When Danilo Tchoupe arrived to study in the United States from Cameroon five years ago, no one showed up to greet him at the airport. Alone in a strange country, on New Year's Eve, he eventually had to find his own way to the Kansas community college where he was to enroll, more than an hour's drive away.
That introduction to the United States is one of the experiences that helped convince Mr. Tchoupe, who later transferred to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, of the need for an umbrella organization that advocates for international students. When he graduated this month, with a bachelor's degree in horticulture and landscape architecture, he left behind the seeds of a national group, the Association of International Students' Organizations, focused on the needs of foreign students in America.
This spring, Mr. Tchoupe, who will stay at Arkansas another year for a master's program in operation management, put on an international-students conference. The meeting drew 86 students—from 39 universities and 21 states—to Fayetteville to talk about common challenges and to share success stories.
Mr. Tchoupe spoke with The Chronicle about fitting in far from home, the difficulty of talking about American football, and the reaction of international students to news that one of the Boston Marathon victims was from overseas. The following are edited excerpts from that conversation:
Q. How did the conference go?
A. Different international-student organizations shared their programming, and that was just beautiful, beautiful. We also talked about some of the struggles that our organizations are facing. Some universities shared with us how it's hard for them to have an umbrella international-student organization—they can only have groups for Chinese students, for African students. That's not good for people who only have two or four people from their country.
One of the biggest challenges is how to make new students feel at home. How do you make students right away understand how the American education system works? Because it's very different. If you don't get this in your first semester, that's a wasted semester. We also talked about making connections between American students and international students. It's not always easy.
Q. You've graduated—what's next for the group?
A. At the end, I said, I don't want this organization to die. I've had about 30 students who've committed after the conference to keep the work going.
Q. Tell me about your own experience coming to study in the United States.
A. When I was leaving my country, a lot of people from my village came to send me away. My grandma didn't want me to come. I'm this guy who always listens to everyone, because this is our culture, so it was pretty challenging for me.
My first night, no one met me, and I slept in the airport. I ended up taking a taxi to my school. The driver opened the door, and everything around me was white. My first snow ever. I was so excited, and at the same time I was a little frightened.
Having that first experience, I was just like, OK, whatever happens, happens. When I moved to Arkansas, I was impressed, because they have a whole week for orientation. They try to match us up with international students who have been here forever and also connect with families, for us to feel part of a community. And I was like, oh, so I was missing something before. I decided not to have other international students go through what I went through.
Q. How difficult is it as an international student to become friends with Americans?
A. Whenever my American friends would hang out, they would talk about movies, TV shows, things I'm not familiar with. Sometimes they would ask me, where do you want to go and eat? I'm not really familiar with restaurants here. When we would be talking about sports, they would be talking about American football, and I'm not familiar—if they talk about soccer, I'd be able to argue. I was always kind of on the side whenever we would hang out. I felt like they wanted me to become comfortable, they tried, but I couldn't really respond because I didn't grow up here. There was that little barrier.
Those international students who are not outgoing, it is really hard for them to connect with Americans, especially if they find themselves surrounded by international students all the time. That is the case for a lot of the Asian students, I have noticed.
Q. Do you think it makes a difference that there are few African students on campus and so many from countries like China and India?
A. It does make it easier for them to connect with each other. It might not be what they want, but it just happens you see other classmates from China. Obviously, it feels great sometimes to be able to speak your native language. Personally, if I was from one of those countries, I don't think I would have done the same thing. I'm so eager to connect out there, learn about others.
Q. Where did the idea of a national association for international students come from, and how did you go about starting such a group?
A. When I came here, I was appreciative of what was being done for international students. But after a year I felt, Is there another step I can take? I locked myself in my apartment for five days and went state by state, university by university, looking for the contacts for the international-student organizations. I sent this massive e-mail, saying, Couldn't we benefit if we came together as international students? From that first e-mail I sent, I was receiving 40 or 50 e-mails a day. I set up a Facebook page and asked all those presidents to post when they have an event, so each of us can learn from other schools.
Q. Why is it important for you to have this national group?
A. Over the years I have had all these questions that were burning and wondered, What can we do as international students? Here in Arkansas, for example, there was a debate about should guns be allowed on campus. As an international student, I am sure that I am not allowed to carry a gun. How do you think I would feel if I came to class knowing that everyone around me is allowed to carry a gun, but I am not? I was like, man, if they pass that law in Arkansas, I'm out of here, I will go to a state where I feel more safe. There should be a voice out there to raise up our concern as international students.
Q. Speaking of safety, an international student, from China, was one of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. How do you think that incident has affected international students' perceptions of how safe it is to study in America?
A. Personally, I don't think the fact that an international student was one of the victims brings on the table the safety issue. I'm as safe as I was when I came here. I don't think those guys were targeting international students; she just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. If I were a parent, sending my kid somewhere, I would consider the U.S. for two main reasons: quality of education and opportunities.