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International students' experience in housing: Unique differences, growing pains

November 2, 2022
International Student Sophomore, Wanny Ng in her dorm.
International Student Sophomore, Wanny Ng in her dorm.

From language barriers to lack of familial support, finding housing for international students comes with many challenges American students don’t need to think twice about.

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When she was a freshman, accounting junior Thea Bruun wasn’t aware that choosing a roommate or dorm location was an option for students. Last year, Bruun took to Facebook to find potential roommates.

“That was a very new experience,” Bruun said. “What (I), as an international student, did was just kind of seeing how other people do it and just learning from that … It probably wouldn’t be something that I would do in Norway.”

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Creative advertising sophomore Wanny Ng He was nervous because most college students continue to live with family in her home country, the Dominican Republic.

“My concept of housing and roommates and all that stuff was really from movies, books (and) series’,” Ng He said. “So, I was very nervous about that, because I didn’t know how it was all going to work out.”

Psychology sophomore Hafeezur Rahman is enrolled in PETRONAS Education Sponsorship Program, a program that paired him with a sponsor to help him find his roommate, apartment, tuition fees and more. 

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Other international students will find people in their program from their home country. Psychology sophomore Nadiah Mohamed Hasnol, from Malaysia, dormed with two international students also from her home country during her first year at MSU.

“It was way more comfortable to be with people you already know,” Hasnol said. “Having Malaysian friends really, really helped, because I don’t know if I would’ve actually survived if I came here alone.”

Chemistry third-year Ph.D. student Subhaprad Ash, from India, came to MSU in 2020 along with three other roommates from India in his program. Ash had friends living in the area who directed him to certain locations.

Ng He used college roommate apps like ZeeMee, Patio and Instagram accounts that helped students in the same year find roommates. Initially, with additional pressure from her mom, Ng He wanted to find a roommate with a similar culture and background.

“It was very stressful for me because I went in with a different mentality,” Ng He said. “I realized that if I were to keep going like this it would be very, very difficult to find a roommate like that. I feel like it doesn’t have to be that difficult. I kept getting stressed about that.”

Applied engineering sciences junior Rochisshil Varma said American students who live with their friends from high school are much different than international students.

“This, in my opinion, sets them apart from us because they have a level of comfort that has already been built between them and their roommates over the years, which has to be built from scratch for us,” Varma said in an email. 

Many international students don’t have a personal mode of transportation to live off-campus and cannot afford apartments close to campus.

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Psychology senior Vanessa Nguyen originally wanted to live in the dorms this year. Due to the insufficient amount of on-campus housing for the large incoming class, she and her roommates were forced to find an apartment.

Nguyen was required to provide proof of income for her apartment’s rent. However, she wasn’t able to make enough money to do so and translating her parents' financial records from Vietnam would’ve been a complex arrangement. With both challenging options, she instead needed to pay around two months' worth of rent prior to moving in.

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“That wasn’t what we were really looking to do, but we kind of had to,” Nguyen said. “I tried to email Live On, and a lot of other people really wanted to stay on campus … It wasn’t a really pleasant experience.”

Hasnol would call her mom every day during the first few months at MSU, feeling homesick and anxious.

“I think it’s different for domestic students in the United States because they might be living far away, but it’s still possible for them to see (their family),” Hasnol said. “For me, I have to take probably a 20-hour flight that’s full of turbulence and very expensive to see my family members. I kind of feel helpless at times because I don’t have that sort of privilege to go and see people that I care about.”

Two years passed in the U.S. and Ash hadn’t been able to go back to India until this past August. Amidst daily video calls, Ash said he still misses seeing his family in person.

Rahman also hasn’t returned to Malaysia and spent every break in the U.S., but makes the most of it by traveling to neighboring cities.

“I really do miss my mom’s cooking,” Rahman said. “I really do feel a little bit homesick, but not that too homesick at the level of feeling down. I’m still enjoying my life at Michigan.”

Bruun only returns back home to Norway every summer and winter break, however, her friends and boyfriend’s families act as her home away from home. They help her move out and invite her back home for shorter breaks, but she didn’t have similar comfort her freshman year.

“I didn’t have that supportive element in my life, and I think that that’s so crucial that you always have someone in the country that you can talk to,” Bruun said.

Although Nguyen hasn’t been able to return to Vietnam for the past three years, her host and boyfriend's family has also been her Michigan home.

“It doesn’t feel different in that sense, but when people say, ‘Oh, you’re going home? Like ‘home’ home or what kind of home?’" Nguyen said. "I get all that kinds of questions. It's like no — I'm going back to my boyfriend's house. I can call that home."

Nguyen does feel different compared to her international student friends — most of them stay at MSU on the weekends while she goes home to her host family every few weeks.

Despite all the challenges international students face, Varma encourages them to stray away from thinking that rooming with an American student would create a bad experience.

“They are much more accepting than anyone else,” Varma said. “They are curious about your culture and are respectful of your beliefs … I have a lot of friends who are rooming with Americans, and they have gone on to become best friends.” 

Ng reminds international students it’s normal to be confused or overwhelmed to walk through a foreign college experience. 

“You’re never going to be alone in this process,” Ng He said. “Sometimes it feels like you’re the only one feeling this way, but I guarantee you there are a lot of people who are feeling this way.”

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