Komz Muthyalu '20, a Hunsaker Scholar and president of the Redlands International Student Association, speaks with Tinbite Elias Legesse ’19 and Camila Orozco ’19 about their time at the University of Redlands, what they learned as international students, and their final pieces of advice to others as they graduate. Here is their conversation, edited for length and flow.
Komz Muthyalu: Tell me about yourselves. Where are you from and what’s your major?
Tinbite Elias Legesse: I am from Ethiopia. I graduated high school from the International School of Beijing, and now my family lives in India. I am a double major in international relations and public policy, with a minor in spatial studies.
Camila Orozco: I’m from Mexico City, Mexico. But my family moved to San Diego when I was 14. I am an economics major and a math minor.
KM: Did you find any differences in the type of education offered here compared with your home country?
TL: I was incredibly privileged to have attended international schools which were all equipped with the resources and intentions of elevating our education. I’ve experienced the same thing at this university. My professors have tried to make a connection with me and aided in my growth, whether it be personal or scholastic.
CO: I love it, too. I've been here since high school, so my transition was from high school in America to a college in America. Part of why I picked Redlands was because it's a small school, and you do get to connect with your professors. I love my classes. I don't regret changing my major five times—that's still good because I learned different topics and different fields!
KM: How do you think the student organizations that you're a part of shaped your experience at the University?
CO: I'm in Beta [a University of Redlands sorority], which I joined my first semester of sophomore year. I came to Redlands not even knowing what “rushing” [the process of joining a fraternity or sorority] was. My attitude was, “I am not a sorority girl, and I cannot be a sorority girl!” My friends said, "Oh, just give it a chance. Rush and see what happens; see how you feel." Through the first two weeks of rush, when you get to know all the sororities, I met so many cool people. So I decided to take my chances, and I rushed. I picked Beta and got in. It was such a great feeling to walk into a room with a bunch of strangers and connecting right off the bat because we’re all Betas. Once the process is over, you have a support system that is always there for you. You have friends till the end of time. Our alumni are so involved, so you also get future connections.
TL: I love being involved. It gives me so much energy. I mean, it also takes a lot of energy, but it is worth it to produce interesting projects and bring together a diverse range of people. Being involved in mock trial, the Students Promoting and Advancing Revolutionary Change Summit, Convocations and Lectures, and [on-campus service club] Alpha Phi Omega helped me find out what I liked, what I didn't like, how to structure [my time]. I learned how to be a leader by watching others lead, whether in a good way or bad way.
KM: What surprised you the most during your time here?
TL: I had to figure out my identity, my racial identity, a lot faster than I had intended. I got here, and the question of identity hit me and would not let go. I had to figure out, "Okay, I'm an Ethiopian who is black in America, but what does “black in America” mean?" I had some black people pushing their beliefs of who I am, and white people putting me in a box. At first, I literally didn’t understand how to respond to all this input. Luckily, I had the best professors and Campus Diversity and Inclusion administrators guiding me through my own process. With all that said, the time spent unpacking my identity independently and intentionally has been incredibly valuable.
KM: I never thought about race until I came to America, so I totally get that. Back home, everyone is like you—you're not different. I never thought, "Oh, I'm Indian." No, I'm just me.
CO: So many identities that you never even knew you had.
KM: Exactly! “You're brown”—I didn't know that I was brown! My experience is so different from people who grew up brown in America.
TL: Black identity comes with not only skin color, but culture, family structures, food, language, music. My not understanding the American black identity aggravated people. This was an experience, but I'm better for it.
CO: Sometimes when I tell people, " I'm an international student from Mexico City," they say, "There's no way" or "You're not a typical Mexican." How would they know? Have they traveled to Mexico?
KM: What do you think students from your country can learn from American culture?
TL: What I love about America, with all its faults, is the acknowledgment that there is suffering or hurt and that we should try to heal that suffering. And, most importantly, that people in America have the freedom to express these sentiments. The freedom to create conversations between different people and their different lived experiences is important because that's the only way to understand and move forward. In Ethiopia, and in my International School in China, there is more or less one reality. We all have to buy into that reality, which means there is no room to fix or grow past something. We have lost our power with the loss of diverse narratives. Here, people realize there are multiple realities, and that they have the power to fix [things]. So, regardless of how constricting your circumstances are, change is possible, pushing the system is possible.
CO: Focusing on people my age, I would like people from Mexico to learn to try. They sometimes think university is a joke and that's why the country is where it is right now—because people don't think school is that important. Here, with all the flaws of a student, people tend to try their best.
KM: What do you wish you knew coming in as an international student? And what type of resources do you wish you had?
TL: Toward the middle of every semester, we should ask, "Who wants to go get their driver’s license?" It is a useful skill to have globally (especially coming from a trusted country). I am attempting to get my driver’s license this semester, which for a 22-year-old in America is an isolating experience. I just think it could be fun, and encouraging, to have a study buddy or a group going to the DMV.
CO: Because I was already in the United States, in some ways I didn’t feel like an international student. My family was still here, so my dad helped me with my visa and my driver's license. I would like the international student office to do more to connect international students with each other—because right off the bat, we connect in a different way.
KM: It’s really interesting you mention that. That’s exactly why we started the Redlands International Students Association, so that we can connect international students with each other. We have dinners planned for the semester and a hike to Joshua Tree coming up. We are slowly trying to build a community for us.
TL: Sadly, I don’t have the time to go to these things now that I’m a senior, but RISA is doing a great job bringing all of us internationals together through various events.
KM: One final question: I have one more year left at the U of R. Do you have any advice for me?
CO: I have one simple piece of advice: Do not stress about what's coming—just enjoy the moment. What stressed me out freshman year was: "What am I going to do? What class am I going to take? What's happening next month? What are my grades?" Just don't. Enjoy it, have fun, and be in the moment—it’s as simple as that.
TL: I second that. I started that [enjoying the simple joys] too late in the game. I didn't go to Joshua tree until spring break of my last year here. So really, take the time to enjoy things. Take advantage of what you have around you. So, when you're laughing with your friends, just laugh and be fully present instead of playing the “what if” games. Oh, and a driver's license—just get it done!
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