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International student at UW-Eau Claire finds a warm welcome

Editor's note: The following first-person account by December 2014 UW-Eau Claire graduate Anis Filza about her experiences as an international student from Malaysia appeared in the Jan. 25 issue of the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram and is reprinted with permission. Filza is from Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malysia, with an estimated population of 1.6 million. For more information about opportunities to host international students at UW-Eau Claire, please visit the Center for International Education website.

By Anis Filza

Anis Filza wades in the Gulf of Mexico during a stop in Gulfport, Mississippi, while on UW-Eau Claire’s Civil Rights Pilgrimage in JanuaryDuring my first semester at UW-Eau Claire, one of my professors in my media and pop culture class asked everybody to predict the exact date when we would get our first inch of snow.

She pulled out the class list and I panicked, the way only people whose first or last name starts with an "A" can understand.

"Anis?"

I managed to blurt out: "But I've never seen snow before."

The whole class turned to look at me and gasped in horror.

My name is Anis Filza, and I am from sunny, tropical Malaysia, where we have summer year-round. The coldest temperature we have is probably 24 degrees Celsius —that's around 76 degrees Fahrenheit.

I eventually said Dec. 8 while the rest of the class said dates ranging mostly toward the end of November. Great.

Most people wonder what made me choose to come to UW-Eau Claire, out of all places. My go-to answer is because of the value and cost. The value is having smaller classes where I can know my professors and classmates. In Malaysia, university classes are huge. And the relative cost is good compared to other universities. Above all, I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. And boy oh boy, that I did.

I came here in the fall of 2012 by myself, not knowing a single soul. Throughout my 32-hour plane ride, my eyes were red from the tears of leaving my loved ones back home and lack of sleep.

Yes, it was my decision to come here. And yet I wanted nothing more than to turn the plane around and be back in the safe arms of my parents.

As I stepped out of the shuttle at the Chippewa Valley Airport Service, a friendly-looking couple were holding my name written on a piece of paper. I awkwardly walked toward them, pointed to the sign and said, "That's me." Kim and Stephanie Strzok-Scheidegger were my host friends and family. Kim is a mail carrier. Stephanie is a retired marriage and family therapist.

We were strangers then. But today, we are family, and they will be a part of me forever. They took me in, not knowing anything about me, and cared for me as if I were their own child. They opened their home —and their hearts —while expecting nothing in return. I eventually decided to remove the "host" out of the term host family because to me, that's what they are: my family here.

I also decided to major in journalism, something unexpected of me considering all of my family members are involved in banking or accounting. I received full support from them, though, but it took a lot of sleepless nights, blood, sweat and tears to get through my first semester.

I'll never forget the pride I felt when my adviser said, "For an international student, you did extremely well in your journalism classes."

As an introvert, being a journalism major made me come out of my shell. I'm not the type to go up to strangers and ask them how they are doing, or what's more, ask for an interview.

I'm glad I chose Eau Claire, though. I've never been turned down for an interview, and people go out of their way to help me succeed. The warmth and friendliness of the Eau Claire community have made my life much easier, which probably was reflected in my good grades. The people here, hands down, are my favorite part about living in Eau Claire. I feel safe, and the people are always so nice to me.

Even as a minority, I don't feel out of place. Sure, I get stares and questions sometimes, particularly because I wear a headscarf as part of my religion, Islam, but it's always with curiosity and good intentions, not discrimination.

It's been a pleasure to call Eau Claire home. I've always been bad with goodbyes, and just as I came here with teary, red eyes, that also is how I'll be leaving —with a heavy heart, wanting to stay with my family here yet return to my family there.

As life turns out, the most unexpected thing happened. It snowed all right: 12 inches, in fact, on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012. I actually dressed warmly, went outside and walked in it, taking pictures and, of course, I couldn't resist making my own snow angel. It was beautiful.

The only student —and an international student at that —who managed to predict the closest day to the first snow. Who would have thought?

Filza attended UW-Eau Claire for her junior and senior years of college. She is the second youngest of three children, and both of her parents are bankers. She accepted her diploma in journalism and psychology Dec. 20 as her family's first UW-Eau Claire graduate. After participating in the university's Civil Rights Pilgrimage to the South, visiting sites of historic importance Jan. 9 through 19, she returned to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.