Traveling all the way from Malaysia for Upper Iowa University graduation was Ain Suraya's family. From left, are Mior Adam Mikhail, Norhayati Nordin, Ain, Mior Azri Mior Ismeil and Lily Alyssa.
FAYETTE, Iowa (May 11, 2013) - In January 2012, Ain Suraya traveled with two friends from their native Malaysia to Fayette, Iowa, to attend college at the Upper Iowa University residential campus. Coming from the urban capital of Kuala Lumpur, Ain watched as the Cedar Rapids landscape melted away to barren farm fields covered with a thick carpet of snow. "I knew Upper Iowa was in the middle of nowhere, but I became a little scared after miles and miles of fields," she said. "Plus, after 28 hours on a plane, I just wanted to get somewhere and rest."
When they arrived in Fayette, the Malay trio found that the vast majority of the student body was on winter break. Campus was as desolate as the frozen fields surrounding the small northeast Iowa town. Luckily for Ain and her friends, two Malay students spending holiday break on campus welcomed them with open arms and helped them get the lay of the land before classes started.
At first, Ain admits, she confined herself to a rigid schedule – going to class and going back to her room to study. Part way into the fourth term, however, she grew sick of the routine, and decided to get involved in student life at Upper Iowa.
One activity led to another and now, as a graduating senior, Ain says that over the last year her schedule has become so hectic that the only time she goes to the dorm is to shower and sleep. "But, I love it," she said. "I am so glad that I got out of my rut, and decided to become involved in everything that I could at UIU."
Becoming a student ambassador has been the highlight of her college career, she said. She has also worked at the Alumni House as a work study and did an internship this past semester in the Office of Communications & Marketing. As a communications and psychology double major, the experience in a higher education marketing department was definitely a good learning experience for her.
Becoming involved in the various clubs, organizations and student events at Upper Iowa's residential campus was a new experience for Ain. She chose Upper Iowa University by enrolling in the UIU Malaysia Center four years ago. It had the majors she wanted, and there was an option to attend the residential campus for a year or more if she wished. Since both of her parents obtained their undergraduate degrees from the University of Hartford in Hartford, Conn., Ain wanted to experience living and learning abroad. "The only time I had lived abroad was when my mom was getting her master's in the United Kingdom," she added. "I hadn't experience the United States and I wanted to."
Ain said it was interesting getting used to American culture. "I had no idea that Upper Iowa had athletic teams," she said, laughing. "So, when I saw all these students walking around with braces on their legs, I thought it was some sort of fashion statement. I laugh about it now!"
The hardest part about living in America, according to Ain, is explaining to others how to pronounce her name. Another question that also comes up quite frequently is, "Why do you wear a scarf on your head all the time?"
Ain said, "I actually like that question a lot because then they learn a little bit about me and they get to know me. Once I explain why I wear it, I usually have gained a friend. And up until this year, I was the only one on campus to wear a hijab."
Ain is Muslim. At the age of 10, she chose to wear the hijab in recognition of her devotion to her religion. She is the only member of her family who wears one. Neither her mother, Norhayati Nordin, nor her 17-year-old sister Lily Alyssa, wear the hijab. "It was a personal decision for me, and I wouldn't want my sister to wear it if she wasn't fully committed," she said. Ain always wears the hijab in the presence of men. When hanging out with her female friends, however, she takes it off and exclaims, "You're seeing me naked!"
"That's my little joke," she added.
Her family including her father, Mior Azri Mior Ismeil, and her 24-year-old brother, Mior Adam Mikhail, traveled to Fayette to celebrate Ain's graduation. For the two weeks following commencement, the family is traveling around the country to see the major sites, including Chicago, where Ain has applied to graduate school, Buffalo, N.Y., to see Niagra Falls, Hartford, Conn., to visit her parents' alma mater, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Los Angeles, where Ain's family will board their plane to return to Malaysia.
Ain has decided to stay in Fayette until she starts grad school in spring 2014 at Roosevelt University where she will focus on clinical psychology with an emphasis in counseling practice.
"I love this town," she said. "I've grown really attached to Fayette and this area. It has really become home for me."
Ain said her favorite memories of Upper Iowa have come from those moments when she broke out of the norm and tried something new – like performing a traditional Malay juget at International Culture Night a couple of weeks ago, and singing a duet at a talent show with her friend and fellow Malay, Prema Reni.
But, by far, her favorite UIU memory was a comment written on an evaluation card following a Junior Visit Day for which she was a student ambassador. "After the question, 'Who was your ambassador,' they wrote, 'the funny Asian girl,'" she laughed. "That was the best compliment; that means I made people laugh that day, which is a very good thing!"
The friendships she's forged at UIU are precious to Ain. As a graduation pact, she and several other UIU international students have vowed to meet up in a central location in 10 years. The group is literally from around the world representing the countries of Ghana, Belize, Malaysia and the Ukraine.
As Ain prepared for graduation and said good-bye to her work study and internship colleagues, she received several sincere thank-yous. Their appreciation warms her heart. "That really means a lot to me," she added. "Knowing that I did something well enough for people to thank me."
While Ain may be known around campus as the girl who wears the scarf, or even the 'funny Asian girl,' what she's best known for among the international students is the girl who encourages them to get out of their dorm rooms. "You come half way around the world to do what? Stay in your room and study?" she poses. "Get out there! There are so many opportunities and so many experiences at UIU! Do everything you can. Take advantage of everything Upper Iowa has to offer!"
About Upper Iowa University About 2,000 students who completed their associate, bachelor or master degrees through these UIU offerings graduated in the UIU ceremonies. Of those, 700 graduated from the Fayette location, more than 1,000 completed their degree at a U.S. center, 500 graduated through online or independent study programs, and 250 were from the international centers. UIU is one of the most diverse universities in Iowa. In all, the graduates represented 36 states and 14 nations.