Many students go about their daily lives at Boise State without considering what the person sitting next to them in class overcame to simply be there. While the process of becoming a Boise State student, for most, consists mainly of graduating high school, filling out applications and applying for financial aid, others have had larger hurdles to overcome.
Kha Nguyen, sophomore exercise science major, moved to Boise from Vietnam in 2000 when he was seven years old. His aunt married a soldier during the war and his family eventually followed her and her husband to the states.
Nguyen, who had just started second grade at the time, said it was not a pleasant experience.
“(Starting school here) it was horrendous,” Nguyen said. “I cried everyday for the first two weeks after school because I didn’t know anyone; I didn’t know the language, I didn’t know the culture, so I was just a kid in the corner.”
Nguyen explained while kids in elementary school were perfecting their grammar and spelling skills, kids who didn’t know English were separated out at various points during the day into ESL (English as a Second Language) classes.
Nguyen elaborated on life when English is your second language.
“Another thing with not knowing the language for the first few years; it’s made me really shy,” Nguyen said. “I don’t tend to connect to other people. I think that’s one of my biggest drawbacks. Which I’m not complaining about, I like where I am, but I would like to be more socially active. And being held back the first few years and not knowing the language has kind of affected me in doing that.”
Other than the language, the most shocking difference between Vietnam’s culture and the United States, according to Nguyen, is the family culture. When Americans turn 18 they generally leave home and start their own lives. However, Nguyen said in Vietnam when they turn 18 and after they finish college, the children move back home to help their parents.
“I wish it was more like that (here) because if your parents took care of you for the first 18 years of your life, or however long you decide to stay there, I think it would be good for you to pay back,” Nguyen said.
Another student on campus has quite a different story. Alden Miljkovic, senior communication major, came from Bosnia and Herzegovina at the age of ten, 17 years ago.
Miljkovic explained he was only five when the war started in the Balkans; a place he describes as one of the most beautiful places in the world, but said it also has an ugly, bloody history of violence which caused it to be one of the most unstable regions in Europe.
For the next five years of Miljkovic’s life it was all about surviving. This is what forced his family to ask for help. Before the United Nations relocated them to the United States, life was unimaginably rough.
“All I knew was this chaos,” Miljkovic said. “Waking up and going to the bread line (from the United Nations), or going to the water line, or going to the river to wash yourself. It was always trying to live day by day and not really knowing where the future was leading to. But at that age it was just kind of normal.”
When his family got here, Miljkovic started school right away. He said at that time the ESL program wasn’t quite sure what to do with refugees, so he ended up in a regular classroom where all he could do was mimic the other students. The other children did try to communicate with him, but this simply did not work. So they finally just handed him a book.
“The whole class was supposed to read it and I wanted to fit in so I would pick up the book and I would look at it,” Miljkovic said. “Obviously I didn’t know what the words meant. Then one day (in the fifth grade) I raised my hand and I started reading and I was like ‘oh, I speak this language now.’”
But learning the language was just the first of many differences yet to understand. According to Miljkovic, there are two main distinctions between the Bosnian culture and the United States.
“The first one is when people would ask me where am I from and why am I here, I am often baffled as to how they didn’t understand that I came from this region of war,” Miljkovic said. “CNN would present the war on TV but they didn’t know anything about the war; they didn’t know why I was here and to me I was like ‘well there’s this huge thing going on in another part of the world that you should be aware of but you’re not.’ ”
Miljkovic continued to explain the second difference by saying he couldn’t understand why everyone had so much stuff; toys, food, etc. and that nobody seemed to appreciate all they had.
According to Miljkovic, one thing refugees and immigrants share is their desire to attain the American dream. He said they still believe in that, which is what causes them to work hard so they won’t fail.