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International students at UF find a home away from home

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Pictured are students at the Spring 2017 orientation for NaviGators International. NaviGators International pairs international students with American student mentors to help them get acclimated to life in Gainesville and on an American campus.

Anna Volentics is never without an invitation to Thanksgiving dinners.

Ever since going to school in the U.S., she said she has always had a place to go for the holiday exclusive to the country.

Volentics, a 20-year-old UF international studies sophomore, doesn’t fly home to Budapest for Thanksgiving because it is not celebrated there.

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Anna Volentics is a 20-year-old UF international studies major. She is from Budapest, and loves the UF community that she has found through her sorority.

“I always have a million invitations to all my friends’ house to celebrate with them, which is so, so kind because I think it’s such a warm and intimate family gathering,” she said. “I literally have no issue leaving campus to visit a friend or go hang out with someone and spend Thanksgiving with them.”

According to the UF International Center, UF was home to 6,881 international students out of the 56,079 total students enrolled in Fall 2018.

Entering a new country and culture can be intimidating for international students. Leaving their home country can open up a new set of challenges. From Thanksgiving dinners to silent disco nights, these international students have found their own unique ways to find a home away from home.

Why UF?

Feb. 9 was a special day for Volentics ⁠— it was her mom’s birthday and the day she got accepted into UF.

She didn’t get the chance to visit UF before she committed, so she watched videos online to learn more about UF.

“I really liked the positive vibes I got from campus, and I was really excited when I got in,” she said.

She said she chose UF because she loved the major and minor selections, the environment and the size of the campus.

She said football games are a good example of how UF students make a good community.

“The day of, everyone is just super excited. Everybody loves everybody,” she said. “The vibe is super happy, and then you go to midtown, downtown, everyone is wearing their Gator stuff, and you just feel like you belong, and everybody just feels like we’re all a part of this big family. That’s the best feeling you can get.”

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Emilio G. Quiteño is a 20-year-old psychology major on a physiotherapy track and a latin american studies minor, was born in El Salvador. He was raised in Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Canada.

Emilio G. Quiteño, a 20-year-old UF psychology major on a physiotherapy track with a Latin American studies minor, was born in El Salvador. He said he was raised in Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Canada.

Quiteño said he considered factors such as location, weather and prestige when choosing a school to go to.

He went to high school in Canada where he said there was constantly gray skies and rain.

“That messes with your mood a bit,” Quiteño said. “That’s something at UF I definitely appreciate: it's always sunny. People are in a better mood, they look better, they feel better, and I think it's just a better environment to be in.”

Finances are also a major factor for international students choosing UF.

Aniket Gupta, a 20-year-old UF finance sophomore, said he liked the warmer weather and the business majors at the undergraduate level. He spent seven years of his childhood in India.

But he also enjoyed the excellent scholarship opportunities that UF offered. “Getting accepted into UF felt great because I got a full scholarship,” Gupta said.

Challenges and fears: “I was a bit afraid of people's response to me being from El Salvador particularly.”

Matteo Curioni, a 22-year-old UF civil engineering junior, was born and raised in Torino, Italy. He moved to the States when he was 19 and transferred from Santa Fe to UF.

Curioni said he faced a language barrier when he first moved to the States. He knew very little English, just colors and animals.

“At first, I literally had a problem at understanding what people and professors said,” he said.

It took him around six months to feel comfortable with understanding the language, he said, but then came the obstacle of perfecting his fluency in English and being able to explain complicated concepts in a way people could understand.

Quiteño said he was fearful before moving to the U.S. for school.

“I expected the United States to be more conservative in regards to accepting people from other countries,” he said. “I don't know when's the last time you saw a positive news story about El Salvador, but it's mainly mentioned in the fact that there's a lot of illegal immigrants going to the States, and a lot of them are from El Salvador.”

He wasn’t expecting a positive response when he moved, but he said people were very friendly to the fact that he was a foreigner.

For international students, the big question of “What are you going to do after college?” takes on a whole new meaning.

“Because after your student visa expires, it’s like, what are you going to do?” Volentics said.

Volentics said she would love to have more clubs and programs that have speakers who were previously international students that could talk about what they did after college.

Finding a home away from home

Even with these challenges, organizations such as NaviGators International can help international students get acclimated to U.S. and UF cultures.

Dylan Rein, a 20-year-old UF international studies sophomore, is secretary and membership and matching coordinator of NaviGators International. NaviGators International pairs international students with American student mentors to help them get acclimated to life in Gainesville and on an American campus.

Rein recalled a special moment she experienced her freshman year, when she was paired with a student from Saudi Arabia who really wanted to go with his friends to a silent disco Gator Nights was hosting.

“Afterward, we went and we got some food, and I remember them sitting and talking and laughing and then telling me that that was such a great moment because they had never gone out and just listened to music and danced,” she said. “I had never expected to hear from someone that they never really danced.”

For international students like Volentics, Quiteño and Gupta, finding a home away from home means joining organizations and communities they are passionate about.

Quiteño has gone to Jacksonville to tutor refugees from Myanmar, helping them with their English and helping them adapt to culture in general. He said he plans to get involved with the horticulture club and a Latin American fraternity, Sigma Lambda Beta, in the upcoming year.

Gupta said he feels a sense of community as a resident assistant at Springs Complex.

“I do feel like I have a community at UF because of the friends that I have made and because of the community building I have been involved in as an RA,” Gupta said.

He said he has never felt homesick because of the friends he has made.

Volentics said she loves sports and plays volleyball through Panhellenic. Next semester, she plans on taking it to the next level with club volleyball.

“That’s always a big fear when you go to a new place, and you’re so far from home, and you just want to find your own place, and I just really feel like I did,” Volentics said. “I found my family away from home, so I’m lucky from that perspective.”

Tien is a first-year journalism major at the University of Florida.