A Home Away From Home | St. Lawrence University

A Home Away From Home

Wali M. Khawaja

I arrived at St. Lawrence on a Monday afternoon with four suitcases, my frantic family who had no idea what we were doing in the United States instead of Europe, and questions about what to expect from the next four years. When applying to colleges, I had no real idea where I wanted to go; all my life I had planned to go to London, England, for higher education, but somehow I convinced myself that I should go the United States instead.

After hearing back from 12 of the 15 colleges I applied to, I sat on my balcony one evening and asked the Universe to give me a sign of where I should go, and I got an email from St. Lawrence within five seconds. That same night I paid my deposit, and got ready from my journey to Canton, New York. Upon arrival, I realized that St. Lawrence was quite far from any city and different from any other place I had ever lived in or visited. But something about it just made sense. Perhaps it was the lush green fields, the smell inside the Brewer Bookstore, or the aesthetic sunsets. I’ll never know. All I do know is that one week into my St. Lawrence experience and I was sure I’d made the right decision.

People had told me all along how being in the United States is difficult because it’s so far and so different from home. I had my apprehensions going in about whether I would be able to academically succeed, make friends, and build myself a home in a village far away from where I’d grown up. My first week, I was still reeling from jet-lag and busy setting up my room while trying to keep up with Orientation. Within the first few weeks, I got to know my First-Year Program peers. We were a comparatively small group, but we all became very easily comfortable with each other. We hung out in each other’s rooms, we developed a close relationship with our Community Assistant, and we got several meals together during the week. . A majority of my closest friends at St. Lawrence actually were all either in my FYP or in the same hall. Somehow, in the past three years we’ve managed to maintain our camaraderie. As an international student, I knew that I’d have to be more forthcoming about where I was from and what I was doing at St. Lawrence when I met someone new so there would be some initial understanding. I think that helped me develop that initial bond with the people I now get to call my friends.

In the past three years at St. Lawrence, I have come to learn and grow far more than I ever expected. Besides the obvious learning experience through the classes I’ve taken, I’ve come to also learn much more about myself and my perspectives on different topics. There’s something about being on campus with the same peers and professors that allows even basic interactions to develop into some sort of familiarity or relationship. Two of the people I go to anytime I’m stressed or have a problem are my FYP professors who have guided me in countless ways. Being around people who come from different parts of the country and the world has also allowed me to understand different cultures, perspectives, societal norms and values. It has allowed me to interact with people who have had wildly different experiences, likes and dislikes than I ever have. It has given me the chance to have conversations on a range of topics that I had no knowledge of prior to St. Lawrence that I now have a strong stance on. For instance, mental health isn't something people like to speak much of, but I’ve learned so much about it that now I advocate for mental health rights. More than anything else, St. Lawrence and the people who I have been with for the past three years have allowed me to grow and learn so much more about myself than I ever could have imagined.

If there’s one piece of advice I could give to any incoming international students it would be to not hold yourself back. Don’t limit your interactions with those who you are familiar or comfortable with. If you’re shy, then challenge yourself by taking a public speaking course; if you’re interested in developing creative skills, take a filmmaking course. If you’re interested in leadership, then join the Thelomathesian Society; if you’re interested in learning more about debating, join the Model United Nations Club and go to conferences with people you wouldn’t necessarily interact with on a daily basis. If you’ve never tried out a sport, do it now. If you don’t like your first winter, go abroad in your sophomore year. If you feel lonely and upset, talk to those around you. If you want to be part of a community that helps support and uplift each other, then join the Advocates Program. If you like to volunteer and give back to the larger community, do a Community-Based Learning course or volunteer at a local school. If you’re willing to live with people that share your interests, join a theme house. Go to the chapel for the annual Candlelight Service!

St. Lawrence isn’t limited to a certain experience just because you come from a place that is different from anybody else’s. This is your chance, and as much as people will say it to you, college only comes around once. But your experience in college shouldn’t be one that is expected or what it may seem like in movies or books. Everybody has a unique experience. Make yours different, make it count for something, explore yourself because this is the time to do it. Sometimes you may have to push to make room for yourself but once you do, you feel like you belong. I know that in three shorts years, St. Lawrence has become my second home, and I hope this helps in making it yours, too.