International Bruins offer insights and tips

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Image: Gerd Altmann courtesy of Pixabay; altered. Public domain.

Professors and students from several continents share their thoughts on adjusting to life at UCLA.

This article was originally prepared for IEW 2021.

For this year’s International Education Week, the International Advocacy Committee (IAC) of the International Student Ambassadors Program of the UCLA Dashew Center for International Students & Scholars interviewed people of varied backgrounds and academic status in the UCLA community to ask about their insights and tips about living in the United States, living in Los Angeles and living at UCLA.

IAC would like to express our utmost gratitude to our interviewees, Professor Jenjit Gasigitamrong and Professor Laurent Pilon, and students Anna Urasaki, Joyie Law, Mariam Aref, Mitchell McLinton, Pearl Liu, Tim Yang, Vivian Wolfe and Wesley Wey. Thank you for sharing your insights and tips with all of us.

What was the most difficult thing to adjust to in the U.S./ UCLA and how did you cope with it?

 As UCLA operates on the quarter system, people find it hard to adjust to how fast-paced the curriculum is. With the quarter system comes a heavier workload and other extracurricular activities to balance, Tim Yang, a first-year Ph.D. student studying electrical and computer engineering suggested not procrastinating in order to be always on track: 


“The classes are very fast-paced here and the classroom culture is also different from that back in university in Taiwan, so I always make sure to ask professors or other classmates for help in order to keep up with the pace.”



Professor Jenjit Gasigitamrong, a Thai professor in the department of Asian languages and cultures, recalled her experience when she first came to the U.S. as a graduate student and shared her tip for anyone who needs help in class:

“When I first came to the U.S., one of the most difficult things for me to do was asking for help in class. You know, as a Thai person, it’s not our nature — I did not want to trouble my professors. But my advisor once told me, “Just ask. What’s the worst you’re gonna get?” If you don't understand something in class, don't keep it to yourself. Talk to your professors. That's our job. And we love our job. We love talking to students.”

Professor Laurent Pilon hails from France and is a professor in the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering. He went to Purdue University in Indiana before moving to Los Angeles. He shared the challenges he faced when he started working at UCLA:

“I think the most difficult part was to learn how to do all the different things I had to do. I had to be a teacher, a researcher, a research advisor, an academic advisor and a colleague. I also had to serve on committees. I started serving in professional societies like the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and reviewing for academic journals or for research funding agencies. There were so many different things to do that I had never experienced that before.

 “I also had to adapt to a different city: LA is not an easy city to come to. It has a lot of gems and wonders, but it’s also an enormous urban sprawl. I got a second culture shock when coming to LA. I had spent five years in Indiana in a small college town where it was very easy to get to know people. You meet one person, you meet 20 the next weekend and you run into them constantly during the week.

“You do have a sense of community in these small towns in America. But you don’t really have that in LA — you have to build it. And the city is so spread out that people live far away from one another. It makes it a bit harder to get to know people and find places that you like going back to. But LA has a lot to offer, you just have to know where it is.”

How was the transition when you first got to UCLA?

Professor Laurent Pilon tells us about what the transition was like when he moved to LA.

“It was scary! I was by myself, I didn’t know anyone. I was given an office in Engineering IV (the same office I have today) and told that, in two weeks, I was going to teach thermodynamics to 100 undergraduate students.

“Unlike all the jobs our graduates get, there was no training session on how to teach, how to run a lab, how to advise students, etc. It was up to me to decide how I wanted to do it. That was the scary part. At the same time, it was very exciting.

“A senior colleague — the late Prof. Ivan Catton — offered to share his lab with me; I had my own students to recruit, a research program to build and classes to teach. It was exciting and scary because there was a lot of freedom and a lot of responsibilities.”

Do you have any tips for dealing with culture shock?

Coming from different regions and backgrounds, international students are often faced with challenges in many aspects in life, whether it be the language barrier or overcoming shyness. “Be open-minded” is the advice that most of our interviewees gave us.

I would say, don’t withdraw into your shell. Just learn how to appreciate and embrace the differences. It’s not necessarily better or worse — it’s just different. I think often when you start, you always think it’s better where you’re coming from. It’s not about comparing, it’s just about appreciating the new place.

“Even today, I am a U.S. citizen, but there are things happening in America that I observe with some distance. It makes it more interesting and less upsetting. I think having some curiosity, being open-minded and tolerant helps with culture shock anywhere you go.”

Vivian Wolff, a fourth-year undergraduate student and also a tennis player on the UCLA athletic team, shared her insights:


“If you are open-minded and you speak to a lot of people and make sure you socialize and get to know everyone and get to know their backgrounds, as America has a lot of different cultural backgrounds, I think that’s the easiest way to deal with the culture shock.”


As a shy and introverted person herself, Joyie Law, a fourth-year undergraduate student and a second-year transfer student majoring in sociology, shared her challenge when she first arrived in the United States and how she gradually overcame her shyness:


“I am a shy person and English is my second language, so it was hard for me to talk to new people at first. But gradually I realized that no one will judge you by your accent or whether you’re using the correct grammar. Just talk to people and don't be shy!”

“Try not to be alone because once you're alone, you can't help but think of home and miss your friends and your parents. I told myself I must not be alone. So I just went out and made friends with everyone.

“Just say ‘hi’ to everybody. Go out and join whatever clubs that they have. Even when I was a graduate student, I joined the undergraduate programs. That’s what I did. That's how I survived. And pretty soon you'll get good friends that you can talk to and share everything with.”

What are your favorite spaces to explore or to find other international students and friends?

Mariam Aref, a fourth-year undergraduate student studying economics and public affairs, suggested that Dashew Center at UCLA holds many interesting events not only for international students, but also for the whole student body in general. She also recommended getting involved in culture clubs to meet someone of the same cultural background:

“I think the Dashew Center [prior to the pandemic] held a lot of fun events in person, there’d always be free food. Getting more involved with culture clubs is also a good way to meet more international students, especially of your cultural background.”


Professor Jenjit Gasigitamrong shared her favorite place to explore in Los Angeles:


“I always go to the Exposition Park Rose Garden near USC. It's next to the Museum of History. It's a garden full of roses. Not super large, but it's really nice. And I love flowers. I would take the Expo Line and hop off that station right next to USC. I would go there every year, except last year because of COVID-19.”


What and how do you recommend getting involved with at UCLA?

We asked our interviewees how they would recommend getting involved at UCLA and where they got the information about clubs or programs they are interested in.

Wesley Wey, a first-year Ph.D. student in studying physics and astronomy from Taiwan, recommended messaging any clubs that you’re interested in on their social media:

“I used to play table tennis when I was an undergrad and hoped to continue here at UCLA, so I reached out to the club on their social media and they were pretty responsive. I ended up being in the UCLA Table Tennis Club and had a lot of fun!”


Mitchell McLinton is a third-year computer science student from the UK and Singapore. He shared his insights as to how he recommended getting involved in clubs and programs at UCLA:

“Try to get involved with clubs —social clubs and clubs with projects. They’re a great way to meet people with similarities to you! Anything where you can meet people is great to help adjust to life at UCLA and definitely and take advantage of all the opportunities here.”


What about tips for finding jobs?

Professor Laurent Pilon believes the best way for international undergrad students to find jobs, given the challenges of obtaining visa sponsorship, is to pursue a postgraduate degree.

“For undergraduate students the best advice I have is to go to graduate school — it’s going to be a lot easier to find a job and get a working visa. For graduate students, just work hard and be good at what you do, there will be opportunities for you in America.

“All my international graduate students find jobs in the U.S. when they graduate. Some decide to return to their home countries, but they could easily stay; that’s their decision. They are all mechanical engineers and work at Tesla, SpaceX, Apple, Intel, big consulting companies. Some work on Wall Street, and several started their own companies.

“The U.S. is one of the countries that value education and where there
are opportunities wherever you may be from. That’s the reason I decided
to stay 20 years ago.”

Pearl Liu, a first-year graduate student in urban and regional planning from Taiwan, said that she decided to keep herself open-minded and keep exploring.


“I would say don’t limit yourself too much. The flexibility at school allows us to explore, and there are chances that we end up doing something that we never thought of before, so keep exploring!”


Anna Urasaki, a fourth-year undergraduate student as well as a second-year transfer student majoring in international development studies, recommended going to info sessions held by clubs or programs in the field that you’re interested in.

“For me, going to the info sessions held by the clubs I am in is very helpful. As a transfer student from Japan, I am involved in clubs like Bruin Transfer in Business and the Japanese Student Association, and the info sessions they have allow me to connect with those who are already in the industry.”

How do you find food from home that you miss?

It is all too common for international students to miss food and treats from home after an extended period overseas. Finding authentic food can sometimes be a challenge, however. Professor Pilon and Mitchell McLinton share their experiences with searching for food from their home countries.

Says Professor Pilon, “In LA, you can find French stuff at the grocery store including cheese, mustard, butter, cold cuts, etc. What you can’t find, you learn how to make it at home. There’s some specific things that French people don’t really make at home, like pastries. But there are some great French pastry chefs in LA that I buy from on special occasions. You do have to drive around though.”

“Given that LA is such a multicultural place, it’s not too difficult to find food from home that I miss. It’s usually from international friends who know places and a cheeky Google search — or Bing if you’re that way inclined,” says Mitchel McLinton.



An extra question for Professor Laurent Pilon: You have some memorable quotes that you often say during class. Would you like to share some of them?

“My Ph.D. advisor, Professor Raymond Viskanta from Purdue University, had many quotes and I still remember him telling them to me. Quotes are words of wisdom that I hope my students can take with them long after I had them in class. The ones I came up with are a bit provocative and include ’Teaching is repeating because learning is forgetting‘ and ‘A good engineer is a lazy engineer, but not the reverse.’ “In other words, the simplest and easiest solution is the best solution.

“I also encourage my students to “Go from success to success”. My Ph.D. advisor would say, “Don’t bite off more than you can chew,” This is important when you learn and when you solve problems like engineers do.”

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