After obtaining a Bachelor’s and a Master’s in English Literature Studies in France, I was accepted in the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant program. Here, I would be a French Teaching Assistant at Wake Forest. Therefore, I moved to the United States in 2019. I was only supposed to stay for one year. However, that year was drastically transformed when COVID shut in-person classes down in March 2020, I realized teaching was not for me, so I decided to start a new Bachelor’s program, this time aiming for a business degree. Thus, I became a freshman student at Wake Forest in August 2020.
Since coming to the US, I have been on a journey to find my path and reconcile my French culture with my American goals. By that, I mean that I often feel like I am losing some French aspects of my identity in order to become more American. For instance, when I moved here, most people were complimenting me for my French accent, telling me I should keep it. As a French student, I was always thought that I needed to lose this accent to sound more authentic and more American. It’s hard sometimes to understand authenticity as an international student in another country. Does suppressing my French accent make me less authentic?
A ROCKY TRANSITION
I also only go back home over the summer. The pandemic was one reason, along with pricey flights not being worth flying home for winter break. For me, ‘Home’ has become such an interesting word. I have spent much more time in the United States than in France over the past four years. Does that mean that Winston-Salem and the US are more my home now than France is? This is a question that I still haven’t fully answered, as I sometimes feel as if both places were my home, and sometimes feel like neither is.
At Wake Forest, international students only account for about 8% of the student population, which makes us a small minority within the university. There are even fewer of us in the School of Business. This sometimes makes it difficult for me to identify with the student population. There are very few students from France, I can actually count on one hand the number of French students I have met since 2019. In a way, it almost feels like I am studying abroad, except that I am doing a whole Bachelor’s here instead of the usual semester that people do overseas. This leads to me experiencing life as an American student at its fullest.
Being an international student comes with many challenges that most undergraduate students will not face during their studies. It comes with a cultural package – particularly in the first few months. Sometimes, these surprising cultural differences seem insignificant. For example, the very first day I got to Wake Forest’s campus, I was very lost. A student saw me and ran across the street to ask me if I needed any help and guide me to the location I was searching for. This felt overly nice and welcoming, which was pretty unusual for me in France. People also always smile and say hello. Often, this is accompanied by a “Hey, how are you doing?” when they walk past you. That was new and a positive experience, until I realized that people do not necessarily expect an answer to this question. After a couple of embarrassing moments of me trying to answer the question honestly, I realized that people were just asking out of politeness but would keep walking without waiting for an answer. Other differences were even more insignificant, such as the presence of water fountains all around campus, or the big gaps around the doors in public restrooms, which made me very uncomfortable. At the same time, I struggled with issues ranging from food to the work hard mentality to the habit of saying yes to everything.
However, you end up getting used to these kinds of experiences. Saying “Hi, how are you doing?” and smiling to most people you walk by becomes a habit, even if sometimes it feels a little forced or fake (such as when I’m having a very hard day and keep smiling and saying hi to people, for instance). Overall, these habits become part of your personality. You start to navigate the food and eat more healthy. You begin to enjoy this fast-paced, hard-working life. If you don’t, then you adapt your lifestyle and you shape your own experience.
There were challenges much bigger than nuances, food, and lifestyle, however. For example, being an international student comes with a lot of administrative, financial, or legal issues. That includes lots of paperwork. When I got here, I had to obtain a social security number in order to work at the school, submit a bunch of forms for tax purposes, open a bank account, and get a new phone number and phone plan. I was lucky enough that the International Student Services (ISS) were there to help me through these issues. When the tax return time came around – because I was not on campus anymore due to COVID – I had to figure things out on my own. I made a few mistakes on this tax return that are still causing me trouble to this day…four years later!. Without boring you with the details, it is due to a tax treaty between France and the US and the fact that the IRS is requesting that I pay taxes for the 2019 tax year (whereas I was never supposed to pay).
Legally speaking, because of my first year here as a French TA, I had a J-1 exchange visa. This requires that I spend two years in France before being able to apply for an H1-B visa in the US – the most common work visa. There is a way for me to waive this requirement, but it means writing a letter to the French embassy in Washington D.C., asking them to help me waive this two-year home requirement. It can be scary at times, as I do not know anyone who has experienced something similar or understands all of the intricacies who can help me. Despite this, I know that I can rely on my support system – my family, friends, the business school coaches and advisors, the international student office – to encourage me and be there for me.
Internships are another issue that can be daunting for international students. At Wake Forest, Business and Enterprise Management students are required to perform an internship between their junior and senior years. As an international student, I need to apply for a CPT, which stands for Curricular Practical Training, in order to be authorized to have an internship in the United States. This is an extension to my current F1 visa – the most common student visa. This requires me to find an internship, produce a letter of acceptance, and gain approval from the business school approve before I can apply for a CPT, meet with the ISS and submit my application. A great number of companies do not accept CPT – or OPT for that matter, which stands for Optional Practical Training and allows an F1 student to obtain employment in the US for a period of 12 months. This is another thing I will need to apply for right after my internship. On top of that, I am graduating earlier than most people, as I am finishing this Bachelor’s in August 2023 – as a Junior – upon completion of this internship. I will then need to find a job right after graduation. To this end, I will have to apply for jobs in April/May of this year and apply for OPT as soon as possible as it can take up to 90 days to be approved. All of this can be very complex and scary for international students like me.
SUPPORT ALL AROUND
Nevertheless, I find myself surrounded by people who always want to help and support me. The School of Business has a career center, called MRE (Market Readiness and Employment), and the coaches there are always available to help you. They are an invaluable resource and have helped me tremendously. When I first met with Coach Caleigh and Coach Marcus over the Fall, I was very lost and confused about what I wanted to do. I started thinking I was interested in consulting pretty late in the semester, when most companies had already finished hiring their summer interns. I liked many different fields within the business world, which is why I was struggling to find what fit me best. The coaches individually helped me single out all of my interests, as well as craft my resume and cover letter. I was able to identify companies that seemed interesting to work for. They also motivated me to go to our career fairs and networking events and made it easier to approach recruiters.
Friends and classmates always strive to support each other and it feels good to be with my international peers and to experience our struggles and joys together. Two particular people come to my mind. Their names are Isra and Emy. They are both international students: the former from Oman and the latter from Brazil. They know how hard it is to find internships as international students and are always here to support me whenever I struggle with similar issues. When we miss home, we gather together and talk about it. Isra is now studying abroad in Barcelona and I miss her very much, but her help in this internship search endeavor and her support will always remain with me. She was my study buddy last semester and Emy is now my internship search buddy. We help each other out, give each other advice and recommendations. This has made these challenges much more bearable.
Even though I have yet to find my summer internship, I feel surrounded and supported by the business school and my friends, and I am confident that this summer’s experience will be one that I will remember forever.
Camille Dutto is a senior at Wake Forest University, where she is majoring in Business and Enterprise Management and minoring in Japanese. She currently serves as a council member on the Undergraduate Business Student Council. Originally from France, she earned a BA and an MA in English before deciding to pursue a new academic journey that enhances her business knowledge and better prepares her to reach her professional goals of working in international and sustainable business. Camille is excited to graduate soon and begin her career!
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