International student photo gallery builds community


Gabriella Martinez. Courtesy GVSU

The perspectives of Grand Valley State University’s international students now have a digital voice, thanks to an intriguing and rather entertaining new project.

Gabriella Martinez, a GVSU photography major who hails from Gibraltar, decided that one of the best ways to help with her transition into an American college campus was to create a photo gallery of her fellow international students. Over the fall semester, Martinez went photographed and interviewed nearly 30 international students, asking them about the culture shock they had experienced since moving to the United States.

She posted the album of pictures with interview quotes on Facebook, where it has been viewed more than 55,000 times and received hundreds of likes. Martinez also decided to use the project as an independent study with Anthony Thompson, a GVSU professor of communications.

“It was a massive culture shock moving to America. I wanted to know what the other International students thought about this and these were their responses,” reads the album Martinez created. There are about 28 photographs on the project’s Facebook page, each one featuring a different international student at GVSU. Each picture features the student’s name, country of origin, and a quote about what it’s been like adjusting to living in the United States.

Martinez said interacting with fellow international students helped ease her own homesickness, as well as the complicated cultural process of transitioning to life in America.

"I wanted to take a souvenir from Grand Valley that was not a standard sweater or group of photos," Martinez said. “What's made my experience here so great is the people I've met.”

The perspectives that Martinez unearthed are a mix of poignant, thoughtful and sometimes funny opinions on what it’s like to be an international student at GVSU. A number of international students commented on their frustration with not being able to use the metric system. Others noted Americans’ lack of knowledge about the rest of the world.

“People think Africa is a country and not a continent,” said Rodney Avutia, who is from South Africa.

“The postal system still puzzles me,” said Abi Gbewonyo from Ghana. “Why are mailboxes standing outside the house? Unlocked? Bruh.”

A number of the quotes also focus on cultural differences, social exchanges and legal limits.

“Every time I meet someone I am ready to kiss them on the cheek; this is what we do in Chile,” said Belén Antonia Ojeda Bernal. “But I always need to hold back and give them the ‘awkward handshake.’ I do NOT want to get used to this. I hope I don’t start giving these handshakes back home.”

“The biggest cultural shock must have been when I first came to the States at the age of 20, I wasn’t allowed to drink (alcohol),” said Carlos Coronel, who is from Ecuador.

Amina Mohammed, who is from Abu Dhabi, also noted that Americans take the concept of time very differently than other countries do.

“People are always busy here and take the concept of time way too seriously. Everything is scheduled and set with a time,” she said. “Back home, people value leisure and spend a lot of time with family and friends. It’s the opposite here; people seem to be more busy working than relaxing and having fun.”

Mohamed Azuz, from Libya, summed up his experience of both the good and the bad quite succinctly.

“The good: The academic environment. I never expected to have the opportunities to work closely with experts from Google, Motorola, Facebook, Microsoft and other internationally recognized corporations,” he said. “The bad: Stereotyping, the taste of tap water, the fluctuating gas prices and Donald Trump’s haircut.”

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