July 23, 2007
By Anita Martin
When Fulbright Scholar and Cambodian native Sothy Khieng arrived at Ohio University in August 2006, he was surprised at first by the bold manners of American students: uninhibited classroom participation, casual exchanges with professors and public sunbathing in bikinis.
In Cambodia, Khieng says, a defined social hierarchy dictates the way young people interact with authority figures, and all students wear uniforms from kindergarten through high school, and sometimes at the university level. "Many Asian cultures can be a bit reserved," he says.
Now, though, Khieng has gotten used to the changes. And, as president of Ohio University's Fulbright Scholars Association, he's helping other international Fulbright Scholars adjust to the nuances of American culture.
The Fulbright Scholars Association is one of few student campus organizations for current international Fulbrighters in the United States, according to the group's faculty adviser, Krista McCallum Beatty, interim director of International Student and Faculty Services. The scholars' association has been a registered student organization since the 2001-02 academic year.
"This organization provides leadership opportunities to international students and helps to integrate them into the university community," says McCallum Beatty, who estimates 20 to 25 international Fulbright Scholars study at Ohio University during any given academic year.
Khieng outlines the organization's two main goals, the first echoing the mission of the Fulbright program itself: to promote cultural and social understanding among students from different countries. The organization also seeks to build lasting cross-cultural connections.
"We'd like to create a worldwide network for all past and current (Ohio University) Fulbrighters to continue the exchange of ideas and to provide contacts for people," Khieng says.
Hospitable contacts prove vital for travelers -- especially for the university's incoming international scholars, who may be unfamiliar with academic policies, campus opportunities or even simple lifestyle issues related to food or weather.
An Ohio University Fulbright directory helps address this issue, but Khieng also plans to develop information packets to send to the coordinating institutions of Fulbright Scholars before its students depart for Athens. The packets will include practical information about topics such as housing, food and campus life as well as tips for social and academic success.
The majority of international Fulbrighters enroll in U.S. master's or doctoral programs. They can apply to any program offered in the United States, so their choices tend to reflect national distinction in graduate programming.
Khieng, a master's student in international development studies, was drawn by Ohio University's Center for International Studies, which offers highly regarded programs in international development studies, a new and growing field. The center is one of the university's greatest magnets for international Fulbright students, with 13 Fulbrighters continuing in the center's programs this fall and nine new scholars expected, according to Karla Schneider, assistant director of the center.
Two other popular picks for international Fulbright Scholars at Ohio University are linguistics and education. Other programs, such as economics, film, environmental science and telecommunications, frequently pull in one or two international Fulbrighters a year, according to Beth Clodfelter, the university's director of U.S. Fulbright programs and liaison for international partners.
The scholars association meets roughly once a month to exchange cultural perspectives and organize public events to raise awareness about issues relating to their countries. Events include public film screenings on specific topics such as migration in Latin America or child soldiers in Africa.
The group also participates in annual events such as the International Street Fair as well as an ongoing project called Camera Speaks, for which the group gives international students disposable cameras and the charge of capturing images of U.S. culture. A sampling of this year's Camera Speaks photos adorned the walls of Baker University Center's Front Room during International Week in May. The exhibit will go on display at the Athens Public Library in late August.
Images of U.S. culture through the eyes of international students put everyday practices of American students, such as fiery classroom debates, into global perspective. Likewise, their American sojourns tell these Fulbright Scholars a lot about their home countries. Sometimes, as with Khieng's development studies, their selected disciplines provide perspectives and tools for tackling problems back home. And, as Khieng says, travel itself can be the best teacher.
"When you study abroad, you learn about your own country," he says. "You can look at your culture differently, and see more clearly what your government and your people are doing."