Making New Friends, Keeping Old Ones at ‘Ole Miss’
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is part of a series about international student life at colleges and universities across the U.S. Please join us over the next several weeks as we bring you stories about these amazing individuals and the American higher education system as a whole.
There are many reasons why a student might choose to study at any of the thousands of universities across the U.S.
Price, size and the types of programs a school offers are just a few of the things students consider.
But some young people make their choice because they feel a strong connection to a particular college.
Jiwon Lee was born in Daejeon, South Korea. Right after she was born, her family moved to the U.S. so her father could complete his doctoral degree, or Ph.D, at the University of Mississippi.
The University of Mississippi, also known as "Ole Miss," was founded in 1844. Located in Oxford, Mississippi, the school has a long history and many famous alumni.
Lee's family returned to South Korea after five years, but Lee and her mother came back to Oxford in 2010. Lee was 15 years old at the time and enrolled in the local high school.Noble Prize-winning author William Faulkner briefly attended Ole Miss in 1919 and lived in Oxford for many years.The school is now home to almost 21,000 students. Over 8,500 are international.
Lee learned to speak with the accent of a person from the southern part of the U.S. She even uses the southern slang term "y'all," which southerners use to refer to anyone they are speaking to.
Yet, some of her classmates were not always the most welcoming, she says.
"Some people would look at me and be like ... ‘She's from some other country.' Typically they'd say, ‘Are you from China or Japan?' ... But I'm from Korea. I'm Korean. I'm proud to be a Korean.
"I wish they could know more about my country."
Lee quickly found comfort in her passion: music.
Lee began learning to play the piano at three years old, the violin at four and the flute at five. Her mother was also once a professional opera singer.
So it was only natural for her to join her high school band. From there she was introduced to the band director at Ole Miss. Lee then chose to get her undergraduate degreein musical performance at Ole Miss in 2014.
"It's just been a very important part of my life, being very important ... So I was thinking, ‘Hey! Why not be one of the Ole Miss family as a student?'"
Linda Bardha from Tirana, Albania also had some difficulty when she began studying at Ole Miss in 2013. Like Lee, Bardha attended high school in Oxford, but only for one year.
Bardha was part of the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study, or YES, program through the U.S. Department of State in 2010. The program sends high school students from countries with a majority Muslim population to study in the U.S. for one year.
While part of the YES program, Bardha lived with a host family: Robert and Carol Dorsey. Bardha and the Dorseys liked each other very much. The Dorseys even agreed to host her for the next four years after she earned a full scholarship for her undergraduate studies.
But when Bardha began taking classes for her degree in computer science, she soon learned she was one of few women in her program. The men in her classes had little interest in welcoming another female student.
She also found life without her family nearby was much more work than she expected.
"Coming all the way over here, and just taking responsibilities and, 'Here is your life, go and live it' ... It's kind of hard in the beginning."
It took some time, but Bardha eventually found her place. She says she loves the freedom of the U.S. university system. In a liberal arts program like the one at Ole Miss, students can choose to take whatever classes they want. The classes do not always need to directly relate to her major.
Bardha also found a job in the Office of Global Engagement, where she helps other international students build a community.
Bardha's host family now hosts a young woman from Serbia and another young woman from Ukraine, as well. On weekend nights they enjoy going to the bars and restaurants in the center of Oxford, also called The Square.
But Bardha says that being so far from her friends in Albania causes problems.
"Friendship is something really important for me. But I've realized that by coming here, I'm kind of losing the ties and the friendships that I have back home."
Lee says she feels the same way about her friends back in South Korea. When she visited her hometown two years ago, her friends told her she acted different. They told her she was acting more American than Korean.
But Lee also has found many friends and lots of excitement being involved in several of the Ole Miss bands, including the Ole Miss Wind Ensemble and Opera Orchestra.
She says she has never experienced anything like playing for thousands of American football fans in the marching band, known as the "Pride of the South!"
Both Lee and Bardha want to continue their education after completing their degrees at Ole Miss. But they do not know where.
Lee says she wants to become a music teacher. Bardha is getting a minor degree in digital media and is now an intern at Voice of America in Washington, D.C.
Her friends in Albania ask her to come back and change the country. Bardha says she could never stay too far from her family and her home for long.
I'm Pete Musto.