Within the University of Alabama, a certain community exists.
It exists within the BB Comer, a building on campus which holds all language classes and international studies classes, and where I spend most of my time, since I am studying Spanish, Arabic, and International Relations.
This community is known as the English Language Institute, or the ELI. At first glance, it seems like just a bunch of international students learning English at an American university. Nothing new. But upon closer inspection, it is so much more:
Students from all around the world are brought together and fill the classrooms, causing so many different languages, alongside accented English, to echo through the hallways of BB Comer and anywhere within a hundred yards of the building. It becomes such a tight-knit community as the students spend all of their time with each other, opening their eyes up not just to American culture but to a vast amount of others from all around the world, coexisting side-by-side.
Just like with the football team here, I had not known about the ELI prior to attending the university and therefore it had not been a factor in my decision. But because of it, I am now so unbelievably happy that I chose to come to The University of Alabama.
And I am also so glad that me of all people, being an American student on the outside, got sucked right into this amazing and diverse group of people.
It all began when I was required to participate in a program called Culturally Speaking for one of my classes, as part of the International Honors Program. I was excited when I found out that we would be placed with groups of 3 or 4 international students, each from a different country, and we would be helping them with their English while simultaneously discussing different aspects of each of our cultures.
I loved it. It was with Culturally Speaking that I first met many of my international friends; so many different countries and cultures and personalities. Colombians, Brazilians, Saudi Arabians, Kuwaitis, Swiss, Greeks, Chinese, Koreans, Taiwanese, and Japanese. I discussed anime with Japanese kids, practiced my Spanish with the Colombians, and met so many Saudis who were incredibly happy to discover that I was taking the time to learn Arabic and were also so happy to teach me.
I learned so much from these people; from Saudi wedding traditions, to the best Korean bands and shows, to environmental policies around the world, to all the amazing places of Colombia, a country which many people tend to disregard because of its past drug reputation. And the Colombian students were determined to inform everyone of this. Because I read travel blogs, I already knew that Colombia was a wonderful place, but many others had their minds changed by these students, minds set with redeeming the country they are so proud of.
Soon enough, I had met so many amazing people.
I have my hipster/professional photographer Saudi friend who loved scarves and showed up to everything with his camera in hand.
I had my beautiful Japanese girls who always wore their matching skirts and eye glitter, and I had my Japanese guy friend who, besides being incredibly fashionable (he is a fashion major after all), was an amazing friend, always there to help and always in a good mood to put a smile on other people’s faces. Despite his name being Hiroto, he went by Eric and in his hopes to improve his English as much as he possibly could, never spoke Japanese, not even with his Japanese friends.
I ate the delicious, homemade Chinese food which my Chinese friends were always more than happy to make for me. So they always invited me over, and cooked up platefuls of steaming meat and vegetables while we discussed our favorite kinds of music.
I met the absolutely adorable two-year-old, bilingual daughter of my Saudi friend, who told me about her dreams to get her master’s degree in math, become a teacher, and raise her daughter well.
I danced Gangnam style with my Korean friend with the afro, who considered himself to be PSY and even dressed up as the iconic singer for Halloween.
And I danced and partied many nights away with the Colombians and Brazilians, who are all so free-spirited, and just plain fun. Among the Colombians was Camila, who became my best friend throughout the course of the semester, with us having many an insightful conversation switching back and forth from Spanish to English. I loved being able to just jump easily between languages.
And who knew that Saudi Arabians could throw the best parties? Well, truth is, they did. And those amazing parties, with all the international students together plus me, the one American, sometimes with a couple more, were definitely some of the highlights of my semester.
For example, my friend Saerom, from Korea, told me the story of how when she first arrived to the United States and to Alabama, she had it in her mind that she would only hang out with other Asians. The second day, she got on a bus and a Colombian boy sat down next to her and proceeded to invite her to hang out with his friends. She didn’t decline his request but she never showed up, and he never stopped attempting to convince her to give in and spend some time with him. Eventually, Saerom did give in. And now, not only are the Colombian girls her best friends, but she and that boy who sat next to her on the bus are now together and have been for quite some time.
Then, there is the group of Japanese girls who became best friends with a group of Saudi boys, becoming like family by the end of the semester. And two among this family, Ayuka and Nawaf, fell in love. They had to say a tearful goodbye as Ayuka left along with the rest of the Japanese girls, while the Saudi boys remained behind. They, like many others, are studying in the U.S. for the entire year.
But they weren’t the only ones who had to say goodbye.
Just a week ago, the same time that I was leaving for home here in New Hampshire, many of the students in the ELI had to leave for their homes as well.
They were only studying in Alabama for a semester.
And the fact of this set the mood for the few days before all of their departures, days full of crying and hugging and partying while we tried to make the most of the little time we all had left together.
The many Japanese girls cooked up a picnic feast for everyone, since all but one of the girls were leaving. I even threw a goodbye party, sad that many of my friends would not be there with me anymore when I returned to the university after winter break.
But the clock was ticking, and eventually the time did come for official goodbyes.
I’m still amazed at the set of circumstances that led me to become a part of this group which I otherwise never would have known. I sometimes wished I could have just been in the ELI, but the fact that I’m a native English speaker probably would have prevented me from doing that…
Nevertheless, I loved being able to tutor them all and help them with their English homework, and in exchange learn a little of each of their languages, or in the cases of Spanish and Arabic, improve.
The ELI is a wonderful example of what an ideal world should be like: different cultures and beliefs all coexisting in peace and harmony, and open-minded about what makes each unique, not judgmental. And it is for that reason, in addition to all of the amazing people who are a part of it, that I love it so much, and I am so grateful that despite being on the outside, I got to be included too.
As for now, the people who have left for their home countries will stay in my heart. The number of friends I have around the world, waiting for me, is always increasing, and I am looking forward to the day when I can visit each and every one of them in their own countries.