Overseas In Hanover
For international students Thayer School is a foreign adventure.
By Jennifer Seaton
Photographs by John Sherman
Students come to Thayer School from all over the world. They bring different cultures, educational backgrounds, and engineering aspirations. Thirty-six percent of all Thayer students — the majority from China, India, and Western Europe — hail from outside the United States.
On top of the move to Hanover and the new classes all students have to navigate, many foreign nationals must master a new culture and study in a second language. Once they graduate, some have a more difficult time finding employment than their American peers — in part due to the limited number of visas released by the U.S. Office of Citizenship and Immigration Services. But students are willing to leave the familiarity of their home countries to study at Thayer because, they say, the best educational and job opportunities await them in the United States. Those profiled here give us a glimpse into international students’ lives.
Annarita Giani, Ph.D. Candidate
For Annarita Giani, home is a seaside town in Italy. Giani had earned a master’s degree in math and was working for the Italian government as a researcher when she got to know Thayer Professor George Cybenko. When she decided a Ph.D. in computer engineering would be helpful in her career, Thayer seemed a natural choice.
Arriving in Hanover in 2000 to work with Cybenko on cybersecurity, Giani encountered some unexpected cultural hurdles. She began her first applied math assignment, stopping when felt she had mastered the concept. At the beginning of the next class she was shocked to hear the professor ask for her work. “It was unthinkable to me that in a Ph.D. program we have homework to turn in,” she says. The professor gave Giani an extra day to complete the assignment, and she figured out that she was expected to finish all assigned problems.
She had to make other adjustments, too. “The way people interact is very different here,” she says. “It’s more formal and distant.” In Italy Giani wouldn’t think twice about dropping in on friends or family unannounced. But in America, “it would be unacceptable to go and visit a friend and knock on the door without informing them before,” she says. Other social conventions puzzle her as well. “You invite people for dinner at 8,” she says, “and they say 8 is too late.”
Giani smiles as she describes the positive aspects of life in America, such as how strangers say “hi” to each other in the halls and how easy it is to obtain a driver’s license. Still, she misses home and she tries to make it back to Italy several times a year. Each time she returns to Hanover with coffee grounds to use in her Italian coffeemaker. (Although she has grown to like barbecue and bacon and eggs, she cannot give up Italian coffee.)
Giani’s advice to other international students considering U.S. programs: “Do not think of finding here the same life that you had in your home country. Be positive, this country offers many great things,” she says. “And if you see something that you do not understand, try not to be too critical.”
Jessica Lawrence Th’05, ’06
Jessica Lawrence wanted a liberal arts education. In her home country, Jamaica, students specialize in one field from an early age; her strong academic skills landed her on the science track at age 13. Not wanting to limit the scope of her studies, she left Kingston, Jamaica, to study physics at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. After two years there, Lawrence came to Dartmouth to study engineering under the dual-degree program. “My parents were the main proponents of me and my sister coming to the school in the States,” she says about her engineer father and nutritionist mother. “They knew it would open doors for us.”
Lawrence immediately encountered differences between life in the United States and Jamaica, where she graduated from an all-girls, Catholic high school. “So many people thought differently here,” she says. “In my family and community in Kingston, everyone was Christian, everyone went to church, everyone was black.”
Lawrence likes the way Americans seem open to talking about diversity. “What stood out were the different belief systems and different ways of thinking about things, but it didn’t have to be antagonistic,” she says.
At Thayer, she says, professors made a special effort to reach out to her by including Jamaica in case studies or applying principles discussed in class to specific situations in her home country. She appreciated this, she says, because she aims to help Jamaica address problems of poverty and environmental degradation.
As a student she joined the Dartmouth Gospel Choir, International Club, and a local church. She complemented her engineering courses with acting, religion, and economics — and still marvels at the room in her schedule for non-engineering pursuits. “I think that influences Thayer’s style of teaching engineering and its culture,” she says.
Missing her family and what she calls the “casual, outspoken friendliness” of people in Jamaica, she returned each winter break and summer. (She spent one summer working on an engineering project in a Jamaican mine.) Looking back though, she wishes she had spent at least one summer in the United States. “I think the experience of being away from your parents and culture and country is invaluable for growing up and claiming your own identity,” she says.
Lawrence is now working in business operations at a retail firm in New York City. She plans to return to Jamaica in about five years to work in environmental engineering or business. “For me, work experience in the States is a means to getting experience,” she says, “and enhancing the tool set Thayer has given me so I can make a meaningful contribution in Jamaica.”
Juan Pablo Fernandez Th’07, M.S. Candidate
Juan Pablo Fernandez grew up in Colombia, attended college near home, then earned a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. When his wife entered a doctoral program at Dartmouth, he decided to augment his physics training with an engineering degree from Thayer. “I originally wanted to study something as far removed from the real world as possible,” says Fernandez. “But I’ve become more pragmatic with age.”
Thayer was both welcoming and challenging. “The way in which an engineer thinks is very different. It’s been tough,” he says.
A bright light was ENGG 149: “Introduction to System Identification,” taught by Professor Minh Phan. “It was amazing to see Professor Phan derive from scratch a whole practical scheme for the characterization and control of mechanical systems,” he says. “The homework consisted mostly of toy problems, but the tools we developed for those could then easily be adapted for serious systems analysis in real-world conditions — in fact, the final exam was an analysis of real Hubble Space Telescope data.”
In his research, advised by Professor Fridon Shubitidze, Fernandez uses electromagnetic induction sensors to address a disturbing world problem: detecting and identifying buried unexploded ordnance.
Fernandez says he likes the fact that science and technology are important parts of American culture, and he enjoys the congenial atmosphere at Dartmouth.
“I think it’s conducive to a lot of hard work,” he says. “There’s a lot of competition. But you feel like you’re part of a team. I like the collaborative impulse you see everywhere. I like the effort the school is always making to have everybody feel welcome and encouraged to create.”
David Lukofsky, Ph.D Candidate
Before David Lukofsky graduated from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 2005 with a degree in electrical engineering, he applied to Ph.D. programs at three Canadian schools and Dartmouth. Dartmouth won out. “The fact that there are no departments here was a draw,” says the Montreal native. He was also drawn to the lifestyle. In Canada most students live off campus and have busy lives away from school. At Thayer, Lukofsky’s lab is only a few hundred yards commute.
As an undergraduate he thought of school as one aspect of his life. “In grad school my life is school. I’m here every day of the week, morning until night,” he says. “I’ve noticed everyone is so driven, students are very proactive in their learning.”
Lukofsky is working with Professor Ulf Österberg to examine how water absorbs light. He may pursue a career in academia — on either side of the border.
Xiongjun Shao Th’05, Ph.D. Candidate
Like many foreign students, Xiongjun Shao and his wife have not been back to their native China since arriving at Thayer in 2001. Their first few years away from family and friends were clouded with homesickness, but those feelings gradually faded. “I can call home or my friends or we can even see each other on the Internet,” Shao says. Getting his fill of authentic Chinese food is another matter; it’s what he now craves most. Homesickness still creeps up during traditional Chinese holidays, when he thinks about the celebrations he is missing back home.
The language barrier was one of Shao’s greatest challenges upon moving to America. Although he studied English as a student in China, working and socializing in English has been difficult. Yet his English and his confidence have improved with time, he says, allowing him to focus on his work, supervised by Professor Lee Lynd, on kinetic modeling and reactor design for converting cellulosic biomass to ethanol.
To help others adjust, Shao founded an International Club at Thayer in 2005. Offering moral support and companionship, the club sponsored movie nights and sightseeing trips. But it disbanded when Shao couldn’t run it any longer. “I have to focus on finishing my thesis work,” he says, “and I couldn’t find someone who could devote to it, although there is need of such a club.”
Nilanjana Dutt Th’06
Nilanjana Dutt talks to her family in India every Sunday morning. They exchange e-mails during the week, but Dutt looks forward to hearing their voices.
Dutt grew up in New Delhi and moved to the United States five years ago. “I had always enjoyed working with my hands and understanding how things worked,” Dutt says. It was those childhood interests that led her to Thayer after she attended Colby College in Waterville, Maine. “Turned out that the classes at Thayer were a lot of work and long hours,” she says. “But I enjoyed the challenge and welcomed the chance to work on more tangible projects than I had been exposed to at Colby.”
India’s needs influenced her engineering studies. “India is economically booming right now,” Dutt says. “Roads, industries, housing, sanitation, and water projects are major growth areas in the country.” Like many developing countries, India has experienced environmental degradation on the path to economic development. “There is a growing consciousness about the environment in India and the potential for sustainable projects is immense,” she says.
“I took as many environmentally focused classes as I could,” she says. One in particular was ENGS 171: “Industrial Ecology,” in which students look at how sustainability principles are applied. “Professor Cushman-Roisin has many connections and ideas about the field; he helped me as a professor and was an invaluable resource.” She was also inspired by ENGS 44: “Sustainable Design,” in which she learned about architecture and product design.
“It helped to have conversations and talk outside of class,” she says. “For me, I had these interests but I wasn’t sure of the best way to realize my goals and tackle them.”
Cracking social circles on campus was another challenge. “There was no infrastructure for meeting people,” she says. Dutt has found that many non-English-speaking students stick together for comfort at Dartmouth, and the graduate community tends to be divided by background. “For some people it’s harder to reach out to Americans than other internationals,” she says, “even if they’re from the other side of the world.”
Still, Dutt says she is glad she chose to study in the United States, particularly because of differences in the engineering field. Indian students apply directly to engineering colleges for the specialization they want to study. The fixed curriculum does not allow students the freedom to focus their studies on anything other than their chosen field. Though colleges hold annual festivals for music, drama, and fashion, regular athletic and extracurricular activities are not often emphasized. Dutt welcomed the change, joining the mountaineering club and working part-time for a Tuck professor doing research on environmental influences in the business world.
Dutt currently works as an intern with a New York nonprofit. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. and then return to India. “The basic standard of living in India is lower than the United States, and consequently my country’s needs are much more basic,” she says. “This affects the way we prioritize our engineering projects and the materials and processes we use to achieve our goals.” She’ll use her experiences at Thayer to understand how to address these specific problems. “I wouldn’t have discovered my interests in sustainability if I didn’t come to Thayer,” she says. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t come to Thayer.”
-Jennifer Seaton is a contributing editor who lives in California.