Q&A: International students on their journey at CMU

International students speak on their experiences away from their family, facing challenges on campus and big goals for the future


Sunmnin Lee (left) and Jana Al Jurdi are international students at Central Michigan University.
(Central Michigan Life photo illustration by Masha Smahliuk with assets courtesy of Sunmnin Lee and Jana Al Jurdi.)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Responses are edited for length and clarity.   

From spending time with family everyday to living alone in a short amount of time proves to be stressful, especially in a country you’ve never been to before. 

Jana Al Jurdi is a second year doctor of audiology student at Central Michigan University. She grew up in Lebanon and came to CMU last year to continue pursuing her doctorate. Al Jurdi is also the community service committee chair of the International Student Organization (ISO).    

Sunmin Lee is an undergraduate accounting student at CMU and is planning on graduating in December of 2024. Lee was born in South Korea and came to CMU in 2022.  She is the president and co-founder of the business honor society, Alpha Iota Delta. 

Central Michigan Life sat down with Al Jurdi and Lee to discuss their experiences as international students, impacts on mental health and cultural differences. 

From the feelings they had moving alone to the academic opportunities available at CMU, Al Jurdi and Lee talk through how it impacted their personal and daily lives.           

CM Life: Can you tell me a little bit about your childhood and where you grew up?

Al Jurdi: I grew up in Lebanon, born and raised there. My first time leaving Lebanon was to come here for my doctorate last year. That was a huge shift for me. I grew up in a small town midway through Beirut which is the capital of Lebanon and up in the mountains, so you get the best of both worlds there.  

Lee: I grew up in Seoul till I was 12 years old when I moved to an outer province called Gyeonggi and lived there all the way until I went to college. I then lived in Busan where I went to college for two years.        

What do you miss most about your home? Do you keep in touch with your family?  

Al Jurdi: I miss my friends, my family, my two cats. Definitely my grandma’s cooking and food. That’s what I miss the most. Every single morning I have a quick video call before I leave for class. That’s the ebay way to stay in touch with your family is to find a time, given the time difference, to talk. For me there's a seven hour difference, so 7 a.m. here is 2 p.m. there. I wake up a bit earlier before class starts to talk to them even if it's just for 15-20 minutes.  

Lee: At first I really missed the food before I started cooking for myself. But now, I miss speaking my own language and of course my parents. I think that it’s sometimes hard because when kids are in college, often the parents are starting to struggle and as they age, I cannot be there for them. It’s more than just me missing them. It’s more like I want to be there for them but I cannot. I feel like I’m not a very good daughter in a way.  

What was it like moving from your hometown to Mount Pleasant?

Al Jurdi: That was a huge cultural shift for me. It was very difficult. The first time I was ever on antidepressant medication was when I first came here because it was that difficult for me. I’ve never had any in the past, never used any medication, never gone to therapy. I’ve always been this happy girl, but when I came here, it hit me, it really hit me that I’m all alone and everything was different. The food is different. The culture is different. The people were different.  

“I’ve always been this happy girl, but when I came here, it hit me, it really hit me that I’m all alone and everything was different. ”

I did have very good friends but they can only take your mind off it for so long. It was very difficult for me, but thank God now, I’m much better. Becoming more involved with ISO really helps with finding other people who are going through the same stuff as you are. There’s a great Counseling Center here at CMU which also helped me a lot. But also the constant support from family and friends back home was also what contributed to me getting here and getting better.  

Lee: The first six months I was really lonely and I was depressed because of homesickness. I was involved with people that I didn’t really want to hang out with which made me even more lonely. In terms of food, I had this mindset that whenever I ordered something, it could be so much more cheaper in my country. I didn’t want to spend the extra money so I just starved.  

I started feeling a little better when I got more involved on campus like becoming a member of the ISO. That was one of the first steps I took and that really helped me because I met more international students. I started going out more and opening my eyes to more fun activities outside of academics that really made me feel better.      

Do you notice any differences in lifestyle or culture here in Michigan?

Al Jurdi: The food is a huge one for me. I love Lebanese food, and I can’t find a lot of Lebanese food here. The (CMU) dining is more Indian food focused, which I love Indian food but I don’t find a lot of Lebanese food around here in Mount Pleasant. I know they have a lot in Detroit but I don’t have a car as an international student here.  

My routine is also very different. During my undergrad, I lived with my parents. I would come back at the end of the day, sit with my mom, dad and sister eating mom’s food she cooked while I was gone. For me, that family gathering is no longer present. I come back home to my apartment, make dinner, meal prep and study. So everything -- from the routine, the food, the transportation -- everything was different.  

Lee: I’ve noticed its more individualistic here. In Korea, for example, in class, most people say hi to you, everyone would know each other, do fun things outside of class, that sort of thing. Before, I knew everyone and it was fun to go to class, but here its more like unless you do team activities or you really try to get to know someone, its hard to talk to people because it feels like everyone is in their own world.  

I’ve also noticed that people have different preferences in terms of food. For example in Korea, if someones trying to cook for you, you eat what they make whereas here, I need to care for other people’s preferences more because otherwise they may be offended or not appreciate it as much. People here are also more open to talk about certain things like their dating experiences or more inappropriate things, making jokes, whereas in Korea it was more taboo to talk about stuff like that.  

Another experience I’ve noticed is that people here talk to strangers more easily. For example, there's chitchat in the elevator. In Korea, if they are a stranger, we don’t talk to them. 

When I first came here, I experienced some racism in the college of business building, Grawn Hall.  At the time, I didn’t know there was such a thing as elevator talk. I would just look at my phone, so I did that when there were three guys behind me. They said something to me but I didn’t hear it because I wasn’t paying attention to them.  

I heard them talking to each other saying, "Maybe she doesn’t understand the language."  I asked if they were talking to me and they said, "Yes, what are you doing?" I told them I was just on my phone and they were like, "Okay," and just started talking to each other again. I can hear them saying, "She probably doesn’t understand us, she probably hates us," and (they) were laughing at me. I felt very offended. 

What advice would you give your younger self, before moving to Mount Pleasant?

Al Jurdi: Not to trust too easily. Also to always talk to my grandparents. There’s very limited time with them and when you're away, you don’t get to celebrate their birthday or just chill with them at the end of the day. They lived right next to our building in Lebanon, so we could just cross the street and go there whenever. I would just tell my younger self even before coming here to spend as much time with family as possible. I would tell younger Jana to be confident and believe in herself because she’s much more capable than she thinks she is.  

“I would tell younger Jana to be confident and believe in herself because she’s much more capable than she thinks she is.”

Lee: I would say to open your mind and get out of your comfort zone. Don’t be scared of offers and opportunities. When someone would try to offer me something, I got scared and would feel very skeptical because I experienced some racism or unpleasant greetings from strangers before. Those experiences impacted my thinking. But after time, I realized that me opening my mind and talking to people is so important. I would tell my younger self to be more outgoing.  

I would also say if you think your in a dangerous situation, get out of that place. If you feel unsafe around your friends, they are not true friends. Get out of there and make new friends.           

What are some accomplishments you are proud of?  What are some goals you have that you would like to achieve in the future?

Al Jurdi: I am proud that I am the community service committee chair and that I have also led multiple volunteering events at the soup kitchen that were successful. Another thing I am proud of is the research that I am currently doing, because I am aiming for another doctorate after this. I have already done one research project which is about sickle cell disease and hearing loss in the Middle East, which no one has talked about before because it's not known that sickle cell is found in the Middle East. I was proud to do some research to shed more light on my country and where I am from.  

Some goals I have for the future is to work more on and get more involved in research as well as getting my second doctorate. I want to create a better life for my mom, dad and sister. My main goal is to settle down here and hopefully get my family here. If not, I can go back home and improve the state of audiology that is in Lebanon.  

Lee: Well, recently I got a job offer which I am planning to accept. As an international student, it’s really hard to find a job. I’m glad I put in a lot of work to get a job offer in a company that I wanted. I’m also proud that I am a part of the ISO, doing a lot of things I never imagined I could do. Planning activities and executing them is so much fun. I also at first struggled with being able to keep my GPA stable because I really put a lot of effort and practice to my English, so I’m really proud that I can maintain my academics as well as job hunting and being a part of cultural exchange.  

I hope I put my family in a good financial situation. I want to help that situation, of course, by doing good in my job. Later in life, I just want to work in the public accounting industry and become very expert in that area. Maybe when I retire, I will have my own restaurant or cafe. I’m really interested in cooking and cultural exchange. It's not a definite plan but I want to own a restaraunt that you can eat good food and do cultural exchange activities.                    

Why did you decide to continue your academic career at CMU?

Al Jurdi: So I majored in medical audiology sciences during my undergrad at American University of Beirut in Lebanon. I have a bachelor's in audiology, and I really liked it. I noticed that they didn’t really appreciate audiology in Lebanon but I really, really loved audiology. So I was like, you know what, I’m going to get my doctorate. 

I faced a lot of problems and it took a lot for me to come here (such as): some of my family members didn’t want me to go, visa issues, financial issues, finding a sponsorship, finding a scholarship, all of that because (American education) is not cheap. But CMU specifically has a great doctor of audiology program. I really wanted to come here.  

Lee: I want to go far in the accounting industry so I have to get a certificate which doesn’t really have a country boundary. It can be very competitive so to be able to know the accounting materials in both my native language and English allows me to use my knowledge wherever I go. I also chose CMU because of the dual program and they had the best offer tuition wise. I also decided to come here because the campus is not too big. I like it when professors and students know each other.      

What made you choose your area of study?  

Al Jurdi: I remember I was in high school senior year and had no idea what I wanted to be. I thought about being a vet actually because I love animals so much. During high school, I took a tour of one of the top undergraduate universities in Lebanon, but they didn’t have veterinary science.  

There was this tiny booth in front of their health professions building about audiology and how it’s a new profession they were trying to find students for. They were telling me all about it and I was like this is exactly what I want. It had the perfect research to clinical ratio. You get to interact with people which I love clinical work, but at the same time you get to do your own research and translate that into your clinical work.  

Lee: So I actually went to tourism high school and from there, most people don’t go to college, they just get hired to companies related to tourism. During that, I had taken a lot of courses related to tourism but also accounting because it’s general knowledge to get a job right away and I ended up really liking it. I decided in my last grade of high school that I really wanted to go to college.  

I just like the aspect that accounting can apply to lots of areas. For example, I can choose different industries. I can do public accounting or I can be in an engineering company. Hopefully later in life, I will be able to use it to run a company.     

What advice would you give to international students coming to CMU?        

Al Jurdi: Be prepared for homesickness, because it is real. I know we're all really excited to come here to the United States but when you're alone, homesickness is going to hit you pretty hard, so be prepared.  Make as many friends as possible because you only live once so make the best out of it. Lastly, never, never ever lose touch with your family. Talk to them everyday, because as much as you miss them, they probably miss you more.  

Lee: I would say, the first people you meet, you don’t need to stay with them. If you don’t like them, find another group. Choose your environment, don’t let other people decide for you. Always be autonomous with your decisions. Another thing is don’t have a mindset where spending money is a bad thing. It really stresses you out ,so I will say, spend within your budget but don’t set the budget too conservative.

“Never ever lose touch with your family. Talk to them everyday, because as much as you miss them, they probably miss you more. ”