Photo caption: Senior international student from China Xuewei Zhang has called Davies Center her “home away from home” for her three years on campus, the place she spends most of her time outside of classes and work. (Photo by Shane Opatz)
University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire international student Xuewei Zhang still remembers the moment she found out about a college a world away from home, a place she says checked all her boxes for attending a university in the United States.
“There was a poster in the hall of my high school with these beautiful photos of a place called Eau Claire — it was called ‘one of the most beautiful and safest schools’ and I wanted to go,” says the senior accounting and finance double major from Jiujiang, China.
Zhang had one cousin and one uncle who had studied abroad, and she was determined to take advantage of this opportunity herself somehow. Declining admission to a Chinese university near home, she applied and was accepted to UW-Eau Claire and was ready to take the leap to spend four years on the other side of the globe.
She discovered, however, that it was going to be a lot harder than she had anticipated. From the first day on campus, she says she feared she’d made a terrible mistake thinking she could do it successfully.
“As soon as I got here, I found out that the way I had been learning English was nothing like the way people speak here, and I could not communicate with anyone. It was very scary,” she says, now able to giggle about those fearful early days.
“All I kept telling my mother was that I want to come home, and she said she’d buy a ticket. Luckily, there were people to talk me out of leaving, to give it a try — one day at a time, one week at a time,” Zhang recalls.
“And now I’m going into my last year, graduating and making plans to go to graduate school.”
As Zhang’s friends, instructors and advisors demonstrated for her, with a little patience in her language building and some bravery needed to interact and get involved, homesickness can be overcome. The rewards for her have been worth the struggles.
Getting connected, staying supported
The staff of UW-Eau Claire’s Center for International Education (CIE) have grown accustomed to helping students work through the feelings of homesickness when they arrive on campus, and Zhang’s situation was not uncommon.
Catherine Lee, student services coordinator in CIE and the campus Intensive English Program (IEP), recalls the first time she met Zhang, and knew the right steps to offer the support she needed to resist the urge to go home.
“She was 17 years old, dropped off on lower campus by a taxi, and she found her way to CIE,” Lee says. “We got her connected to her residence hall director and got her settled in. Later that afternoon, she was back in my office telling me she wanted to go home.”
Lee gathered with other CIE staff to get Zhang connected with other Chinese students, those participating in the China 1+2+1 Program, a dual-degree program between UW-Eau Claire and the Changshu Institute of Technology (CIT). The majority of Chinese students at UW-Eau Claire are participants in the 1+2+1 program.
“I’m not part of that 1+2+1 program,” she says. “Those students are all together when they arrive, they already know a large group of fellow Chinese students and are in many classes together. I had to find connections on my own, and CIE helped me.”
Zhang says that through IEP, she quickly made some good friends and started to feel better about learning more conversational English through these friends.
“Everyone was very friendly, and they helped me get used to listening and speaking in very simple English words. After a couple days I felt like I could at least try to stay for a few weeks,” she says.
That feeling was right, and Zhang has stayed three years, now ready to tackle her senior year and graduate in May 2023.
Volunteering, student employment and collaborative research as grounding tools
After being mentored herself through CIE and the IEP, Zhang chose to extend the same benefits to other new international students by becoming a mentor in both programs.
Lee Chepil, international student program manager in CIE, has witnessed Zhang’s growth both academically and socially, and credits her positive attitude and desire to give back for much of her Blugold success.
“Xuewei has continued to grow and become much more involved on campus,” Chepil says. “She serves as an intern for the International Student Services (ISS) portion of the Center for International Education, and she has mentored 13 students through the Intensive English Program, mostly Chinese students but some from other countries as well. Additionally, our staff use her student connections to get a pulse on the current international student needs on our campus.”
Along with these mentoring roles, Zhang has been honing her accounting and finance skills employed as a student financial assistant in Hilltop Center and the office of Recreation and Sport Operations, where Sharon Breed is her supervisor.
“I hired Xuewei in fall of 2021,” Breed says. “She has been very thoughtful about sharing her culture with our department; she has brought in Chinese treats for us to try and made Chinese name plates for each of the professional staff to put on our office doors.”
As Breed explains, the cultural exchange has been mutually beneficial to Zhang and her co-workers.
“Having an international student on staff has been a great experience for the entire department,” Breed says. “We have learned so much about Chinese culture and about ourselves, how we communicate and how best to interact with people who speak English as a second language. It has been fun to get to know Xuewei and help her experience the Eau Claire area.”
Experiencing the Eau Claire community and American culture in general has slowly become much more comfortable for Zhang, who has found travel companions in some of her Chinese student friends with whom she has been exploring several major U.S. cities.
“We have traveled to Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles,” Zhang says, citing Boston as her favorite city so far.
“We are taking the Amtrak train to San Francisco this summer on a route that will travel along a few national parks. I’m excited to see this view of the snow-capped mountains.”
When asked why they chose San Francisco, Zhang admits that she and her friends all wanted to explore another major city, one also known for authentic Chinese food.
“I’m riding the train with just one friend and three others are flying out to meet us there,” she says. “We will be spending a lot of time in Chinatown.”
As she packs in a few more adventures in this last summer as a student in the U.S., Zhang knows the rigors of her senior year will keep her very busy with coursework and collaborative research, so she says she is savoring these last weeks of summer.
With her UW-Eau Claire degree in hand, Zhang hopes next year to enroll in a Canadian graduate school for finance.
“I have a dream school in mind,” she says. “After working for a year through a certificate from the U.S. Division of Citizenship and Immigration Services, I’ll apply to school in Toronto, where I hope to complete my master’s and obtain a work visa to begin a career in finance.”