cal Poly’s with the weight machines, said Gramm, who is more active in California than Germany.
Although it is expensive for international students to attend Cal Poly — many times college overseas is either free or relatively inexpensive — coming to California has been a dream fulfilled, Lausson said.
Gramm’s parents told him, “You make it (to California) only once in your life.”