Acclimating to Academics Abroad: Exchange Students Explain

This semester, Amherst College hosted nine exchange students from around the world. Pho Vu ’23, an exchange student herself, delves into the challenges of making Amherst home.

Four exchange students attending Amherst for the spring semester pose for a picture with Director of Diversity and Student Leadership Lupita Mendez at the Center for International Student Engagement in Keefe Campus Center. Photo courtesy of Pho Vu '23.

During the Spring 2022 semester, the college hosted nine exchange students from around the world spending a semester or year abroad. As students on campus entered finals season and the semester approached its end, these international students reflected on their past three months handling weather, making friends, traveling over state lines, joining clubs and taking classes at Amherst.

Despite increasing Covid cases across the world, students managed to board international flights and soon made themselves familiar with the culture of the liberal arts college in the little Western Massachusetts town.

I reached out to interview several students from a mutual exchange student WhatsApp group chat. It was a painless process to get in touch with them, as some of them shared the same residential house as me.

Older conversations in the group chat often revolved around finding companions for the latest musicals and concerts or simply asking if anyone wanted to dine together at Valentine Dining Hall. A few messages asked for household appliances like vacuum cleaners or emergency laundry items like fabric softeners.

Before attending Amherst, the international students gained exposure to the liberal arts curriculum while attending colleges and universities back home. Bekzod Normatov ’23, who studies data science at Yale-NUS College, said they wanted a “compare-contrast experiment” between two schools. “They're both liberal arts,” said Normatov. “Very similar things, but very different in nature.”

Suvansh Manektala ’23, a mathematical, computational and statistical sciences major and philosophy minor at Yale-NUS, also thought the same. Manektala stated, “My college in Singapore is also a liberal arts college, but it’s in Asia, and the demographics are different. I was curious to see how a similar institutional model would work in a completely different country and a completely different set of people.”

Amherst’s current standing as a top-ranked educational institution impacted their decision greatly. According to US News, the private institution ranked second, after Williams College, as one of the best national liberal arts colleges. Normatov and Saanchi Shah ’23, an economics major from FLAME University in India, said they selected Amherst because of the reputation of its mathematics and economics departments, respectively, and the exclusive exchange program between the two institutions. “Microeconomics is my favorite because of the professor,” Shah shared, drawing her positive feedback from the pedagogy ability of the economics professor. “He's really good at explaining the concepts. I’ve always loved micro-econ, but this gives me a proper in-depth understanding of consumer preferences, and that's what I want to search for in the future.”

The College’s provocative decision to adopt coeducation in 1974 captivated many students who researched its foundation prior to departure. Normatov remarked on Amherst’s history as an all-male college in relation to its status in the present day. “Straight white men were leading the college, and then they started admitting women. It’s interesting to look into how much the institution has changed but still stayed true to its original form,” they said. “Given the moves by the college to accept women and other minorities, even when that already happened, these groups were not given the same benefits and privileges.” Normatov thought that more initiatives needed to be taken in the policy-making committee of the school to grant everyone a fair amount of access to its resources.

On-campus activities were believed to be the life and soul of the college experience, as many students reported. Overall, a combination of college-sponsored and student-led programming have livened the daily life of these students. Normatov mentioned Mr. Gad’s House of Improv's weekly shows in the Friedman Room with excitement.

As a liberal young gun who wants to try a “a bit of everything,” Manektala was excited to explore a variety of fields at Amherst, including education studies, theater and dance, history, and mathematics. Manektala loves theater, and he thanks Amherst for letting him reconnect with his interest. He made his debut in Langston Prince’s ’25 “The Pearly Gates” with the role of St. Peter during The Ten-Minute Film Festival in early April. “It took us around seven after-class rehearsals to get off the book. It was pretty fun to see how dedicated these students were. There was a lot of work to do logistically and they did a good job.”

Interested in athletics, Keying Lin ’22, from Mount Holyoke College, took advantage of Amherst’s Women Club Soccer practices and works out at the Alumni Gym when she’s not studying. Like Manektala, Lin also found her soul belonged to the theater and auditioned for a role in “The Bacchae,” an upcoming production of The Green Room which will have its first showing at 8 p.m. this Saturday at the Powerhouse. She has been satisfied with her experiences at Amherst so far and is currently considering whether to stay for one more semester at the college.

While these extracurriculars assisted their transition to Amherst, most students concurred that course registration was particularly challenging for exchange students, resulting in unwanted changes to their preferred courses list. “I feel like we weren't told before that in fall that we would have to pre-register for the courses, otherwise we wouldn’t get a space. We were told to begin registration around January 31, and that's when we were allowed to look at the courses. I think that was really unfair because except for us, everyone else at the school [had] already registered for their classes,” said Saanchi.

Saanchi wrote an email to the dean telling him how unfair this system is for exchange students. “All he allowed me to do was take one of the courses that he's teaching, but I think that didn't really help me. At the end of the day, it's the professors who allow you into their courses.” Normatov added that the process was poorly organized, leaving him and others “very stressed and confused.”

“I wish [the] school had some kind of quota seats for us at least or asked us for our preferred list beforehand, because we only have a limited amount of experience,” stated Normatov.

Although Amherst made countless attempts to accommodate and prepare students for the professional world with on-campus job offers through Workday, nearly all students found it hard to get a job that complemented their career prospects. “First, the professors don’t really need research assistants in humanities departments. They mostly conduct independent research. That was a bit of a difficulty, because I was trying to find a job related to my major. Plus, most of the jobs were already filled and they were posted for the sake of administrative purposes,” quoted Baeg.

Despite the difficulties they experienced, many of these students are preparing for commencement in two weeks. Most of the exchange students from the group have already booked their flights and packed their suitcases. “I wish I could stay here during summer,” said Normatov, “but my J1 visa will expire by the end of semester, so I have to go back.” Normatov shared that he planned to borrow caps and gowns to join Amherst seniors during Commencement 2022. For many, it felt like a true graduation, as they would all leave the schools just like other graduates anyway. Having spent two semesters at Amherst, Baeg registered to work during the Commencement and Reunion Week, simply wishing to spend as much time helping out with the College as possible, before she left for her last semester in South Korea.