VILLANOVA, Pa. – This year, the Office of Graduate Studies welcomes two International Student Peer Advisors, Kate Kozlova and Navya Sree Kupparajum, to help serve the international graduate student community in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Kate is from Russia and is pursuing a Master of Arts in Education with a concentration in Higher Education. Navya is from India and is pursuing a Master of Science in Software Engineering.
The International Student Peer Advisors organize social and professional development events, answer questions for current and prospective international students and generally work to help international students navigate life at Villanova and in the U.S.
Shea Szpila, a graduate English student and Graduate Assistant in the Office of Graduate Studies, recently sat down with Kate and Navya to learn more about their background and goals for their positions as International Student Ambassadors.
Shea: To start things off, can you tell me a bit about your backgrounds? Why did you decide to pursue a master’s degree and why did you choose Villanova?
Kate: I completed my undergraduate degree at the Lobachevsky State University majoring in Teaching English and French/Linguistics. I moved to the U.S. four years ago, and since then I’ve been an international student for three years and just recently completed a year of an Optional Practical Training program. I worked at an educational staffing agency and helped schools find the best services providers in the area. Working in a university setting has always been a dream of mine, and Villanova happened to make my dream come true! I was looking for a program that is focused on Higher Education, and I was quite surprised that not too many schools offered it. Moreover, the uniqueness of this program at Villanova is that it is offered on campus. The best thing about Villanova is its sense of community. I have not felt so welcomed and like I belong at any other place.
Navya: I graduated from Vardhaman College of Engineering in 2016 with a degree in Electronics and Communication Engineering. After graduating, I worked at LiquidHub, India, as a software engineer. I learned about Villanova through my brother who is a Villanova alumnus. It wasn’t an overnight decision to return to school, but after I had been working for a while, I felt that my growth had been saturated. I couldn’t go any further. My brother insisted I apply to Villanova. He said that no other university would support international students the way Villanova does. In addition to being an International Student Peer Advisor, I am currently a Systems Management Technician at the Falvey Library on campus.
Shea: What is your favorite thing about being at Villanova?
Navya: The architecture. It’s beautiful. I love the sunsets from the university. It feels like home. It’s quiet. There’s something about the Catholic culture that shows in the buildings. Also, I will always be grateful for the opportunities I’ve had here. None of my friends who have studied at other universities have had these types of opportunities.
Shea: Part of your role as an International Student Peer Advisor is to guide international students through their transition into the United States. Do you remember what it was like when you first got here?
Navya: The first few months were very difficult here. Back then, I didn’t know about resources like tutoring services, or how to take a train. I wish I had used those resources without hesitation. I wish I knew that you can always approach people and there will be opportunities. Everything was a question mark: Do I do this? Is this safe?
Kate: I did have some people that I knew, so I was not as isolated, but at the same time the fact that you now have to find something that you really like to eat—it might sound like it’s not important but it really is.
Shea: So, you had trouble with American cuisine initially?
Kate: Oh yeah. Well, first of all, bread. Like, what is that? We don’t eat bread like that.
Shea: What’s different about the American bread?
Kate: Just, just taste! It just tastes completely different, and I like rye bread, and you can’t find it everywhere.
Shea: It’s hard to think about the differences in something as simple as bread, and that can create a real barrier.
Kate: I found myself that international students like to find grocery stores that are from their countries. So that’s another thing we are trying to help international students get familiar with.
Shea: Navya, is the food at Indian restaurants here even close to real Indian food?
Navya: To be honest, no. The vegetables that we used to get there are not available here. I can sometimes get them when I go to the Indian grocery store, but it just tastes completely different. Back in India, we have tiny vegetables, and it was so cute. Here everything is so giant, and I’m like, why?
Shea: Have you been to Philadelphia, yet?
Navya: My roommates and I went on a Philly tour in August. It was beautiful. For once I felt like I was actually in the United States. The place where I live now is pretty boring, whereas in India we have busy streets, and there’s always food on the road that people are selling.
Shea: What did you do when you got off work in India?
Navya: I am a classical dancer. I’ve done more than two hundred stage shows in India. During the weekends I would go to learn from my guru, and then I would teach kids. I feel so amazing when I dance because we tell stories through dance, like the Indian mythological stories.
Shea: Do you dance here?
Navya: I practice sometimes at home. In India I had a very busy life, but I had time for everything. I had time for work, family, dance classes, hanging out, everything. Here I just get up, go to work, get off, go to class, go back home, and then when the weekend comes, I’m so tired I don’t want to go anywhere; I want to sleep.
Shea: How has it been living in a primarily English-speaking country?
Navya: My roommates and I used to talk to each other in Telugu. So, whenever I had a presentation or had to talk to someone in English, it would mess me up. When we are at home, we mix multiple languages; sometimes we use three different languages for just one sentence. When I have to say something emotional or when I’m in pain I prefer speaking in English. But when we mock each other, we use Telugu. It’s a problem, because Americans sometimes think that we are mocking them instead! We feel so sorry! We don’t do that!
Shea: Kate, in Russia, you studied English teaching. Did your English study prepare you to come and live in the United States?
Kate: Yes and no. Of course, studying English prepared me to come here, but when you don’t speak the language on an everyday basis, it doesn’t help as much. All of a sudden you realize that all these years you’ve been studying a language that you don’t know. Also, in Russia we don’t focus as much on American English. We study the British version, so when I first started speaking here I would use some words that Americans don’t use or pronounce differently. I would say [British accent] “half and half” instead of [American accent] “half and half.” Or I would say, “holiday” instead of “vacation” and Americans are like, “What are you talking about? What is that?"
Shea: Well, you’ve adapted to the accent really well.
Kate: I’m working on that!
Shea: What made you finally feel connected to the American communities you’ve lived in so far?
Kate: Well I actually started watching a lot of shows on TV that I really enjoy. I just started watching The Office. It is exactly what my old office looked like. Some other shows like Friends that show typical things that people here experience. When you’re watching a show, you get a lot of everyday communication skills, like how to start small talk, which was a big problem for me.
Shea: Kate, how do the Pennsylvania winters compare to the Russian ones?
Kate: Temperature-wise it’s not as cold here during the winter, but the fact that it’s very wet outside makes it feel really, really cold here. I basically wear the same clothes that I used to wear in Russia during the winter. Second of all, people here think that when it snows it’s the apocalypse. If you just stay calm and don’t panic, everything is going to be fine! Just don’t freak out.
Shea: Is there anything you would like to say directly to the international students?
Navya: Always ask. Never be afraid to ask someone. Everyone here is so warm, and so welcoming. All you have to do is come to them and ask them for something, and they will absolutely, literally, walk you there, drop you off, introduce you to whomever you need to meet. To me that was really surprising because in India when someone asks for directions, you get a “go straight, turn right, turn left” and then they’re done. But here when I asked for help, people would literally walk us, and were super kind. So, I would say, always ask, and meet people.
Kate: I want to encourage international students to get more involved. One of the reasons we started this program is that sometimes graduate students don’t feel as much a part of the community because they don’t live on campus anymore. Especially international students who just came here, I would say that I know you might not be ready to participate in everything we have to offer. Just try to participate in something that you think might be interesting. And never hesitate to reach out. We want to hear more feedback from you, so never hesitate to let us know what we can do for you.