Studying in a changed America

Decisions: Foreign students feel both an impulse to flee and a determination to stay.

October 21, 2001|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

On the night of Sept. 11, Maria Florencia Rodriguez, 16, frantically e-mailed her parents in Argentina from Frederick and wrote, "Please talk to me and tell me something."

A high school exchange student thousands of miles from home, Rodriguez was frightened - and so were her parents. She told her mom and dad that she heard people talking about America going to war, and she wanted to go home but was afraid to fly. Her parents were concerned about her safety and thought about asking her to return to Caleta Olivia, Argentina.

"A lot of questions came to me. I didn't know what to do, I was so scared," Rodriguez recalls. "In those kinds of moments, you really feel how far away you are from the people you love, your family."

Rodriguez arrived in Frederick with visions of making new friends, studying different topics and learning American culture. But now - like other foreign exchange students throughout Maryland and the nation - she finds herself thrust into a society recovering from the worst attack on its soil and reacting to FBI alerts and anthrax scares.

Some exchange students have decided to go home, and those who remain contemplate leaving, while their parents - separated by thousands of miles and multiple time zones - worry.

"I'm so far away from my family and all the people I trust," Rodriguez says. "Being all by myself, that scares me a lot."

Despite her fears, Rodriguez calmed down after talking to friends and family members. She decided to stay and finish her senior year at Gov. Thomas Johnson High School.

"I love being here," she says. "My friends here and all I'm learning - the good things that are happening to me made me want to stay. This is a chance in a lifetime, so I wanted to enjoy it here."

At University of Maryland, College Park, 19-year-old Miriam Vereen has been receiving frequent calls from her home in Germany since the attacks. Her mother never wanted Vereen to go to school in the United States and wants her to come home.

Vereen, a sophomore kinesiology major, misses her home in Bitburg, Germany, but feels there are better educational and job opportunities in the United States, despite increased danger. After graduation, she plans to follow in her father's footsteps and join the U.S. Air Force.

Jawahar Singh's parents are worried about their son for a different reason. They fear that because Singh, 18, is from Delhi, India, and practices the Sikh religion - which requires him to wear a turban and a beard - he may be the victim of discrimination.

Their initial reaction was, "If things get really bad, you should come home, we want you alive," recalls Singh, a sophomore computer engineering major at College Park. But Singh says his parents are now more at ease because his neighborhood community is understanding, and he is staying with his aunt and uncle.

A handful of foreign students have felt it necessary to leave their studies and return home.

Among the 1,000 undergraduate and 2,700 graduate international students on the College Park campus, five have returned to their homes in the Middle East, said Valerie Woolston, the university's director of international education services.

Woolston says they didn't have any fears about being on campus, and some of them were living with American students and found their roommates supportive. But they still felt uncomfortable.

"They were afraid of the profiling and being targeted," Woolston says. "They just didn't feel as free as they had."

One student studying abroad in Europe this semester has returned to the United States because of the attacks, and some students are declining to study abroad during the winter term, Woolston says. Several students who were accepted to the program explained that they were afraid of traveling and passed up the opportunity, she says.

"If warfare spreads, I'm expecting we may lose more students," Woolston says.

Maryland's proximity to Washington was too close to tolerate for the parents of some exchange students studying in the state.

At the private McDonogh School in Owings Mills, a group of 24 students and their two chaperones from Spain were called home four days earlier than planned by their principal, upon the insistence of their parents, says Mara Daniel, head of McDonogh's foreign language department.

The Norwegian parents of 16-year-old Vidar Ottervig were alarmed because they remembered an earlier e-mail from their son's host family in Severna Park explaining that one of the benefits of the area was its proximity to Washington and New York.

Ottervig's mother called Sept. 11 and immediately asked: "Is everyone OK?"

Though worried about their son, Ottervig's parents let him decide if he wanted to return to Oslo. He did not want to give up his junior year at Severna Park High School.

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