From the Midwest to the Mediterranean: Why accidentally working with international students changed my life

As a fresh-faced 19-year-old going into my sophomore year of college, I was excited to help out with our school’s “Dawg Days” program, a multicultural pre-orientation for incoming Butler University students.

Having gone through the program myself the year prior and meeting people who are still some of my closest friends, I looking forward to helping the next batch of students have the same great experience that I had.

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Two Hoosiers and a Spaniard, just eating some churros con chocolate 4,000 miles away from where we met in Indiana!

There was just one problem: I had a car. Now, there was nothing wrong with having a car—in fact, as I’m writing this in Malaga, Spain, I miss driving Sheila (yes, I named my car, and you should too :’D).

But, having a car for this particular program changed things. It meant that I would not work with students coming in from Chicago suburbs and Indianapolis but from Belgium and South Korea.

Why? One simple reason: international students would be landing at the airport, and our fearless leader, Miss Bobbie, needed our help picking them up and bringing them to campus. Since those of us with cars would be the first ones to interact with the international students, it made sense we would be mentors for them instead of for incoming domestic students.

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Clara and Marie pretending they are still friends with me after I accidentally had them eat croquetas with meat

While this made sense, I was quite nervous upon learning this: I had only been in college two semesters and I just turned 19—what in the world could I know that an older, international student wouldn’t? Simply put, I felt I was much more prepared to help students from Vincennes, Indiana than Vincennes, France. 

Regardless, in August of 2016, I nervously drove to the airport to pick up two students: one from Australia, one from Finland. Despite my nerves (which I realized were probably more prevalent on the international students’ part than mine, especially after having gone on my own semester abroad two springs ago and being excited but absolutely terrified), I quickly realized something: this program was awesome.

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One thing Indiana does have: yellow school buses! (It was always fun to see how excited some internationals got about these bad boys :’D)

For those of you without the pleasure of having been to Indiana, I’ll let you in on a secret: Indiana is not a tourist destination.

Last month, when I learned someone from here in Malaga had been to Indiana, my response was not, “That’s awesome!” but “Why?” I asked not because I didn’t want anyone coming to my home state, but because of the fact that I am not sure what someone would come to Indiana to do.

Indiana, you see, is a state full of feed corn and soybeans which, while agriculturally exciting, does not usually attract an international (or even national) audience.

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Seeing Ana in Bilbao!

With this in mind, in high school, someone from “far away” was someone from Illinois, not Japan. Indianapolis (Indy) is growing, but having grown up around there, the only languages I would hear on the streets were English and the occasional Spanish. Most people seem to be locals.

So, sitting in Butler’s Diversity Center that first morning of the program, surrounded by conversations English, Spanish, German, French, and a language or two that I couldn’t even place, I was amazed. It was so cool!

And don’t get me wrong: I love Indiana, and most of my best friends are Hoosiers. But, being able to share my goofy, unflashy but beloved state with people from around the world and seeing their eyes light up at things I took for granted (the size of American cars, the huge distances between things, the concept of school spirit, the ubiquity of the American flag) was exciting.

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Me in Uppsala, Sweden, after a classic night of Swedish tacos!

It helped me see my own home state, and country, through new eyes, and it helped me see myself traveling: I wouldn’t be traveling across the world to Germany, I’d be traveling to see my friend Jonas.

Countries became demystified as my circle of friends included more and more people from around the world.

And so, due in large part to my involved in Butler’s Diversity Center and the international orientation program, the next six semesters were quite the enjoyable time.

Chief among memories remains the once-a-semester Walmart trip, and walking through that concrete giant with excited, confused, and—at times—overwhelmed (why do we have an entire aisle of toothpaste?) students.

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Visiting La Albufera in Valencia with Adriana!

Or, the annual Kings’ Island trip as we did, and re-did, The Count (those of you who know what this is will be laughing and/or rolling your eyes) and enjoyed making fast friendships throughout our day at the amusement park.

Besides the orientation itself, the amount of things I learned and foods I tried because of the international students continues to amaze me.

I was taught how to make pesto, crepes, Spanish tortilla, kaiserschmarrn, and paratha. I learned how to do a “shoe-y” (though thankfully have never done one), take a “smoko,” and delighted in learning about “fika.” I learned what it means to have “la flemme” and when to declare something “sweet as.” I argued about the brilliance of air conditioning, discussed gun control laws in the U.S., and learned differences in resume-writing between the United States and France.

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Seeing the Olympic Park in Munich with Anna!

At a university where most of us were white, from the Midwest, and from the upper end of the tax bracket, I got to meet students from over 20 countries across six continents. It was awesome—and still is: now having been in Spain for the past three, almost four months, I am continuously more and more grateful at these friendships.

Living now in Spain for the year, I’ve been able to reconnect with several of these friends, doing things I never would have dreamed of otherwise.

I visited Uppsala, Sweden, for a weekend to visit my friend David and be shown around the oldest university in Sweden and enjoy a julbord at Ikea, walked around the Olympic Park in Munich with my friend Anna, spent Christmas in Valencia with my friend Adriana and her family, and toured Bilbao with my friend Ana.

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Visiting Ikea IN THE HOMELAND OF IKEA!!

My friends Marie and Clara, from France and Belgium, respectively, visited me in Malaga this past week, where more than once we discussed how cool it is to be hanging out again, two years after we were together at Butler. And, in a few weeks I’ll be in Hamburg, Germany to see another friend who I met over two years ago through the same orientation program.

After being one of the first American faces for the international students who (somehow) ended up in the heart of the land of corn, it has been so cool and heart-warming to see these friendships be continued now as I am able to visit some of these friends in their own continents, countries, cities, and neighborhoods.

Even though my first semester working with international students might have been an accident, it was absolutely a happy one! Getting to know different parts of the world through in-person interactions with people from those parts of the world has been awesome, something I hope to continue always: getting to know one new perspective at a time, trying delicious food all the while, and forming friendships along the way.

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That’s all I’ve got for today, peeps – I’d love to hear any thoughts or Qs you have in the comments below! Thanks for reading, and stay Splashy 🙂


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