The University of Iowa

“Coming to America” Essay Contest Winners

July 31st, 2009

The University of Iowa International Student & Scholar Services honored the winners of the fourth annual “Coming to America” essay contest during a reception held Friday, Nov. 21, 2008 at the Old Capitol. The ceremony was part of a series of events presented during the ninth UI International Education Week, Nov. 17-21.

Prizes were awarded for first, second and third place. Two students were chosen to receive honorable mentions. Essays from 19 students were entered in the contest.

Winners were selected by a committee including Caryl Lyons, Friends of International Students member; Sophie Charles, an ISSS adviser; and Kelli Andresen, International Programs communications coordinator.

The following are excerpts from the five winning essays.

First Place Winner
Arundhuti Sen, India
Graduate student in chemistry

While I was growing up in Bombay, India, satellite television went from being a novelty to a way of life, and brought us Hollywood’s rendition of American life in the 90′s: the flashy cars, the casual witty banter, the freedom of movement available to the actors, who never appeared to be bound by national borders or constraints on their civil liberties. I, however, paid more attention to the classic Hollywood movies from the 30′s, 40′s and 50′s that were shown late at night.  Through these, I learnt that in America one could find honest bureaucrats, legal redress for any injustice, and above all, public libraries bursting with (free!) literature from across the world. For a little idealistic Anglophile like myself, America was indeed the promised land.

I never actually imagined myself coming to America, of course, though I did believe that if I did I would not be so naïve as to experience culture shock of any sort. After all, wasn’t English my primary language, and wasn’t I well-versed in the literature, classic films, and history of the West? So when I did eventually decide to travel to the States for my undergraduate education, culture shock was the very last thing on my mind. I was more worried about the kinds of courses I would be taking and whether it made sense to take as many of my books with me as I possibly could. I was lucky in that I had no difficulty with my visa or with the very long journey from Bombay to the heart of the rural Midwest, even though the searching stare of the customs officer in Chicago was very unnerving. Chicago O’Hare was a fantastic, unreal sort of place, more so because Hollywood films from the 50′s could hardly have prepared me for a place that had people of hundreds of different ethnicities speaking fluent American English.

Second Place Winner
Xin Feng, China
Graduate student in journalism
Go, Sichuan!

It was August 14, the fifth day I arrived at Iowa City.

My jet lag was still bothering me. My body was tired from 30 hours’ journey and a whole series of hectic moving and settling. My eyes were tired from reading English and trying to recognize a place I had never been.

In a crowded room, about 200 new international students were having an orientation fair and refreshments – but I knew nobody, so I sat in a corner, eating quietly.

Suddenly, a red T-shirt that moved back and forth among the crowd broke into my sight. In the T-shirt, it was a 5 feet 7 inches tall young American man with blue eyes and short blond hair; and on the T-shirt, there were four white Chinese characters: “Go, Sichuan!”

I was thrilled.

No Chinese will ever forget what happened on May 12, 2008. At 2:28 pm, walls started cracking, glass started to break, and cars started jumping. A devastating magnitude 8.0 earthquake had shocked my neighbor province, Sichuan, China. The catastrophe had killed more than 80,000 lives, and “Sichuan” was the saddest word in Chinese vocabulary this year.

“Who is he?” “How did he have the T-shirt?” “Why is he wearing it here?” I couldn’t help walking to him immediately and finding out the answers…

Third Place Winner
Fengyuan Shen, China
Undergraduate student in actuarial science
Everything began with Taboo

Sometimes small cards can drive you crazy, especially when some unspeakable secrets are hidden in those evil things. When I first played Taboo with my American friends, I found myself embarrassed and frustrated. In a Taboo game there are two teams, and we take turns to compete in order to score. The rules are simple: There is a word on top of every card, which your team member should guess, and below that word there are many other words which are called forbidden lexicon. Your goal is fairly clear then: in a limited time to describe to your team member the top word, without using the words below.

So there I was— sitting in front of team members who were looking at me expectantly, and facing a number of fancy words which I didn’t even know…

It seemed that I was going to lose my face anyway, but within a second a good strategy flashed through my mind. “Can I skip the word card that I cannot explain?” I asked my friends eagerly, hoping that they would be so understanding. Molly, who was sitting next to me, looked at me with a strange look, and then said something I feared most:” No, Shen, if you skip every time it’s hard, you will miss the essence of the game; besides, it’s not fair to the others.” She grinned. It was certain to me that I had to face the music. Just before a horrible game started, I prayed for good luck and a likely-impossible chance to save some face.

Honorable Mention
Vijaya Kancherla, India
Graduate student in epidemiology
Coming to America and Living an American Dream

People come to the States to pursue many interests. But in my opinion, coming to this country as a ‘student’ is the best way to feel its pulse. My experiences in this country are very special to me. For the first time, I had to be away from my family. I was forced to make every decision without being reliant on the wisdom of elders. For the first time, I saw and spoke to fellow-students from all over the world, right here in the corridors of Schaffer Hall, where we were being oriented to our new life and school by the friendly staff of the ISSS. I felt it was such a humbling experience to know how different the world is, and yet at the same time, how similar our lives are. We all nurture the same aspirations and determination to educate ourselves and contribute to the growth of the society. We all choose to travel great distances for personal achievement. I enjoyed that feeling of comradeship instantaneously.

Honorable Mention
Yan Wang, China
Graduate student in sociology
My Four Periods of Culture Shock

Real life began on the first day of orientation in my department. Other students of my cohort are all Americans. At that time, I realized English is a big problem. Honestly, they are really nice and helpful, but when they chat with each other, it’s as if all words become small birds and they fly so fast that I cannot seize them. It’s really hard to participate in the conversation, so the only thing I can do is to sit there and smile. It felt so silly. When the first day finished, my face was almost hard-shelled because of the all-day smile.

I didn’t sleep well that night. Outside, the moon looks the same as in China, which gives me a great comfort. Things will get better, right?