IEW Essay Competition

For International Education Week 2019, we asked members of the Rice international community to write essays on acculturation and adjustment in the U.S. as Rice internationals. The essays celebrated the uniqueness that comes with cultural exchange and gave the authors an opportunity to share personal experiences (good, bad and funny). The top three essays are available below.

1st place: Hung Nguyen – Cultural Adaptation: Does change equal difference?

Cultural Adaptation: Does change equal difference?

Two months ago, as I took my first steps on the airport platform, I was full of insecurities. Coming from a country that is over twenty hours of flight from America, I knew my life was going to undergo a significant transformation, either for the worse or for the better. All I could do was to reassure myself and continue moving forward.

My first experience at Rice came with my O-Week group. I still clearly remember our first meeting, when we introduced our names and some brief personal facts in a round. There came my turn.

Before coming to Rice, I had thought of an English name to better fit myself into a Western culture. I even put it in the “preferred name” section of every form I filled out during the summer. Having a different name was my way of preparing for a new chapter of my life. Yet somehow, at that very moment, I just could not utter that name, which suddenly felt so alien.

After minutes of hesitation, I was impulsed to introduce my native name in my native language. Still, I did not forget to introduce my English name afterwards, and told people to just call me by that English name if they had difficulty pronouncing my original one.

Surprisingly, everyone in my O-Week group tried to call me by my own name, even though it might be imperfect. So did many of the people I met during O-Week. This might seem a small detail, but I really appreciated it. Just from hearing people call me by my own name, I could feel that I was still myself, and that my origin and my culture were still appreciated here. Maybe I would not have to become a different person just to fit in.

The process of accustomization was not without struggles, though. O-Week was a lot of fun, but it had to end anyway. As the school year wore on, other aspects of the transition experience started to break in. I still remember my first Sociology class, when I was overwhelmed by the way many students got the confidence to stand up and share their opinions in a lecture hall of nearly 200 people. I still remember how hard I felt to laugh at jokes in a group conversation due to language and cultural barriers. I still remember how I struggled just to catch the bus to Target on a normal day, being too unfamiliar with the city. And there were nights when I was tortured with homesickness and loneliness even in my dreams, craving to see my family, to savor my hometown’s delicacies, to get back to my old life.

In fact, I shut myself out for about a week. I did not bother to hang out with anyone, and just monotuously pushed on with schoolwork. These painful struggles, however, were necessary for me to get into a more proper perspective.

It was too simplistic to assume that I could just continue being my own self. My aversion to changes in the beginning resulted from my own immaturity and insecurity. What about changing some aspects of my life for the better, while remaining true to my original core?

The following week marked my first attempts to change. I tried to become more active in my classes, starting by asking more questions in my Math class. I engaged myself more in conversations with my friends, asking them to clear up any cultural tags that went over my head. I actively sought opportunities to get more involved through joining a student organization. Meanwhile, I was essentially myself, eating Asian foods at lunch, listening to Vietnamese songs, keeping up with my old habits. I was always more than ready to share about my own culture, which my friends were in turn eager to learn about. In this process of change, I lost nothing of my original self, but only became stronger and better.

Over two months have passed since my cultural transition started, and I do now have a more thorough perspective of it. Cultural adaptation should not be a one-way drastic effort to change every aspect of our life, yet neither should we keep ourselves in our comfort zone and let nature take its course. Instead, acculturation is a two-way exchange in which both sides - the foreign and the domestic - make some efforts to learn more about each other, and through that process of mutual learning, become better versions of ourselves.

Author: Hung Nguyen
Undergraduate Student from Jones College

2nd place: Lingkun Guo – How to English: The Other 50%

How to English: The Other 50%

Because English is such a globalized language, I was introduced to it very early in life. And having taken classes in English before, I did not feel too concerned with using this second language when I first set foot on the Rice campus. “Surely daily conversations will go fine,” I thought to myself: “I’ll be able to communicate with my classmates.” At least that was what I thought.

Abbreviations were the first things to hit me on the head. “I’ll go grab something, brb!”, “Wow I can’t believe that happened, smh.”, “You went to that brunch place by yourself?! TFTI.” With the various abbreviations being thrown in the air, texting and talking became a puzzle game. The first step was understanding which letters were actually in the abbreviation, then the next step being trying all kinds of phrases to see which ones made sense. As someone whose first language had a writing system consisting not of letters but of thousands of distinct characters, I did not quite understand the necessity of abbreviating a written language that was already simple enough. The most memorable encounter I had with confusing abbreviations took place when one of my O-week advisors sent a text in our O-week group chat: “Bananagrams sesh tmo?” I stared at this text, trying to make sense of it. Having just learned how to play the beloved boardgame Bananagrams, I assumed it was an invitation to a game night. But “sesh” and “tmo” simply did not look like English words to me. After a few minutes of failed attempts to decode the message, I expressed my cluelessness in the group chat. Apparently, “sesh” was short for “session,” and “tmo” was a nonstandard form of the abbreviation for “tomorrow.” Incidents like this one took place constantly. While I sometimes took pride in successfully figuring out what an abbreviation stood for in context, more often I found myself asking those around me for clarification. Now that I have a collection of common abbreviations in my vocabulary, I start to realize their convenience. After all, having a simple written language doesn’t mean texting can’t be even more efficient.

As if finding my way in a jungle of abbreviations was not difficult enough, I also had to expand my vocabulary of adjectives and adverbs. The complicated English language has a myriad of adjectives and adverbs, all of which are expressive and specific. But people seem to only use three of those words: highkey, lowkey, and chill. I remember speaking to an upperclassman about a committee at my college. “Oh, that committee highkey died last year,” he said in a disappointed tone. This exchange took place right before I heard someone else saying they were “lowkey mad” about something that happened. When I asked my friends to explain the meaning of these two commonly used (or overused) words, their explanation consisted of “lowkey” being “subtle, but not really subtle because it’s sarcastic,” and “highkey” being “obvious, well-known.” The word “chill” is even more vague and flexible. A movie can be chill, so can a person, a class, an event, and the weather. Not only can chill be an adjective, it can also be used as a verb. “Chilling with friends” is probably the most popular campus activity at Rice, mostly because it includes countless other activities.

When I learned English in middle school and high school, I was only exposed to academic English, with emphasis on proper grammar, accurate diction, and appropriate syntax. But academic English is only 50% of what I need here. The other 50% consists of confusing abbreviations, vague adjectives and adverbs, and many more slangs and expressions I did not learn in school. I therefore often find myself in a situation where I’m able to understand my professor’s explanation of a strange climate phenomenon, yet unable to figure out what it means when my friend says “tbh.” But at the end of the day, I’m still using a language that I know. The confusions I face eventually become funny stories for later. And tbh, abbreviations and slang make texting so much easier.

Author: Lingkun Guo
Undergraduate Student from Brown College

3rd place: Aarohi Mehendale – Diwali, homesickness, and making a new home at Rice

Diwali, homesickness, and making a new home at Rice

It was Diwali a few days ago. India’s festival of lights. I sit alone, late at night, in Rayzor Hall, hair in a messy bun, dressed in a baggy shirt and sweatpants, my cell biology notes surrounding me. My phone pings every ten minutes.
“Happy Diwali!”
“ददवाळीच्या हार्दिक शुभेच्छा!”
From across the world, pictures of fireworks, lanterns, lamps, new clothes, gifts, food, friends, and happiness flood into my inbox. Everything seems to be bathed in a warm yellow glow. Under the sharp fluorescent white light in Rayzor Hall, I feel a wave of homesickness come over me. Home is so far away. My people are so far away. Suddenly, it’s all too much. It’s past midnight, and I am alone. I feel tears sting my eyes and I let them fall.

Being away from home is hard. But, before this Diwali, I had not been homesick for a while. I have now spent two years in the United States, as a student at Rice. In that time, I have gone through feelings of alienation, social anxiety and homesickness. But I have also learned acceptance, gratitude and love. It took some time, but now, Rice is my home. I have embraced it with all my heart, and it feels so familiar. The paths from my residential college to the library, to my classes and my friend’s colleges are recognizable to my feet. I know what the air smells like and feels like when it hits my face as I walk through the trees. I love how my classes here make my brain feel like it is expanding. I love how all my professors bring their infectious passion and love to each class. I am myself here. Whenever I feel homesick, I like to remind myself about how fortunate I have been to get an excellent education in an idyllic campus, to be given the opportunity to bring my unique experience and worldview to a student body full of peers with different opportunities. Despite the disconnect I feel sometimes, the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that my time at Rice is an opportunity for me to combine my two lives, picking the parts I like best from both.

A crucial part of Rice becoming my home are the people. I have friends here- domestic students that open their minds and hearts to accept me as I am- a walking, talking reflection of my culture. I used to feel uncomfortable in my own skin. I used to attempt to hide my accent- practice my coffee order and my answers in class, try to mispronounce my name so it was easier to say, spend hours attempting to say my r’s in the American way. Now, with my friends’ unconditional acceptance, I feel free. Sometimes, I remind them that two years ago, I had never met an American in person. Now that our friendship is so organic, it seems so odd.

Sometimes I worry that I am losing my Indian self as I try to assimilate here. I struggle with the idea of losing that- I am afraid I will not know who I am if I am not Indian. But at the same time, I am proud of what I have done to build this universe by myself, so far from home, apart from any familiarity. I think it is possible to combine my life here and my life back home and still stay true to myself.

As my time at Rice comes to an end, people often ask me what I plan to do in the future. Stay, or go home? My parents want to know- my friends, neighbours, mentors. I feel torn. I am already an alloy, a homogeneously melted mixture of my experiences and identities. I am confused about the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ decision, I am confused about my priorities- Me? My family? My country? My education? Maybe there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’? Who knows what the future holds? My only certainty is thus: my time at Rice and my experiences being an international student equip me to do whatever I do, wherever I want to do it. I will forever be thankful to Rice for that.

For now, I leave Rayzor Hall, walk back to my room in Wiess College, and in the secrecy of my room, dress up in a Sari. I send pictures to all my friends here. “Happy Diwali!”, I say. “What is that?”, they reply.

Author: Aarohi Mehendale
Undergraduate Student from Wiess College

OISS congratulates the winners!!

Due to the high quality of the essays received in the competition, OISS has also presented a certificate and an honorable mention to the following authors who tied for fourth place:

  • Grace Ishimwe – Undergraduate Student from Rwanda
  • Hira Farooqi – PhD Student from Pakistan
  • Jianyi Nie – Scholar from China

Original competition guidelines may be found below.

ribbon prize with text Win $500!

To celebrate this year's International Education Week (IEW), OISS is hosting an essay competition open to all members of the Rice international community. We will be awarding monetary prizes to the top three essays on the theme of acculturation and adjustment in the U.S. as Rice internationals. The deadline for this competition is 11:59 p.m. on October 31, 2019. Please submit via email attachment (preferably in Word) to

All aspects of the Rice Honor Code will be enforced. Only one essay may be submitted per person. Original essays should be written by the author alone. Any quotations or copyrighted materials in the essay must be attributed properly (any citation format will be accepted). For clarification on what it means to acknowledge sources appropriately, please visit:

Essays must:

  • include a title
  • be written in English
  • be written in a 12-point standard font (e.g. Times New Roman, Arial, etc.)
  • be between 500 and 750 words
  • be submitted as a file that can be edited (e.g. Word)
  • include a cover sheet with the author's name and contact information; no identifying information should be within the essay itself.

The theme of the essay competition will focus on acculturation and adjustment in the U.S. We are looking for essays that celebrate the uniqueness that comes with cultural exchange told through personal experiences (good, bad, and funny). Successful essays should tell stories that could be used for future generations of Rice internationals as examples of how acculturation and adjustment can take place. The essays will be reviewed and scored anonymously by a panel of judges.

To participate, you must be a member of the current Rice international population. OISS reserves the right to edit, publish, or otherwise duplicate any essay entered into the contest. The winning essays will be featured prominently in OISS materials (including the OISS website and newsletter).

Prizes will be awarded as follows:

  • 1st place: $500
  • 2nd place: $300
  • 3rd place: $200

The top three authors will be notified by November 15th via email. Winners will be honored during the IEW Thanksgiving Lunch on Friday, November 22nd, where they may also be invited to read a short passage from their essays.

For any questions, please contact Andy at

For each essay submitted to the competition, OISS will plant a tree via American Forests! American Forests, one of the oldest conservation organizations in the U.S., works to reverse trends in deforestation. They have been restoring forests for more than 140 years. Today these efforts are more important than ever and OISS is excited to contribute. Please also consider submitting a recommended book or a favorite recipe to help us plant more trees.

To learn more about IEW at Rice, please see