Gleaming eyes, a bright smile and a contagious laugh. Sam Perilla, an international student from Cali, Colombia, sits comfortably on his living room couch.
He came to the U.S. five months ago and studies at Santa Rosa Junior College through the Community College Initiative Program run by Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs Exchange Program. Perilla is pursuing a certificate in waste water management, which will be an asset when he returns home to complete his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering.
Perilla is one of 15 students at SRJC who was accepted into the program. He has never been to the U.S. before, but has many friends in Georgia who he has met through mission work in Colombia.
SRJC CCI Program Coordinator Audrey Le Baudour shared the inner workings of the scholarship. “Students are awarded a full scholarship through the U.S. Department of State, and included in that is all of their tuition costs for up to 30 units of credit,” she said. “In addition, all of their housing is paid for. The monthly stipend of $500 is for general living expenses such as food and clothes. If they’re savvy, they can use it to travel both here in California and across the U.S.”
The program allows 15 students worldwide the opportunity to interact with diverse cultures while assimilating to American culture for 10 months.
Perilla believes open dialogue amongst people of differing religions, social groups and countries of origin allows for a deeper respect and understanding of each other. The Q&A further answers questions about living in Sonoma County as a newcomer.
Q: How has the media influenced your view of America?
A: My roommates and CCI brothers and sisters are from all over the world. Egypt, Pakistan, Brazil and India are just a few. I realized that although we are from different cultures, all of us young people share the same sense of humor. And I think a lot of that comes from the media: YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. This is where my cultural exchange really began. We watch a lot of American TV shows like Big Bang Theory, Friends and How I Met Your Mother. This influences my way of thinking just like it does to young Americans. I used the BuzzFeed app a lot to learn American slang and pop culture. It taught me quickly about California norms like ‘hella’ and Northern California versus Southern California.
Q: What do you love about the U.S. and Sonoma County specifically?
A: There are a bunch of things I love about the states, but really the number one thing is the people here. Back home, the way we see American government is not good, not good at all. The way they treat the environment, it’s horrible. The way big American companies treat our environments — the toxic waste, the oil companies — they screw us. It gives us a bad image of America.
But when you actually come to America, you realize the people are so nice and warm. Actually living here and getting to know the culture changed my perspective. Here, there are so many concerts with people of all ages dancing and living life. I love the variety of music you have: jazz, classical and rock. And the farmer’s markets every Wednesday. That is not like my country.
I could go on, but I must say one of my favorite places is Chinatown in San Francisco. It feels like you are stepping into another little country. I went to a restaurant and no one spoke English, not even the waitress, so I had to point to the menu to order. Also, I love the huge national parks here. I’ve been to Armstrong Woods and Annadel Park. Yosemite is on my bucket list for sure.
Q: What is unique about the Community College Initiative Program experience in comparison to just coming to America on your own?
A: It is such a huge opportunity. It will change you. I live with six different people. That means six different characters, six different ways of thinking, six different ways of acting — all together in the same apartment, so there is clashing of ideas and values. And you have to be willing to change and be better. This opportunity allows differing cultures to coexist not only with Americans, but also with each other. You immerse yourself deeply in each other’s cultures through celebrating festivals together, cooking authentic dishes and talking about important social issues. If you have the opportunity to study abroad, take it. It will change you so deeply.