International student feature: Paula To

Paula To is a senior Oxbridge molecular biology major from Hanoi, Vietnam. On campus, To is involved in The Hilltop Monitor, orchestra and biology research. She moved to the United States at age 16 for her third year of high school in Colorado and decided to attend William Jewell College after learning about the Oxbridge program. Compared to Liberty, To describes Hanoi as more fast-paced and crowded, with many historic tourist attractions and excellent food spots. Although she describes Liberty as less exciting, the slower pace of life can be a welcome source of peace. 

Streetview of Hanoi. Photo courtesy of Paula To.

Before she came to the U.S., To had a limited understanding of American society due to biased media in Vietnam. However, she did believe that the U.S. would offer more opportunities due to perceptions of American freedom and individualism. To cites her career ambitions and desire for intellectual freedom as motivators to study in the U.S., as Vietnamese society is more conservative with more restrictive gender roles assigned to women. Many young Vietnamese who have the financial resources to do so leave the country to receive an education, given that the university system is restrictive on students. For example, college majors and admissions are determined by an admission test and students cannot change their major without re-taking the test. As a result, this prevents many students from exploring their intellectual passions and makes finding a fulfilling job challenging. 

View from Paula’s family’s home in Hanoi. Photo courtesy of Paula To.

When To came to study in the U.S., she said she “…experienced some homesickness but was very happy to be here.” The language adjustment was challenging since her English skills were limited prior to moving to the U.S. and she had to pick up reading, writing and communication skills after moving. To stated that her educational experience is more enjoyable in the States because there is more intellectual freedom and students are more focused on improving their critical thinking skills. In contrast, her educational experience in Vietnam did not allow for as much creativity and expression. Her essays were restricted to a set template and there was a stronger emphasis on memorization. While To’s expectations of greater individualism and intellectual expression were met, she found that the U.S. has its own issues with discriminatory politics and growing movements for social conservatism.  

Paula To at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Photo courtesy of Paula To.

Throughout To’s experience of moving from Vietnam to the U.S., she has had largely positive experiences with Americans, who she describes as friendly, less judgmental and more subtle. However, being a non-citizen has presented some challenges because she is not eligible for some research or academic programs. To experienced visa difficulties while studying abroad in England, which she describes as dehumanizing since the system often views non-citizens as potential illegal immigrants rather than students or people who are simply looking to travel. 

To cites the United States’ beautiful and diverse geography as one of her favorite aspects of the U.S. She also believes that her experience as an international student has helped her better adjust to changing environments.

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