Han Ho Bae was searching for the perfect pillow. It was a Friday night, three days before the spring semester — his first at college -— and among the stacks of linens and plush duvets, now was his best opportunity.
Because when you’re an ocean, a culture and more than 8,400 miles away from home, bringing your own pillow isn’t always an option.
“I arrived in State College two nights ago,” he said. “I’m excited and nervous at the same time.”
Bae, 19, a freshman studying food science, and about 200 other international students crowded the State College Bed Bath & Beyond last Friday, roaming aisles for sheets, pillows and other home goods they couldn’t bring on the plane.
Bae, who hails from the Philippines, left his home country on Dec. 27. He’s already made contact with his roommate, a local, and has made friends at the international student orientation Penn State holds for each incoming class.
But while he’s adjusted quickly, there are still unknowns. Transitioning to college is hard enough. When that change includes a trip across the world, getting the necessities can fall by the wayside.
“Since we’re going to be living here for the next four years, having this opportunity at this price — it’s beneficial for us,” he said.
At 8 p.m. on a Friday night, most college students are usually out enjoying themselves. But for this group, made up of freshmen, graduate students and those in exchange programs, it was a second Black Friday — or for many of them, their first.
“We’re getting everything we need for our rooms,” said Chiraag Ramchandani, 21, a native of Singapore and a freshman in Penn State’s Smeal College of Business.
As part of the program, which began two years ago, Bed Bath & Beyond buses over the incoming class in waves from the HUB-Robeson Center on campus, and discounts the store by 20 percent. Shopping lists are provided for when the students are in the store. Maps of campus residence halls are available for once they return.
Jim Wilson, the company’s regional college coordinator, works with universities to implement programs that help international students gear up for the school year. Since he started with the company five years ago, he’s worked with schools such as Georgetown University, Temple University and American University.
Penn State, though, is the biggest.
“For the domestic students, it’s pretty straightforward,” Wilson said. “For the international students, it’s a different experience. They’re coming in typically at a time when the domestic students aren’t arriving, so not a lot gets catered to them.”
Logan McDonald, an exchange student in civil engineering, tucked his jacket around him after stowing his haul under the bus. In Levin, New Zealand, his hometown, it doesn’t get this cold, he said.
As for what to bring, a packing list can be hard to visualize until you’re here.
“I wasn’t too sure,” McDonald said, smiling. “I had a sleeping bag, so I thought I’d be OK for a few nights.”
According to the university, international students make up a tenth of the undergraduate population. More than 7,000 students from more than 130 countries are represented.
But the majority remain domestic. For a student starting out in a foreign country, asking Mom to get you the towel you forgot isn’t an option. Back-to-school sales, meanwhile, have long since expired.
“From a business standpoint, it’s harder to cater to a smaller community that’s coming in,” Wilson said. “We want to make this experience in making their home away from home comfortable.”
For Bae, Ramchandani and a handful of their peers, their home away from home has been the Days Inn in State College. But since last week, they’ve moved on campus — or their new home for the next four years.
Both Bae and Ramchandani said studying thousands of miles away from home is worth it for the education. And being in a foreign country, they said, can help them grow.
“It’s been fun — we’ve gotten to meet all these new people and make friends,” Ramchandani said. “It’s only been two or three days, but you can really bond with someone.”