Lydia Soifer '20 and Jenny Zhong '20 hatched travel plans over Thanksgiving dinner. Last year, the Soifer family welcomed Zhong, an international student from Shenyang, China, to their home and shared with her the foods and traditions surrounding the American holiday. While there, Soifer expressed an interest in meeting Zhong's family, and the two began to brainstorm ways to make possible a trip halfway around the world.
Soon after, they learned of a grant through the Dean Rusk International Studies Program available specifically for international students to invite friends from the United States or other countries to visit them in their home countries. The "Meet My World" grant, made possible by a gift from a generous donor, provides pairs of students with up to $10,000 to cover round-trip plane tickets, visa and immunization costs, and daily costs for accommodations and cultural activities.
"The goal [of the grant] from the outset was to flip the power dynamic, putting the international student in the position of being the host, and being the expert, and being the teacher," said Bea Cornett, Davidson's international student adviser. "[Doing so gives] the international student the experience of being the type of person that a lot of their peers have been to them."
With the Meet My World grant money, Zhong and Soifer traveled to Shenyang, where they spent most of their time, and also traveled to Bejing.
"Beijing was a highlight," Soifer said. "[Visiting] the Great Wall was the best thing we did there. It's one of those things where you see pictures of it, but it's way cooler in real life."
While the 5,500-mile world wonder was a highlight, Soifer said the insight into a new culture and time spent with a new family were the real standouts.
"The things you don't expect are the things that end up standing out the most," she said. "For example, you're always supposed to wear flip-flops around the house; you're not supposed to go around barefoot. There's a whole culture around that–people have house shoes for you when you get to their homes."
While Soifer enjoyed an experience unlike any a typical tourist might have, Zhong also got a new life experience–as host.
"Davidson is a place where they encourage international students to talk about country and share what's unique about the culture, but having the opportunity to actually travel there together is the best way for others to ‘meet my world' and to show them things they might not learn about in textbooks," Zhong said.
Zhong also took Soifer to her grandparents' house.
"When I went to [Jenny's] grandparents' house, I was really nervous, since I can't even talk with them," Soifer said. "But her family was really welcoming and wanted me to feel comfortable at their home. Despite cultural differences, people are still people."
That sort of personal interaction takes on new importance in today's political climate, with identity politics, immigration and "foreignness" at the forefront of international dialogue.
Through personal interactions abroad, students' cultural learning and understanding extends beyond what they might learn in a classroom or see on the news.
"When you go [to another country], you get to see all the differences–you also get to see all the similarities," Soifer said.
Students then return to the classroom with that new knowledge, which enhances conversations.
"By virtue of [international students'] voices and their experiences being included in the conversation, Davidson as a whole is a stronger place," Cornett said.
Royce Chen '20