Dismantling Stereotypes

By Julie Block

Most college students opt for classes they are both happy with and naturally skilled in, to ensure them a job they are both happy with and naturally skilled in, within a field they are both happy with and naturally skilled in.

Ia Tserodze is not most people.

Tserodze hails from Georgia. Not the state, the country. You may be able to find the Eastern European nation on a world map if you squint. Size: 26,911 square miles. Population: 3.6 million.You can fit more than two Georgias (the country) inside of Georgia (the state). It’s a small but quickly-developing country. Tserodze is proud to call Georgia home.

But Tserodze didn’t know what she wanted to do immediately after high school. At 17 years old, she was entering college at a younger age than most people and didn’t want to subscribe to the traditional European higher education trajectory—which consists of concentrating on one field from the moment you begin your freshman year and having to start the entire college process over if you change your mind.

“I’m so fascinated by the idea of learning. I love to learn. I love to be informed. I love gaining knowledge I don’t possess,” she said. “For me, the easiest way to access this unattainable knowledge was by learning everything. Not just one thing. And the liberal arts for me was number one in that, because I would be pushed in directions that made me uncomfortable…I thought, if I’m not uncomfortable at the age of 17 or 18, I’m not going to be uncomfortable in my 30s.”

So, Tserodze wound up at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. A small school, in a small town. Just like home… only six thousand miles west.

Not to mention the fact that English is Tserodze’s third language. While she started learning English when she was six, and mastered the language by the time she was 14, she was more comfortable with Russian when she embarked on her college career, and certainly more fluent in Georgian, her native tongue. So it might seem odd that Tserodze chose to major in English Writing. But that was just the point: Tserodze wanted to prove that it wasn’t odd. That an international student is capable of not only speaking English just as well as anyone else at the school, but can write with more purpose, eloquence, and appeal than most native English-speaking students. 

“There is always this prejudice that comes with being an international student that you are not good enough, especially when you major in something that doesn’t deal with numbers, something that deals with language or books,” she said. “With writing, there’s always this idea that, oh, I don’t know, is she really that good? And I wanted to encourage myself and everyone around me that it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what your first language is. If you try hard and work on yourself, there’s nothing that is unattainable.”

But in breaking that stereotype, Tserodze knew she also had to work harder than most native English-speaking students. She was honest with herself, in that she knew she needed to conquer the English language if she was going to stand out among other job applicants post-graduation. After all, it’s been shown that people whose native language is not English are less likely to be employed in the U.S., and less likely to find full-time work. When they do find work, they typically earn less than people who speak only English. 

“Learning how to write was at the top of my bucket list because international students are so often discredited when their English is not as perfect as native speakers,” she said. “In your speech, they will forgive you if the message is clear. Written work, you can’t get away with it because you can’t go back on it. That is evidence right there that you made a mistake. It’s very obvious. And I knew I had to get rid of those errors I was making in order to be able to compete against native speakers. If I want to stay in this country, I need to be as good a writer as anybody else.”

That’s where Tserodze’s liberal arts education came in. She says that, had it not been for the peers who challenged her, the professors who listened to her, and the confidence she gained from standing out in a small school, she may not have snagged her current position as Project Assistant at the National Democratic Institute, a nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization that helps fight political corruption, stimulate the economy, and advocate for human rights in developing countries. She says that, without DePauw, she would have never had the guts to apply for a job that plays such a crucial role in maintaining world peace.

“Something DePauw gave me, and something the liberal arts gave me, is this idea of confidence. And it cannot be bought at a store. It cannot develop overnight. And you most certainly cannot get it in an auditorium of 200 students where the professor doesn’t even know your name,” she said. “It’s this idea of your views and your opinions being good enough for you to express them, and for a prestigious, serious professor to agree with that. Nothing can build up confidence like that… I felt heard, and I felt appreciated, and I felt welcome, and that gave me the courage to start my career here.”

Tserodze also credits her liberal arts education with pushing her toward a career in International Relations to begin with. She says she’s always been interested in politics but had never taken a political science class before her junior year. Had she gone to a bigger school, she says, she may never have taken one at all. But the study abroad office at DePauw approached her, asking if she would be interested in a year-long program at the University of Oxford her junior year. It was there that she took her first political science class… and her second… and third.

“That year at Oxford really made me decide my future path because I took so many political science and international relations classes, and I loved all of them,” she said. “Had I gone to a bigger school I may never have even applied, because [the study abroad office] probably would not know who I was. But because I went to a small school, they knew I was European, and they felt confident in my abilities.”

Tserodze’s drive to prove the international student stereotype wrong has seeped into her entire experience here in the States—from choosing to come here for college, to picking a liberal arts university, to pursuing an English Writing Major, to deciding on a career path. It even contributed to her decision to attain membership in Phi Beta Kappa. 

“It’s my own evidence that I really did achieve what I set out to do… It’s this idea, willingness, desire to prove to the outside world that nothing can hold anyone back. If you have a goal in mind and a clear agenda, then you can achieve it, and it doesn’t matter what your background is,” Tserodze said. 

“Being a Phi Beta Kappa also shows an employer that there are certain priorities in life you have in common, because if your aim in college was to get inducted into this organization then you must have prioritized hard work and diligence into your academic work in order to get to that point,” she explained. “So there’s an automatic link that, huh, we must have things in common that pertain to values, ideals, priorities in life, and perhaps if we had them in college, we could have that in common in the workplace, too.”

Tserodze has been accepted to an International Relations graduate program at Harvard for next year. It’s a feat she says she could not have accomplished without the skills and confidence she gained through her liberal arts education. She hopes other international students can see her story and know that if a girl from a small country halfway across the world can find success in a foreign land, anyone can. 

“I didn’t choose what country I was born in,” she said. “I didn’t choose what language my native language was going to be. But I did choose to learn something new, and I chose to learn it so well that you can see it clearly paid off.”

And that, she says, is the epitome of the American Dream.

Julie Block graduated Phi Beta Kappa from DePauw University in 2017. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Writing and currently works as an Associate Producer at FOX59 News. DePauw University is home to the Alpha of Indiana Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.