International humans of Columbia; insight on the lives of four MU students

Undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students share personal stories.
Zahra Al Saeed is from Qatif, Saudi Arabia and came to MU to study repository therapy. Photo by Photographer Bulat Schamiloglu

AI Dabiri (Shiraz, Iran) “It’s much easier to do theater in the United States. In Iran, we have sanctions on academia to the extent where we can’t get the books we want. Even so, the books and coursework we receive are outdated. Also, it’s tough to have comprehensive experience in Iran as a graduate student in theater major when you have to handle all the restrictions on disciplines like feminism or queer studies. So that is basically why I decided to get my master’s degree in theater in the United States.”

“I received my first master’s degree in English in Iran. It is very nice that the Department of Theatre in MU actually treats me almost as if I am a doctoral student. They recognize my skills and let me teach my own classes. The good thing about teaching at MU is that I get to write my own syllabus and design my courses revolved around it. I am not fond of the courses where the professor talks and the students just take notes. I prefer the interaction way of teaching where the students and I are involved in the process of learning together.

“As a theater scholar, my job not only includes involving in actual productions like musicals, plays. I also do researches in journals and past productions and write critical analytic patriotic papers on them. I live by the moment so I am always ready to move and ready to change. In five years, I hope I will have my doctoral degree in hand and have a secure job anywhere I want.”

Yixiang Gao (Shanghai, China) “I was in the ‘2+2 undergraduate program’ partnered between Shanghai University and MU. I did my first two years back in Shanghai where I was originally from and finished the last two years in MU. During my senior year, I worked on a capstone project with my advisor, and that was when I started involving more with the lab activities and academia. The more I involved with researches and academia. I found it more intriguing. By the end of my senior year, I told him that I was interested in graduate school. He offered me an opportunity associated with a research grant they just got approved which was very closely attached to my capstone project. That research grant would be able to pay my tuition as well as providing me with a stable salary on top of that. Thus, I applied for the doctoral degree right after I got my bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science.

“I was thrilled when I delivered my first research speech at a conference in Hong Kong last year. It was memorable because my parents actually flew from Shanghai to Hong Kong and were able to witness that.

“I think I find something that I truly enjoy doing, instead of having to listen to what others tell me to do. Also, I found faith, which I didn’t have the chance to experience back in China. It motivates me in a different spectrum. When I came to MU four years ago, I planned to work right after getting my bachelor's degree, but here I am today, as a third-year doctoral student. Because of these experiences, I feel like planning for something in the future doesn’t make sense for me. What I want to focus on is just enjoying the present and see what future holds me to.”

TâMila Freitas De Souza (Manaus, Brazil) “I am a graduate student double majoring in flute and vocal performance. I got my bachelor’s degree at a university in my hometown, Manaus, Brazil, back in 2010. Then, I moved to São Paulo to study in a conservatory, where I concentrated on practicing my music techniques and skills. I went to tours with the local orchestra, but in the back of mind, I always had the dream of getting a doctoral degree in music performance. However, I put aside my study abroad dream for a while because I didn’t think it was possible financially, until one time when I talked to my friend who happened to be in the music program in MU. He encouraged me to send my rehearsal videos to one of the faculties in the Department of Flute. So I sent the email to Professor [Alice] Dade, and within the same day she replied and offered me a scholarship which was enough to support me to come to the MU. That’s when the whole journey officially kicked off.

“Aside from taking courses, I work in the Community Music Program affiliated with the School Of Music on campus where I give private fluent lessons to students of different ages and stages of flute performance. What’s special about music instrument lessons is that it’s mostly about the breathing, posture and physical exercises of the instrument. My first flute class was done with a Russian Professor who lived in Brazil who didn’t speak any Portuguese. All I did in class was showing her where she would place her fingers, and she just imitated my movements. It worked out well for both of us.

“Having lived in Vilagarcia de Arousa, Spain, in my teen ages, I know the struggles of the first months when it’s tough to express myself fully because of the language barrier. However, it also teaches me to give myself time, like four or five months, to fully settle in the new environment. I enjoy the process of learning languages, especially as an opera singer, I am constantly learning songs in different languages. Right now, I speak fluently in Portuguese, Spanish, Galician and English. And I am currently working on German and French. I hope to return to my university in my hometown one day as a flute and voice professor. To be able to give back to the community and to help those who are passionate about music.”

Zahra AI Saeed (Qatif, Saudi Arabia): “I started with majoring in engineering back in university in Saudi Arabia, but I soon discovered that I was more into the biology courses instead of the engineering courses I took. Eventually, I switched from engineering to respiratory therapy. That’s also when I started looking for opportunities in pursuing my degree in a foreign country because there were very limited resources for repository therapy.

“I lived in Toronto, Canada before coming to MU. I stayed there for nine months to improve my English skills so that I could pass the corresponding English test to apply to universities in North America. Through my time in Canada, I found it wasn’t the best environment for me to enrich my English skills. That’s when I started to look for other options, and I found MU who matched my needs the most. It is an exclusive college town with diversity as well as the aspect of the authentic American culture.

“My family wasn’t supportive of my decision of studying abroad at first. They wanted me to stay close to home. They weren’t sure if I was ready to live on my own and take charge of my responsibility. My father lived in Toronto with me for a while. After seeing how I was managing my life on my own, he approved my decision and convinced the rest of the family to support me. It was a tough process, especially for my mom, who constantly worried about me. However, after knowing that my goal, she eventually said yes.

“My first expression on the campus was overwhelming. Back at the university, I studied in Saudi Arabia, the campus was a lot smaller, there weren’t any lecture halls. The first week I had a mixing feeling of excitement and fear. Maybe it was the feeling that none of my friends were here or even other people from my country make me feel insecure and anxious. However, after meeting friends and people from my home country who were in the same major as me and saw them sharing their passion towards the area of study. Meeting them for the first time, and talked about some details related to my major that I never heard about before, made me very exciting about my future study in respiratory therapy, especially as a freshman who just began the program.

“One thing I find absorbing about Columbia is its weather. Back in Saudi Arabia, we had very constant weather pattern. However, Columbia's weather is so unpredictable. Sometimes it changes like four times a day, which is weird.”

Edited by Morgan Smith | mosmith@themaneater.com

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