It happens every fall. A new cohort of students arrive feeling as if they have been dropped into an alien land. Even the most confident and prepared freshmen go through a transition as they adapt to the expectations, responsibilities and freedoms that come with collegiate life.

The challenge is even greater for international students, who literally learn to embrace Illinois State as foreign territory. Among them is Arafat Kabir, a 26-year-old who graduated in May with a master’s in political science.

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Kabir came to ISU in fall 2014 as one of 445 international students from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. Each was welcomed by the International Student and Scholar Services through ISU’s Office of International Studies and Programs. The unit helps students with issues that range from immigration to cultural, personal and educational questions.

Kabir was unique within that 2014 group. Beyond speaking four languages, he traveled the farthest to attend. ISU’s campus sits 10,000 miles from his home in Bangladesh and within a time zone that differs by 11 hours.

I had a spectacular time during my two years at Illinois State. Beginning from the first week of school, I received more than my fair share of good fortune.

Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated nations on earth, with 156 million people crammed into a country the size of Louisiana. The open prairies and cornfields were consequently quite a change for Kabir, who received a full scholarship to pursue his passion of global politics and culture.

Kabir’s experience was enriched as a graduate assistant, serving on the University’s Graduate Student Association and working as a freelance writer. His articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, International Policy Digest, and Forbes Magazine. The confidence Kabir gained after completing two years on the campus he embraced as his U.S. home prepared him to begin a doctoral program in political science this fall at the University of Utah.

My first day at ISU was perspiring. It was a sunny, sweltering day in August 2014. Beads of sweat were trickling down my forehead as I was walking around the campus for graduate student orientation.

Curious to see how I’d feel if I was home in Bangladesh, I checked my smartphone weather app. It revealed that the temperature in Celsius—I still can’t decipher the readings in Fahrenheit, a uniqueness of America—was higher in Normal than Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh. I was taken aback. For some inexplicable reason, I thought I’d never get sweaty in the considerably colder United States of America.

It wasn’t only the anomalous weather that caught me off guard. As I met people and conversed with them, I realized I wasn’t giving a solid answer to their apparently innocent question: “Why ISU?”

One reason was the size of the Department of Politics and Government and the opportunity to interact closely with faculty. I also knew that the chair, Ali Riaz, is an expert in my area of study—South Asian politics.

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Another answer was also swirling in my head: free ride at ISU. Graduate school, after all, is expensive. But I restrained myself from saying it, because it wasn’t entirely an honest response. A university in Texas offered me a better stipend package. Yet I came to ISU.

“But why?” I wondered.

That I didn’t know the complete answer to this simple question was a boon for me. I became consciously interested in the journey I embarked on at ISU. I was eager to see which direction ISU would lead me and how the University would transform my life.

Coming to Illinois State was one of the biggest decisions in my life. I had already completed a bachelor’s degree in engineering in Bangladesh and was working for Weatherford, one of the world’s largest petroleum service companies. I enjoyed my job, which allowed me to work with an eclectic mix of people, and travel across Southeast Asia.

When I quit, many thought I had gone crazy because I was one month away from a promotion. Moreover, I made a 180-degree turn from electrical engineering to political science. My reason was simple. Politics animates me. I wish to contribute to this field.

ISU meant to me a new life, new beginning. I promised myself that I wouldn’t take the opportunities, experiences or the knowledge offered for granted. As a Redbird, I wanted to do what was expected with punctuality and passion—performing my responsibilities as a graduate teaching assistant, maintaining good academic standing, engaging with the ISU community and taking ISU to the outside world.

I had a spectacular time during my two years at Illinois State. Beginning from the first week of school, I received more than my fair share of good fortune. Take for example, a dinner with Town of Normal council members and representatives of ISU’s Graduate Student Association. Each member spoke to us, listened to our suggestions and imbued us with the feeling that students are important when it comes to their decision-making process.

It was a new experience for me since Bangladeshi universities, in general, do not facilitate such interaction between politicians and students. This helped me realize that apart from being a proud Redbird, I had an identity as a citizen of Normal.

It didn’t take me long to find my new kin in Bloomington-Normal, thanks to the Graduate School and International Talk Time (ITT), a campus registered student organization. The group meets Friday nights for a Bible study and dinner offered by a local family. This was just one opportunity to meet other international students and share our unique yet common experiences as we adjusted to life so far from home.

Arafat Kabir walking on campus
Arafat Kabir

Other campus services helped me settle in as well. The International Studies Office put me in contact with John and Linda Berger when I was looking for housing. They coordinate local families willing to host international students for a day or two upon their arrival.

The Bergers help international students get furniture and appliances for free with the aid of a local church group, while host families provide other household essentials. This is a huge benefit because taking care of these things allows international students to settle down comparatively faster and easier.

Jack and Margaret Archibald, who lived and worked in Bangladesh for almost three decades, served as the host family for myself and two other Bangladeshi students. They took us to buy groceries; complete paperwork, including acquiring a state ID; and showed us around the city.

I was amazed to receive such warm hospitality from an American family. Even after I moved to my campus apartment, they continued to check on me and included me in Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations. Sometimes Margaret would show up with homemade cookies. If any need arose, I always knew there were people I could turn to.

And there were some troubling moments, including race-related comments that made it clear stereotypes unfortunately still exist. There was the struggle of finding a summer job, as I stayed on campus to complete summer courses, which is the norm for international students. The need to file taxes was another obstacle that I faced along with my international peers.

The chance to address these issues as a representative to the University Graduate Council was one of the rewarding experiences and opportunities I had while at Illinois State. The University also gave me a quality education, a safe environment, friends for a lifetime and unforgettable memories. I’ve worked with wonderful professors, professionals and even an Illinois senator—Jason Barickman ’98. I’ve met with leaders of their respective fields and been inspired by their achievements.

I’ve learned a lot in the classroom and beyond, as I realized many cultural differences. For example,
it is common for students here to sit with their legs crossed in front of the professors. Back home it is considered disrespectful. Likewise, several of my actions, at first, came across rude to my friends. However, I tried to celebrate these differences too, including that I come from a land of spices. I became the ‘spice police’ for my friends whenever we tried an Asian food or restaurant. Surely, I’ll fondly reminisce those fun moments.

Not every moment was unique, yet I loved each and every day. Next time I’m asked why I chose Illinois State, my answer will be firm and fast: to fall in love with ISU.