A few years ago, two of Western Illinois University’s leaders made a huge impression on Xitong “Rebecca” Chen when she met them in her native country, China. In fact, according to Rebecca, meeting Western President Dr. Jack Thomas and Dr. Richard Carter (executive director of WIU’s School of Distance Learning, International Studies and Outreach) provided the tipping point in the process of her decision about where to go to college in the United States.
This Fall 2014 semester, Rebecca, a sophomore with a double major in art and journalism, expressed just how much the initial impression that Dr. Thomas made on her with an impression of her own. For a project assigned in one of her art/design classes (taught by WIU Art Professor Jenny Knavel), Rebecca spent 57 hours working on a portrait of Dr. Thomas (see photo below). She presented the work to the President late last week.
So, for the December (and second) installment of Western’s “International Student Success Spotlight” series, I asked Rebecca to answer a few questions about her experiences with WIU. She shared a little bit about the first time she met President Thomas and Dr. Carter, as well as a bit about some of her experiences at Western and in North America so far.
Q. How did you learn about Western Illinois University and why did you decide to apply to and attend Western?
Xitong (Rebecca): As I grew up in Shanghai, which is the largest city in China, as well as the global financial center, I learned more and more about foreign countries and had an increasing interest in studying abroad. When I had almost finished my high school studies, I heard about Western Illinois University from one of my mom’s friends. When I began the application process to apply to Western, I found that WIU has an English as second language program called the “WESL Institute” [Western English as a Second Language Institute], with a low cost. I thought it would be a good program for me to improve my English and prepare for college life in the U.S.
Although I thought Western was definitely a good choice for my college study, I was still struggling with the decision about where I should go, since I received several offers from other good universities in the U.K., Canada, Australia and in other countries.
I had this struggle until I met President Jack Thomas and Dr. Rick Carter in Shanghai when they traveled to China. After talking to them, I unhesitatingly decided WIU would be my university in the coming four years, because it had two nice leaders who cared about their students in their university with their full hearts.
Q. What do you hope to do with your degrees in journalism and art once you graduate?
Xitong (Rebecca): I want to be a missionary and work in the Middle East in the future. I joined Campus Students for Christ (CSC) at WIU, and received help from several of the American students there. Just like the help I received, I also want to offer my help to others who need it. I hope through my studies in journalism and art, I can use my writing, my words, my actions, and my artwork as a missionary.
Q. How did you adjust to your new home as a person who had never traveled to/in the U.S. before?
Xitong (Rebecca): When I first came to the U.S., I was only 17 years old. The language problem was definitely a huge struggle for me. Whenever an American talked to me, I could not understand; whenever I spoke to someone who was not Chinese, he or she could not understand either. Due to that, I tended to avoid making any more American friends. I felt my accent was ugly; I felt no American would like to talk with me. I felt deep loneliness from living in a foreign country.
Besides that, I also had a huge culture shock, because the U.S. is so much different compared with China. The types of food, the ways we do laundry, the transportation systems, and the etiquette in daily life were all something new to me that I needed to learn from the beginning. It almost seemed easier to just give up instead of overcoming all of these difficulties; however, my faith helped get me through. I also met nice teachers, who took their time to help me, at the WESL Institute, as well as friendly classmates who came from such other countries as Japan, Korea, and Saudi Arabia and who were willing to share with me information about their similar difficulties when coming to the U.S.
I also met nice Americans from Campus Students for Christ who invited me to their activities and helped me to understand American culture. These people gave me encouragement and helped boost my confidence to help me face the difficulties. I gradually solved more and more problems with their help and support.
Then, I shared my experience with other Chinese students and told them about never giving up. In 2013, I became the president of the Chinese Student Association, and I also volunteered in orientation for international students every year to share my experiences.
Q. What have been (or are) your favorite courses and why?
Xitong (Rebecca): My favorite course at WIU so far has been English 100, taught by Jacqueline Wilson-Jordan. After graduating from the WESL Institute, I took this course in my first semester of my studies at WIU. Although I learned a lot in WESL classes, I still could not fully understand the professors and my new American classmates. Professor Wilson was a nice and patient professor with a lot of teaching experience. She tried her best to understand the difficult situation of being an international student studying in a foreign country and helped me in any way she could. I enjoyed her classes with organized handouts, detailed explanations, vivid writing examples, and a friendly environment in the class. I not only learned a lot of helpful knowledge in her class, but I also experienced more Americans’ good personalities. My first semester was really the most memorable one in my college study. Later, I recommended Professor Wilson’s classes to other international students, and they all loved her teaching and gained useful tips on English writing.
Q. Tell me about one or two of your most memorable experiences yet as a student at Western.
Xitong (Rebecca): In 2012, I went to Juarez, Mexico, with 18 other students from Campus Students for Christ. We went there to build a house for a Mexican family who did not have a home to stay in.
We drove three days from Macomb to Mexico. It was hard for us to sit in a vehicle for such a long time, as well as for the drivers to keep focusing on driving. We stayed in different churches on the way to Mexico, but there were not comfortable beds in the churches, so we either slept on the floor or brought “easy beds” with us.
Conditions were more uncomfortable after arriving in Mexico. We could not take showers for three days, and during those three days, we worked from 7 a.m.–5 p.m. with only one half-hour for lunch. The weather there was also harsh. It was hot like summer in daytime, but cold like winter, without sunshine, at night. On the third day of building the house, it was even snowy. When I was in China, I was always a “princess” who did not need to do any rough work (even something simple such as washing the dishes), so, of course, building a house in Mexico is not something I had ever done before!
We cut the wood, shoveled stone and sand, mixed the concrete, finished the foundation of the house on the empty sandy, ground, all on the first day. We hammered the wood sticks together and stood the wood frames on the foundation on the second day. On the third day, we filled insulation in the wood frame, added chicken wires out of the wall, covered the wires with concrete, helped with the electricity, made the roof, installed windows and doors for the house.
I learned all these English words and how to do this work in those three days. And the pain that came from the work (and affected every corner of my body) made me swear never join this activity again! But before we left Mexico, when we gave the Mexican family the keys of the house and prayed for them and their house, that changed my idea about this. All of this work was done to help others in God’s Kingdom.
In 2013, I went to Juarez, Mexico, with CSC again to build another house for another family. And I have registered for building another house in Juarez this year, too.