Coffee hour helps international students with culture shock

By Autumn Douglas, Daily Egyptian

Sometimes adjusting to the culture is the hardest part about studying in the U.S., according to a few international students who meet up once a week for coffee. 

International Coffee Hour, which has been offered at SIUC since 2000, is an opportunity for students from all over the world to gather on campus and get to know people from other cultures.

It’s a no-pressure environment to practice speaking English and make new friends. They talk about their experiences with culture shock, language barriers and other relatable issues they face.


“It’s also a good experience for Americans to meet international students,” said Noppadol Champ Tuksakulvith, a senior from Thailand studying supply chain management.

The majority of students who attend the coffee hour are international, but all students, faculty and staff are welcome. 

Multiple attendees said it would be better if more Americans attended to not only learn about other world cultures, but also to help international students become more integrated into campus social life.

Eunsil Leem, a graduate student in metalworking from South Korea, first came to the country in 2009 to study for a year at Murray State University. She then returned to South Korea to earn her bachelor’s degree in furniture design at Sangmyung University.

She returned to the U.S. to be with her husband, whom she met at Murray State, and to earn her master’s degree in metalworking from SIUC.

“Since I had to study TOEFL, for class it wasn’t that hard, because they use textbooks and the teacher explains everything, but the normal conversations and slangs were really unexpected,” Leem said about coping with the language barrier.

Most international students must pass the standardized Test of English as a Foreign Language, or an equivalent, to be accepted to a U.S. university, and a student must be accepted to a university before applying for a student VISA, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.


Students must obtain at least a score of 68 out of 120 on the internet exam to be considered at SIUC for undergraduate admission and a score of 80 out of 120 for graduate admission.

Most international students are prepared upon arrival to use English in their classes because of the requirement, but they encounter a language barrier in social settings because of informal speech and slang.

“I hung out with international students a lot and we practiced English together. We talked slowly between us, and we didn’t get embarrassed to ask questions because we understand that English is not our first language,” Leem said.

She said practicing English with native speakers sometimes made her nervous.

Although Leem has had a couple years to adjust to American culture, she said she would never get used to acquaintances that don’t acknowledge her in public. In her native country, greeting one another is socially a sign of respect.

She enjoys the lack of strict gender roles in America compared to her own country, she said.

Leem loves her country and its culture, but is frustrated with the traditional, conservative values it still holds.

In South Korea, women are expected to be quiet and reserved, she said. And unlike SIUC, women aren’t allowed to be in men’s dorms. She likes having the social freedom to say and do whatever she wants in the U.S.

Leem’s friend Herson Pérez, a graduate student in violin performance from Puerto Rico, said he was already familiar with American culture when he came to the U.S. earlier this year.

It was difficult sometimes, and it still is, he said. Despite knowing English really well, sometimes he still has to think about what he’s going to say because he usually thinks in Spanish.

He learned English as a second language at an early age, but said he still had to adjust to cultural differences.

“As a Latino, my culture is very touchy. We need physical contact,” Pérez said.

Since he’s accustomed to an affectionate, expressive culture, he thought at first that Americans were being rude to him, but he realized they are just more independent, he said.

His experience in Carbondale has been surprisingly good, and the people have been nice, he said. 

Pérez attends International Coffee Hour often because he’s interested in learning about other cultures and meeting new people.

The coffee hour is at 3 to 5 p.m. every Friday at its new location in Woody Hall starting Dec. 4.

Autumn Douglas can be reached at 618-536-3325 or at [email protected]