According to Gonzaga University’s website, GU is home to over 200 international students from 40 different countries. While it’s clear the draw of the basketball team brings in students like Killian Tillie, from France, and Przemek Karnowski, from Poland, one might wonder what else about a small northwest liberal arts college could possibly lure students from across the globe.
For Rachel Huang, a freshman mechanical engineering student, the decision to come to GU wasn’t a difficult one. As someone who attended a Catholic high school in California, GU was a name she heard often — especially during March — and her decision to attend was cemented after a campus tour.
But while her choice of college may seem relatively unremarkable, what isn’t so common about Huang is that at the age of 15 she immigrated from Shanghai, China, to San Diego to pursue her passion of competitive robotics.
Starting when she was 8 years old, Huang has traveled all over the world to compete in robotics competitions throughout China, and stopping in places like Turkey and California, where she would later end up living.
Huang stayed with many different host families in San Diego, experiencing the city in a variety of ways. With travel, she got to experience many different places, but in a shallow way, with rose-tinted glasses, she said.
While being apart from her family is difficult, Huang doesn’t regret leaving China. Here, she experiences more of the world and continues to grow as an individual. Of course, it hasn’t always been a cake walk.
In San Diego, Huang said she faced many challenges, such as the language barrier, cultural differences and racism. Her high school wasn’t diverse and international students were always seen as being from somewhere else.
At GU, “everyone’s from everywhere,” she said.
Family is what brought Kai Thomas, a freshman, to GU. His brother and cousin both attended GU in the past five years, and his family weren’t strangers to the Pacific Northwest, with roots in the Seattle area. Thomas, however, would say he is from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Thomas is no stranger to international travel, having been born in Singapore, moving to Hong Kong, back to Singapore, and then he spent the past seven years in Malaysia, his favorite place he’s lived so far.
While Thomas loves the small campus and big community of GU, which he compared to his high school, the transition to college in America has caused some unpredictable challenges.
“Overseas it always gets dark at the same time,” Thomas said.
Now, regulating bedtimes and study times is harder. Thomas has also never experienced a Spokane winter, and says it will be weird.
Both Huang and Thomas have experienced the benefits of GU’s small, close-knit campus. Huang has made friends quickly and was even interrupted during her interview by a new pal who wanted to chat. She finds that whether it’s Jesuit education or liberal arts education, GU has something different.
“People are nicer — more open,” Huang said.
Thomas, too, has formed friendships quickly and enjoys the camaraderie of living in DeSmet Hall. He came in with an undecided business major, but has high hopes that he will find something he’s interested in and passionate about at GU.
GU is just a pit stop for both of these freshman, though. Travel is an important part of their lives, and while different things brought them to Spokane, Huang and Thomas both highly value travel and variety in their lives.
Thomas’ father is an international banker, so he has been well-accustomed to living wherever the opportunities took their family. While Thomas has vacationed in Europe, he loved his time living in Asia and hopes to return once he’s graduated.
In Kuala Lumpur, he said, there were always new parts of the city to explore, all with their own unique cultures. Thomas could see himself returning and raising a family there, and if not Malaysia, perhaps somewhere else in Asia.
Huang, however, could see herself staying in Washington for a couple of years after graduation. She loves fully experiencing a place, and the university bubble is much different from Washington as a whole.
Many students at GU come from different backgrounds, different places and different cultures, and all have a different story to tell, if you just sit and listen for long enough.