International Students Feature: The Caribbean

Friday, September 23rd, 2016

As the weather gets steadily colder over the next few months, keep in mind that while the transition may be depressing for you, the change of season is a lot harder for those who come from warmer climates. International students from the Caribbean attending Illinois Tech are in for an especially hard time. Cady Rodney, an international student from the Caribbean island of Antigua, is used to an average year-round temperature of around 80 degrees Fahrenheit. According to her, “The weather is the biggest thing because the temperature is like 80 and that’s it. It’s doesn’t go up or down, it’s just that.” Sydney Robertson and Arlene Hayes, two students who come from the island of Grenada, agreed with Rodney. Robertson mentioned that her definition of ‘hot’ weather differed from her peers’ by a wide margin. “Most people say ‘it’s a nice day out, it’s hot!’ But I’m cold all of the time! Where I come from, it is basically summer all year ‘round.” According to Robertson, the coldest it ever gets in Grenada is about 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of this, the snowy winters at Illinois Tech are something of a scary campfire story. Hayes shed some light on this, saying, “We don’t have four seasons, we only have two: wet season and dry season. There is no snow, ever. If it snowed people would probably think it was the apocalypse or something.” Rodney experienced her first Illinois winter two years ago and has adjusted somewhat to the cold weather. She had mixed feelings about the snow, however, saying, “It was so beautiful to see, you know, from inside, but when you get into it it’s like, ‘I want to go home!’” On an optimistic note, Rodney made sure to mention that with the winter also came opportunities that she was not used to, such as ice skating and other winter sports.

From an academic perspective, there are myriad differences between schools in the U.S. and schools in the Caribbean. Robertson is a third year transfer student studying biochemistry who previously attended a community college in Grenada. According to Robertson, “the workload is different” back in Grenada, where homework is given in a more spaced out interval. In the U.S., Robertson says, “every class [there is either] a test or homework due.” But while this point of view might lead an outsider to think that school in the U.S. is more difficult, Rodney believes the opposite to be true. Rodney is a fourth year biology major and completed her associate’s degree back in Antigua. In Rodney's opinion, academic life in the Caribbean is more taxing than in the U.S. She claims that this is “because we’re small, they’re really trying to ‘up the standards’ so that we can be recognized by other countries.” According to Rodney, teachers are harder on students in her home country because they want to produce smart, high-quality students that will stand out internationally. In her own words, “Here, we are given more instruction. Back home you were basically fighting for yourself. Nobody’s spoon-feeding you. You have to take initiative and get the work done.” In addition, Rodney mentioned that curves didn’t exist in schools back in Antigua, another fact that made tests and exams more challenging. Rodney clarified, “If you got a fifty percent, you got a fifty percent, and that was it.” She made sure to be clear, however, that she did not mean that classes at Illinois Tech were not hard. Rodney continued, “IIT is hard, too. I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights.”

Predictably, differences in diet were also a big point of conversation. Robertson, Hayes, and Rodney all fiercely missed food back in the Caribbean. In Robertson’s words, “back home we cook with a lot more spices; less cheese and oil. So I basically just feel like I’m getting fat.” While Illinois Tech does make an effort to offer to native Caribbean cuisine every once and awhile, Rodney commented that it was nothing like the real thing back home. According to Rodney, “Sometimes they do try and do Caribbean food, and it doesn’t really work all that well. I was surprised, one time I saw them do a Jerk Chicken soup … I didn’t even want to try it. They try, but honestly the food doesn't compare to what it is back home.” This might be due to the fact that in the Caribbean, native food has a complex background and is influenced by a multitude of different cultures. Hayes explained, “The food is like a blend of lots of different cultures. Because of the whole slave trade and everything, we have pulled from African heritage, we have lots of Indians, and there’s a bit of French in the Grenadian background. You can see a lot of that influence in our food.” It’s no surprise, then, that these three international students are tired of the food they find in America.

Holidays and events here at Illinois Tech are also different. For example, every August in the Caribbean there is a large street festival called Carnival. While Robertson made sure to clarify that it is “not [a] parade in the American sense,” it seemed to be something similar. According to Hayes, there are “lots of people, colors, performances, concerts, and music.” One particular thing that is commonly featured in this event is a musical instrument originating from Trinidad and Tobago, the steelpan. This event is emulated around the world in different cities, even in Chicago. However, Robertson stated, “I went to a Windy City Carnival, but it was a sad excuse for Carnival.” Other than Carnival, there is a lot more emphasis on Christian holidays in the Caribbean due to the high percentage of Christians in the population. According to Hayes, the Caribbean is “highly religious. Probably half of the country is Catholic and half is Protestant.” This is obviously a stark contrast from the strong religious diversity here at Illinois Tech. Due to this, there is a lot more participation in holidays like Easter back in the Caribbean. Rodney described this by saying, “We wouldn’t get a ‘spring break,’ but we get a long Easter vacation. When it’s Easter, everyone goes to the beach.” In contrast, Robertson mentioned that there was one major event that happened here on campus that she had never heard of before. She said, “This homecoming thing? I have no idea. We don’t do that at home.” So the next time homecoming rolls around, consider inviting a few international friends who may not be familiar with the event.

The days are getting shorter, and this past Wednesday, September 21, was the first day of autumn. If the winter temperatures become depressing, remember Rodney’s optimistic perspective: with the snow comes numerous other opportunities. Just remember to remind your peers from warmer climates like the Caribbean to dress appropriately!