The thought of traveling can be a stressful and sometimes overwhelming experience in which delayed flights, the chance of losing your luggage, or forgetting something as simple as a toothbrush can cause travelers to dread a commute. But what if you added the extra weight of packing up all your belongings, leaving your family and friends, and embarking on a journey that would take you nearly 3,000 miles to an unfamiliar country you’d then call home?
Many international students that come to West Texas A&M University find themselves forced to overcome a variety of obstacles to take the opportunity of coming to America. Ana Villagomez, a freshman International Business student, left her hometown of Riobamba, Ecuador and came to Canyon to pursue higher education. “I was one of only seven students selected through the Opportunity Grant Program in Ecuador,” Ana says, her quiet accent marking each word. “It is a very difficult process to be selected.” After being chosen, Ana had to tackle the onerous task of selecting the university that best fit her needs and personality.
While some of her peers chose more visually aesthetic regions, such as California or Florida, Ana’s choice to come to the Texas Panhandle came down to one deciding factor: Kristine Combs. Kristine serves as the director of the International Student Office at WTAMU.
“I came to West Texas in 1993. When my husband and I lived in Las Cruces, New Mexico, I spent a great deal of time helping international families transition to American cultures. When we moved to Canyon, a position became available with the International Student Program and I jumped on the opportunity. I can’t see myself doing anything else,” Kristine explains.
Kristine’s career keeps her busy year round. When she’s not helping students adjust to campus life, coordinating university events, or picking up students from the airport, she can be found traveling the globe searching for elite international scholars to add to the university’s already diverse student body. It was during one of Kristine’s trips to Quito, Ecuador that Ana and her mother, Maritza, determined WTAMU was the perfect fit.
“My mother and I are very close and choosing a school out of country was a scary time for the both of us. When we met Kristine, she made my mother comfortable with coming to WT,” says Ana.
Kristine’s work didn’t stop in Quito. After bringing Ana back to campus from the airport, Kristine acted on her promise to Ana’s mother, and the two of them called Maritza for an emotional reconnection that led to tears of joy, and the feeling of comfort only a mother can give.
“I felt like I owed it to her mother. In fact, I didn’t have the heart to leave her alone in the dorms that night so I invited her to stay in my family’s guest bedroom for the evening until the other students made it to campus,” Kristine proclaims. “I just couldn’t bring myself to leave her alone after hearing their emotional phone call.”
This personal responsibility is exactly what Ana was looking for. “I chose WTAMU because of Kristine’s interest in my education and the school’s College of Business,” Ana begins. “It is a recognized program, and other students from Ecuador have chosen this school. We knew it was the right decision when we had the chance to meet Kristine because she reached out to us. I wasn’t sure in the beginning, but everyone here has been really friendly, especially my roommate.”
Ana says the hardest part of this experience has been the language barrier. “Some of the professors speak really fast. I understand most of what they say, but there are still things that I don’t pick up,” she explains. “Fortunately they have been really supportive and helpful with anything I do not understand.”
With a grateful smile on her face, Ana explains that her roommate has been a tremendous help with translating. The two have spent a great deal of time teaching each other their native language, which has benefited the both of them. With the exception of a few words, Ana speaks very clear English.
While the language has been a cumbersome transition, Ana says the two things she misses the most are her mother and her native cuisine. “It’s just really different. Back home I ate rice everyday and not a lot of people eat that here,” she mentions. “We also eat a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables. Here there’s a lot of fast food and other choices I’m not used to, but I enjoy trying new things.”
As for attending WTAMU, she claims her experience has been amazing. “Some of my friends from back home are at other schools and are having a tough time adjusting,” she says. “Everyone here has made this transition much easier. The campus is so beautiful and the people are great. People I’ve never met will say ‘Hi’ to me. That’s really neat.”
With the development of modern, communication services such as Skype and FaceTime, students like Ana are able to ease the burden of living thousands of miles from home because of the ability to economically speak with loved ones.
“I think that it is more conducive for students to study abroad now than ever before because they can stay in touch with people back home,” Kristine declares. “Students used to send written letters back and forth only to wait weeks for a reply. Now, all they have to do is pick up a phone or get on the Internet and they can speak with family members. I don’t have the stats to say that this has caused more students to graduate, but I’d be willing to bet it has helped.”
by Ethan Black
Ethan is currently finishing his graduate degree in Sport Management from West Texas A&M University, with an emphasis on Sport Sociology and Marketing. In his spare time, he enjoys playing sports and spending time with family and friends.