Whenever I work with international students, I ask them about their home countries—what they miss, if they have brothers and sisters there, what the winters are like. I tell them I admire them, and I do—it is a brave act to leave your home thousands of miles behind and come to a new country. Most of them seem either amused or flattered that I think this is such a big deal, which is to say that most times, it does not seem such a big deal to them. But pretty regularly when I ask them about home, international students stop short and say things like, “I do miss it, but studying here has always been my dream,” and “I’m worried when I go home, I’ll have an accent!” Recently, a student looked up at me, surprised, and said, “I didn’t know anyone cared enough to ask.” I always ask, and this post explains why.
My father was born Sabatino Brandolino in the village of San Vittorino, in Italy. He immigrated to America—specifically, to my hometown of Joliet, Illinois, in 1954—when he was 7 years old, and he started going by Sam. He’s the little guy in the picture above, which is from his immigration papers, and that’s his father Fiore and brother Vince with him. My dad was the only child in his family young enough to attend school when his family immigrated to the US, and that meant that while his parents, sister, and brothers worked during the day and went to night school to learn English with other immigrants, my dad learned it by going to 1st grade with American kids.
He doesn’t remember a lot about what it was like for him when he started school in America, and I’m glad about that, because what he does remember sounds really awful. He remembers that the other kids were not nice to him, that no one would be his friend, that he was made fun of, that he got into a lot of fights. He remembers getting dropped off at school and not being able to understand anything, having to figure out everything. He didn’t last long in the first school in which he was enrolled.
Before my dad started in his second 1st grade, someone had the idea that he should meet another little boy, Billy, who was in 1st grade at my dad’s new school. Billy’s mom was Italian, though he was himself born in America, and the hope was that he might make things easier for my dad, show him the ropes of 1st grade. Billy’s mom sent him over to meet my dad, and Billy tried talking to him in English, which my dad didn’t speak yet, and my dad tried answering him in Italian, which Billy had never learned. I’m sure my poor grandmother, who was watching, must have been a wreck. Then Billy went to his bookbag, got out a banana, and gave it to my dad with a smile. It wasn’t much of a gift, but it didn’t need to be—it was a sign of kindness and generosity in a world that was not giving my dad much of either at the moment. There are few stories that evoke from me the amount of gratitude I feel for Billy when I hear this story.
When I meet international students, I always see in them a little bit of the 1st grade Sam that I imagine Billy saw. It’s not really accurate to equate them, and it makes the stakes of my working with international students crazily high for me, but I can’t help it. I am extraordinarily sensitive to if they are homesick, if they feel frustrated, if they feel welcome. I know that there are many differences separating international students here at the University of Michigan from the little Italian boy in 1st grade that my dad was: the students here at U of M are older—adults, really; they are almost certainly here by their own choice; with the size of the international community here, they may well have friends here from their home country; and even if not, this is college, a place where, at least in theory and pretty often in practice, diversity is embraced, different backgrounds welcomed. But if think it’s too easy to look at that list of differences and feel like making international students feel welcome and like a part of the university community will just happen naturally. It probably does happen naturally pretty often. But sometimes, it has to happen one banana at a time.