Passport To Understanding: Foreign Students Immersed In American Culture

Tuesday, August 8, 2017 - by Shawn Ryan, UTC
As part of the Study of the U.S. Institutes, international students visited the Challenger Center in Chattanooga. In the program, 22 different students come to UTC from 18 different countries to study social entrepreneurship.
As part of the Study of the U.S. Institutes, international students visited the Challenger Center in Chattanooga. In the program, 22 different students come to UTC from 18 different countries to study social entrepreneurship.

Stephan Johansen has traveled quite a few times to the United States from his home in Oslo, Norway. 

“Pretty much up and down the East Coast,” he says. 

His trips include a visit to South Carolina but, standing on the deck of the Hunter Museum of American Art, looking out over the Tennessee River, he feels like he’s finally found the South he’s always heard about. 

“Southern hospitality is real,” he says. 

It’s a common theme brought up by many of the 22 foreign students like Mr. Johansen who are at UTC for about a month to dive into American culture, American business and American politics. 

“In doing our lectures and in our visits to companies, we will learn a lot of tools that we can apply in our home countries,” says Tiago Franco from Portugal. 

For the second year in a row, the College of Business and the Center for Global Education are hosting undergrads from 18 countries for four weeks. The students are here as part of the U.S. Department of State’s Study at the U.S. Institute for Student Leaders. The State Department works with nonprofit FHI 360 to administer the program. 

Classroom lectures, hands-on activities, leadership development and working and meeting with Americans, both on UTC’s campus and throughout Chattanooga, are part of the program. The students also participate in community service with such organizations as the Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity. 

“The social entrepreneurship focus of this program allows us to teach the students techniques used by start-up companies to develop, fund and execute solutions to social, cultural or environmental issues,” says Dr. Robert Dooley, dean of the College of Business. 

“Chattanooga’s start-up community offers some amazing examples of innovative and entrepreneurial thinking,” he says. “Our hope — and the goal of the SUSI program — is that these students take that knowledge and share it in their own communities.” 

After only a week at UTC, Franco, a business administration major, says he’s already developed “a new mindset about social entrepreneurship.” 

“It’s a broader vision about what we can do and also tools on how to implement projects because we have many ideas and we find many needs, but it’s really hard to put all our ideas into action,” he says. 

Zsuzsanna Larsen from Hungary says she’s “generally interested in helping other people.” Majoring in law, she hopes to use what’s she is learning at UTC to “double up,” mixing social entrepreneurship with legal knowledge. 

Justicia Minkah-Premo, another law major who lives in the United Kingdom, came to the same conclusion. 

“Besides having a passion for business, I also have a passion for solving social issues,” she says. 

Seeing the success of such American companies as Apple, Microsoft and Google, she figures the program at UTC “will be a really good advantage for me” by combining the business-oriented classes with the community outreach component. 

“I’m also gaining a lot of communication skills, teamworking skills, and I’m trying to think of a way to combine both social enterprise and corporate law together. That way I can help small-start businesses with my legal knowledge into one.” 

Students in the SUSI program come to UTC from such countries as Finland, the United Kingdom, Latvia, Portugal and Hungary, among others. Except for the swirling mass of accents, the SUSI students look and act like most American college students. They laugh a lot, talk almost constantly. They clown around. They play cornhole at the Chattanooga Choo Choo. 

And they take smartphone photos — lots of smartphone photos — at the Hunter Museum of American Art. Bluff View Sculpture Garden. Coolidge Park. The Incline. 

But even with all the classroom studies and community service projects, there’s still time to simply be a tourist in Chattanooga. For Minkah-Premo, one thing sticks out. 

“I’ve never been to a city that had this much art,” she says. “Everywhere I turn I see a painting on the wall or something. I really love it.” 

Others are fascinated with what, to Chattanooga residents, are familiar sights. 

In Coolidge Park, underneath the Walnut Street Bridge, Inari Ahokas stares up in wonder at the structure, saying it’s one of the most awesome bridges she’s ever seen. 

But now the Finnish student has a decision to make: Is the Walnut Street Bridge the most awe-inspiring bridge she’s ever seen or is it the London Tower Bridge? 

“I don’t know which one is cooler,” she says. 

Despite their wide-ranging backgrounds, the students also say there are more similarities between them than differences. 

“We came from so many different countries but we’ve found a real nice group,” Franco says. “They’re interesting people with lots of ideas that can complement each other.”

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