The journey of an international student

Ayoub Zekri is an international student from Tunisia. Zekri is one of 133 international students attending EKU this semester.

International students come to Eastern Kentucky University to study from all over the world. Ayoub Zekri, an international student from Tunisia working to complete his Master of Science in safety, security and emergency management, has experienced the difficulties of transitioning to American culture.

His experience is just one small glimpse of the 133 international students at EKU, according to Matthew Cox, assistant director of the newly established International Student Success Outreach and Opportunity department.

Zekri arrived at EKU in August for the fall 2021 semester.

Zekri said EKU needs to better connect international students before they begin traveling. 

“The journey begins for international students before the departure from their country,” said Zekri. “We have to arrange housing, transportation, and know how you’re going to sustain yourself the first few days.”

The first few weeks were especially tough on Zekri. He said, “I went from going from 200 percent in Tunisia with a job, helping my family, spending time with friends and online studies to two percent in America while only having my studies and having no friends or family to fill my time with. The emptiness I felt during those days was tough.”

He mentioned that the five to six hour time difference between Tunisia and the United States combined with his studies at EKU makes it tough to stay connected with his family. 

“Me and my family are thankful for my opportunity to study here, but it is tough to be away from family,” Zekri said. 

He wanted to rent an apartment off campus but said it was difficult finding a place to rent in Kentucky while in Tunisia.

“Connections were limited,” said Zekri. “If I had more connections before leaving Tunisia, I think it would have gone better.”

Cox advised international students to stay on campus their first semester to help them build connections. Cox said it is difficult for international students to acquire off-campus housing because many do not have assigned social security numbers until they begin an on-campus job. 

“This makes the process very difficult,” said Cox.

Zekri said he was obliged to stay on campus, which created a challenge for him due to dietary restrictions laid out in his Muslim faith. Part of the restrictions require meat to be butchered a certain way and no alcohol consumption, even in food. This made eating in Case Dining Hall nearly impossible.

“I won’t continue using the meal plan,” said Zekri. “There is no accommodation for religious needs in the food court.”

Zekri said, “I had been told to go to the office that deals with disabilities and medical conditions, but my religious difference is neither one of these.”

According to the Center for Student Accessibility, they are “responsible for reviewing, evaluating and determining eligibility for any requested services and accommodations from students, faculty or staff. CSA also provides confidential referrals for assessment (for undiagnosed disabilities) and other disability related information.” 

Cox said he was disappointed that Zekri was sent to the Center for Student Accessibility. 

“Central Kentucky doesn’t offer many options for things like meat restrictions for Muslims. It makes it tough,” said Cox.

Cox said that Zekri reached out to him regarding his dietary needs. Cox contacted the Muslim community concerning Zekri’s dietary needs but was unsure if anyone then reached out to Zekri.

Cox also mentioned he would like to start a mentor program with the new department of Student Success Outreach and Opportunity, which was established in September. The mentor program would connect international students with long term on-campus students who would teach them about campus life at EKU. 

“I want to do a better job,” said Cox. “I don’t want students to feel like this. It is giving me more reason to do this mentor program and integrate events tailored to international students’ needs in big events like Big E Welcome.”

“The future of this program will be better,” said Cox.

Cox wants international students to contact him if they have any struggles. 

“I am happy to help people get on their feet and get connected,” said Cox. 

Zekri said he is lucky to have made international friends who understand what he is going through.

“I don’t feel the emptiness like I did in the beginning,” said Zekri. “I not only am learning from American culture, but also from the cultures from other international students and that is valuable to me.”

He said he wants to show people the big picture of Islamic culture, not just what the media portrays his culture to be like.

Zekri shared that his religion encourages Muslims to meet other people and share experiences, an idea he said some Americans find hard to understand.

He said that the school had Latino Heritage Month and related events, which can be good, but Americans are aware of this culture due to immigration.

Zekri said he wishes Americans would educate themselves more about Islam. 

Zekri said the International Student Association he has become a part of is still small on campus,  but he hopes they can start spreading awareness of the lesser-known cultures international students bring to campus. He mentioned that they could be a part of an office that is educated about international students’ needs, such as dietary restrictions and make these students feel more welcome.

“I hope all of this gets corrected,” said Zekri. 

He said the friends he made at EKU wanted to learn more about his culture and he hopes to learn more from them. 

Zekri mentioned that he is very close to the BCM (Baptist Campus Ministries), and, although they practice different faiths, they learn from each other and are always open to conversation.

Zekri said he wishes more people were willing to learn and educate themselves about different cultures.

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