UMN’s lone ambassadors: students reflect on being only one at school from country

At the University of Minnesota, 26 students are the only ones on campus from their countries of origin.

Senior Matic Spec, a native of Slovenia, poses for a portrait in his home on Saturday, March 24. Spec is the only student from Slovenia currently studying at the University of Minnesota.

Jack Rodgers

Senior Matic Spec, a native of Slovenia, poses for a portrait in his home on Saturday, March 24. Spec is the only student from Slovenia currently studying at the University of Minnesota.

Lew Blank

Students from 26 countries face the rare experience of being the only students from their nation at the University of Minnesota.

These students come from a variety of continents. There are ten from Africa, six from Europe and five from both the Americas and Asia, according to data from the Office of Institutional Research at the University from fall 2017. To be “from” a country, an applicant had to be living there when they applied.

When the students first came to the University, some said they sensed they were the only representatives from their home countries, but never saw official numbers — until now.

Matic Spec, a senior from Slovenia on the Gophers men’s tennis team, said he “had a feeling” he was the only Slovenian student on campus.

Shivani Mishra, a junior studying kinesiology who grew up in Zambia, had the same suspicion during her first year on campus.

“I didn’t have … statistics to back it up, but I had an idea that I was the only one because I didn’t know anybody else,” Mishra said.

When these students first came to the University, some were surprised by what they feel is a lack of cultural awareness among some domestically born Americans.

Mishra expressed frustration that many Americans didn’t know where Zambia was.

“I also lived in India and Mauritius, and when I was there, people knew where Zambia [was],” Mishra said. “It was kind of a shock, because [the U.S.] is a developed country.”

However, Spec said he didn’t have much trouble integrating into the campus community, especially since several of his tennis teammates come from countries near Slovenia, and his assistant coach is Slovenian.

“There’s three guys from Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia on my tennis team,” Spec said. “We can converse pretty easily and our cultures are very similar, so it’s always fun to have them around.”

Maxwell Mkondiwa, a graduate student studying applied economics, is the only University student from Malawi. He said that, despite now living in the U.S., he has stayed connected with his roots in southeastern Africa.

“The things I was doing in Malawi, I’m still doing now,” he said. “I go back home every year to research and stuff. So, I do not really feel like I’m losing anything.”

These three students hold different opinions as to why they are the only students who represent their country on campus.

Mishra said she believes she’s the only Zambian student at the University because of the population size of Zambia and the steep price of college tuition.

“The population is relatively small,” she said. “It’s not something that’s common to see in Zambia —  students going abroad and studying — mainly because it’s not easy to afford.”

Spec agreed that the price of studying in the U.S. plays a major role in preventing certain international students from coming, adding that college tuition is free in Slovenia, so many students don’t leave.

“I think the biggest problem is the fact that people who want to come here would need a scholarship or something because the vast majority there … would not be able to afford college,” he said.

In spite of the small numbers of international students from certain countries, these students play a valuable role in providing students on campus with an opportunity to learn about the world, said Barbara Kappler, the assistant dean of International Student and Scholar Services.

“Having students come from many different countries is incredibly valuable. I believe that it provides a direct opportunity to learn about the world,” she said. “I think it’s a central part of higher education.”

Mishra has a similar outlook, saying that bringing her perspective to campus helps improve the University community.

“I think it’s a win-win situation,” she said. “I get to learn from them, they get to learn from me.”