I Had a Strange Encounter

(Written on Wednesday 20th January)

It was a normal day; I’d just got off the bus after making the usual journey into university, and was crossing the road on the way to the library, ready to settle in and get working on my paper. It has been snowing in the UK over the last few days, so the campus was covered in snow. My campus is somewhat unique; it sits on a hill about a mile’s journey from the nearest village; it is set in a massive woodland (complete with six lakes!) that is all owned by the university. The buildings at the centre of campus are loomed over by these trees and today they were all bright white.

I was looking at it all, wearing only a thermal shirt and a fleece but not really feeling the cold, when I saw a girl walking towards me to my right. She was talking, but very softly, almost to herself. She was wearing about four layers, including the thickest parka you’ve ever seen, and she was still visibly shivering. She was looking directly at me as she was muttering, but her headphones were on and she was holding her phone in front of her, so I  assumed she was simply doing a video call. I’d slowed down, unsure if she was speaking to me or not, but recognising my mistake, and feeling slightly embarrassed, I continued walking.

And then she spoke a bit louder. “Excuse me, can you help me find…” her voice trailed off into a panicky jumble. It was at this point that I realised that she was a foreign student. I stopped and smiled awkwardly, waiting for her to try again.

“I’m sorry, can you help me find room 19? I’m going to an interview and I’m hopelessly lost.”

I was confused by this, for various reasons. The first reason was that there was no ‘room 19’; the campus is divided into buildings, with names, each of which has room numbers.  But the thing that really confused me was that she must have been at the university for long enough now that she’d know her way around. We were half way through the year, so even if she was a first year, she’d had months to find out where she had to be. And then I remembered that most foreign students don’t start in September, like we do, but in January, so she was new.

I found out which building she was looking for after she spelled the name out to me, and I pointed her in the right direction, with a few convenient landmarks to help her find her way. I was touched by the genuine, heartfelt “thankyou! Thankyou so much!” that she gave me (and replied with a clumsy British thumbs up – we aren’t used to, well, emotion in public), but that was it.

It was as I continued on to the library, slightly bemused by this odd beginning to my day, and going over the event again in my mind, that I had a sort of revelation. I’d never given much thought to the international students around campus – they didn’t interact with me, I didn’t interact with them, that was that – but I came away from that with a real appreciation of the courage it takes to dedicate yourself to a year away in a culture that you are completely unfamiliar with. I realised how isolated international students really are. The fact that she had no idea where she was going, and had no idea how to find out where it was – short of begging a total stranger for help – got to me, as did the way she was wrapped up so much warmer than I was yet visibly suffering in the snow (she was very dark-skinned and had a heavy African accent). I thought back to my first few weeks at uni; how I’d barely eaten anything at all, how stressful I found moving to a new place and living a new way. And yet the whole time, everyone else around me was in the same boat. I was struck by the challenge faced by people like her, who were moving thousands of miles away from home, then joining the rest of us in the middle of the semester. Everyone else is already used to uni life by the time they arrive. They are much more alone than I was.

I suppose this only demonstrates how much university opens you up to  all kinds of new experiences – not only drinking, partying, and having to deal with landlords and laundry – but what it is like to live in a truly international community for the first time (which especially applies to me, as I grew up in an English village with pretty much no non-English people in it at all). Other than that, I can’t quite place why this had such an effect on me. All I can say is that it’s been on my mind constantly ever since it happened.

I hope she found her room.

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