Change isn’t Easy: International Student Challenges at UVI

CORLISS SMITHEN |

ST. THOMAS – Liliana Moreno comes to the Center for Student Success for about three hours every day where she works as a Learning Assistant.

Some of her time at the CSS is spent tutoring students in Spanish, but when she is not patiently explaining to her tutees how to conjugate stem-changing verbs and other difficult concepts in Spanish, she sits at a table by herself catching up on her assignments. She barely converses with the other learning assistants or other students inside the CSS. She would politely smile, though, and return a greeting, but she would hardly initiate a conversation.

At the end of her shift, she folds her laptop, signs out her hours, leaves the center and heads for her next destination.

More than a year ago, Liliana Moreno, a Mexican exchange student, left her Universidad Internacional located in Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico and headed for the University of the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas campus. Her friend, who attended UVI but has since returned to his native Mexico, told her about the university and relayed the wonderful experiences he had on the island.

“He loved the food, the language wasn’t a problem because he speaks English very well and he told me it was a nice place,” Moreno said.

At the urging of her friend, Moreno left her hometown and flew almost 4,000 miles to the U.S. Virgin Islands. When her plane landed at the Cyril E. King Airport, the island was enveloped in darkness, except for airport lights and streetlights.

“When I first came, I saw the island; it was a little different than I thought,” Moreno said. “When I saw it, it was so small and I thought that I was in the middle of nowhere, nobody lived here and I had to go back home.”

Moreno managed to settle into her college dorm, but she has had to grapple with several challenges: the language barrier, the culture, the food and the attitude of the locals.

“When I came here, I couldn’t speak or understand one word of English. It was very difficult for me. I thought I would have to drop every class,” Moreno said.

After three semesters of taking English classes, Moreno has improved in speaking English but she now faces the challenge of writing the language.

She is still not fluent in English and that has hampered her participation in class.

“Even if I understand and want to say something, I don’t know how to say it,” Moreno said. “It takes time for me to formulate a thought and by the time I want to say it, it’s time to move on to another subject. I usually stay quiet in the class and if I have a friend in the class, I go to them for help and ask them to explain to me what the professor said in class.”

St. Thomas Campus entrance sign. File photo from UVI’s website
St. Thomas Campus entrance sign.
File photo from UVI’s website

Even outside of the classroom, Moreno has difficulty talking with her peers.

“I want to be in conversations, but people talk fast. By the time I finish my sentence, people are on another topic,” she said.

The manner of English speakers is also baffling to Moreno.

“English and Spanish speakers speak differently,” she said. “We speak with more passion; English speakers are less passionate. When we laugh, we say ‘ha, ha, ha,’ but English speakers say LOL. Or if they think they’re laughing a lot, they write LMAO. In my culture, if you say something, it shows.”

Moreno faces another conundrum – the attitude of local students.

“I have a problem with the people; I don’t understand how they act sometimes. For example, they say yes when they mean no. I don’t understand that. In Mexico, when we say no, we mean no,” she said. “Another thing is that sometimes students speak to me, we have a good conversation, and then for the next few days, they don’t speak to me. I see them in the hallway and when I say hello to them, they look at me strangely. I don’t understand that.”

As for the food, Moreno misses her spicy gastronomical delights.

“The food tastes different and at first, I didn’t enjoy it. I am able to eat it now, but not a lot like other people. Nothing is spicy, nothing is lemon; I feel like something is missing from it,” she said.

Moreno is one of the 120 international students who are enrolled at UVI and who also face challenges on campus. Even students from other neighboring Caribbean islands have expressed some issues that they face. Candace Samuel, a Kittitian, is one such student.

“As international students, we have to wait for a whole year to get approval to work on campus and then we have to wait to be processed by Social Security,” she said. “When I was approached by the Science Department to be a peer instructor for Science 100, I readily agreed and when I began the employment process, it appeared that Mary Myers, program specialist II counseling and placement wasn’t very receptive about having international students work on campus. However, I went through the process and now I’m employed.”

Her sentiments were echoed by another Kittitian student, Andrea Wilson.

“Students have to wait a year before they can get a job on campus and even when they are enrolled for a year, they still can’t source an on-campus job. Also, it’s very seldom that international students get selected for jobs at the Access and Enrollment office or the library; they mostly get jobs as RAs,” she said.

South Dorm is one of several residence halls on the St. Thomas campus. File photo from UVI’s website.
South Dorm is one of several residence halls on the St. Thomas campus.
File photo from UVI’s website.

Another gripe for Samuel is that there are not enough scholarships for international students.

“Some of the scholarships don’t apply to us. Most of them are for permanent residents or U.S. citizens. I think UVI can offer more scholarships for international students,” she said.

Lack of communication is an issue for Lyncia Dore, a student from St. Kitts who is majoring in education.

“You have to go up and down to get information. It’s like a back and forth when you’re trying to find out information. You go to one office that you think should have the information you’re looking for, they send you to another office and that office refers you to the office you’ve already been to. Information is not readily available. I think they need an office to deal with the affairs of international students,” she said.

Unlike some universities on the mainland that have an Office of International Affairs that helps international students to adjust to their new environment and fosters a vibrant international community, UVI has a Coordinator of International Services. Barbara Todman holds that position on the St. Thomas campus.

Todman confirmed that international students are required to wait for one year before they can be hired on campus by the Placement Office. She said, however, that although not all divisions hire international students, there are some departments that do hire them.

“Whenever students come to me for help seeking employment, I send them to offices that do hire them, like the President’s Office, the Office of the Provost, Accounting, Reichhold Center and the Associate Vice President of Administration and Finance,” Todman said. “Some students are here for three or four years and they haven’t found work since they applied. So I tell them to go to speak with those employers, they set up with Ms. Myers in the Placement Office and she puts the paperwork through.”

Mary Myers holds the position of Program Specialist II Counseling and Placement Provost’s Office. Calls to her office were not returned.

International students cannot get paid out of federal funds, but if they are hired by a department on campus, that department must have disposable income to pay them, Todman said.

According to Todman, international students have other employment options, such as Optional Practical Training.

“They can do OPT for 12 months here in the Virgin Islands or on the mainland after they graduate,” she said.

The exact number of international students enrolled at UVI was not available. Todman recalls that in January, she processed about 123 international students on the St. Thomas campus alone.

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