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A portal to the world: How I had a global Husky Experience without leaving Seattle

by Joseph Yang

I entered the University of Washington, like most, as an in-state student. I hadn’t traveled much, all of my close friends were from my hometown, and the prospect of going to school 25 minutes away from my parents’ house was, to be honest, a little bit underwhelming. I was envious of my friends who got to spend their next four years on the East coast, the same ones who studied abroad and posted pictures of the intangible “cultural experience” that always seemed just out of my reach. I figured that my desire to experience the world: trying new foods, learning about different traditions and geopolitical issues, participating in cultural festivities, would have to wait. Maybe after graduation I could land a job that allowed me to travel.

Three years later, I can’t help but scoff at the pessimism I carried with me during that first year. Having recently graduated, the vast majority of my friends are international students. They hail from places as distant as China, India, Brazil, Korea, and Japan, to name a few. Through my time with them, I’ve had home-cooked meals I’d never thought I’d try, learned about their native political and cultural issues, picked up bits and pieces of new languages, and recognized the unique challenges international students face on a day-to-day basis. And get this, I never traveled abroad!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that study abroad isn’t an eye-opening, transformative experience worth doing. What I’m trying to communicate, especially to in-state students like myself, is that attending the UW offers a wonderful opportunity to participate in cultural exchange even while being close to home; you just need to know how to get involved.

My cultural exchange journey started about two quarters into my first year at the UW. I hadn’t really made any friends. I tried joining a few clubs, but none of them really stuck. I was sad, lonely, and wanting more out of my college experience. So one day, when I saw a flyer for a program called Unite UW, advertising “life-long friendships” through a seven-week cultural exchange program, I took a leap of faith and signed up. The following quarter I arrived at my first Unite UW meeting. I was assigned to a small group with two students from India, one from Mongolia, one from Vietnam, and one from Washington.

Unite UW’s mission aimed to foster an atmosphere where international and domestic students could bond and exchange cultures. There would be weekly field trips and fun activities designed to bring us all closer together; emblematic of this was the “Once United, Never Divided” motto all the program facilitators seemed to incessantly repeat.

I’ll admit that I was skeptical of the program at first; the icebreakers were uncomfortable and I didn’t believe that I’d get close to these strangers over the course of a measly seven weeks. Nonetheless, all the facilitators who had done the program in the past seemed happy enough, attesting that I would have a great time if I went into the program with an open mind.

And that was the key: going into the program with an open mind. Throughout those seven weeks, I got to go on a camping retreat, explore downtown Seattle, see a tulip festival, have a bonfire at the beach, and eat delicious food from all over the world. But, more importantly, I learned about my groupmates’ upbringings, the similarities and differences between our cultures, what international students liked and disliked about the living in the US, and the shared experiences we had as students attending the UW. I left the program with deep friendships that suddenly expanded my worldview, and I craved more.

Following the program, I got as involved as I could in international student advocacy, support, and engagement. I became a Unite UW facilitator the following quarter, joined the International Student Mentorship Program, and applied for a job at UW CIRCLE, a department focused on supporting international student needs on campus.

For me, all these experiences have reinforced how special the University of Washington is. Students from all around the world travel to Seattle to study. There may be no better chance in life to interact with such a diverse crowd and to learn about the world through conversation and friendship. Yet, sometimes when I walk around campus, I can’t help but feel that students take this opportunity for granted.

International students and domestic students too often stick to their own groups. When I see this, I’m saddened by the missed opportunities to learn from one another and to connect with the larger world. Cultural exchange can be difficult; it’s hard to put yourself out there. It can be hard to interact with someone with an upbringing completely different than your own. But if you go in with an open mind, if you are willing to be vulnerable, if you truly want to better understand your place within this vast world, then cultural exchange is an invaluable experience, one that all students at the UW should strive for during their time here.

Joseph Yang is a UW alum (2021) who studied political science at the UW and served as the Communications Coordinator for UW CIRCLE. Joseph integrates his love for learning with his passion for advocacy through effective writing and communication.