California kids learn to love the prairie

Ann Kopecky

Ann Kopecky

Nothing but the bare neccessities surround Gabe Mejia as he kicks back on one of three couches in his apartment to play a little Playstation 2 Friday afternoon.

With his feet propped up on the wooden coffee table and his body slouched into the blue soft-cushioned couch, Mejia focuses in on his game.

Mejia doesn’t mind the bare white walls of his apartment or the lack of decorations and pictures. The apartment in Bailey Hall has become “a home away from home” for Mejia.

“It’s going great,” Mejia said.

Mejia and two of his roommates, Miguel Moreno and Fahim Saadat, have been on the campus of South Dakota State University for more than a month and have adjusted well to their new Midwestern surroundings.

Mejia, Moreno and Saadat arrived at SDSU this semester as part of the Western Undergraduate Exhange program. The Western Undergraduate Exchange is a program that allows students from certain western states to enroll at a participating institution and receive a reduced tuition rate.

All three roommates graduated from Santa Ana and Santiago Canyon College, sister schools in Orange County, Calif. After taking all their general classes, the three students graduated with associate degrees.

In March, 20 students from the Orange County community colleges visited the SDSU campus. Three of the students decided then to attend SDSU and two others from the colleges later joined the decision.

Now the students are focusing on their majors at SDSU. Mejia and Saadat are working on getting a bachelor of science degree in engineering while Moreno is studying for a degree in economics.

Packing only what they needed, Mejia and Saadat flew the five hour flight to Brookings. Moreno opted for the scenic drive.

Mejia pauses his game as he describes Moreno’s journey to South Dakota.

At one point in the trip, Moreno ran into trouble trying to buy gas. A man and his son, dressed in overalls, refused to sell Moreno gas.

Mejia laughs about Moreno’s experience. “He said, ‘I’m not leaving until you sell me gas.'”

Just as each roommate found different modes of travel to South Dakota, each came to SDSU for different reasons. Moreno came to get away from his busy life in California. Saadat came to further his education in electrical engineering. Mejia came to experience a new culture and meet new people.

“I like to experience different backgrounds as a whole,” Mejia said.

As Mejia continues to play his game, he describes his life back in California. Living in a big city, Mejia often had a hard time deciding what to do during his free time and which friends to go out with.

Here in the Midwest, Mejia has found a slower pace of life.

“More than that the people here are pretty nice,” Mejia said. “In big cities it’s a faster pace. Everyone is on cell phones, going to class. Here you say hello to everyone.”

Gabby Perez, another exchange student from California agrees.

“It’s nicer. It’s safe,” Perez said.

Perez, a Spanish major, left behind her mother, five brothers, five sisters, 19 nieces and nephews and her newlywed husband to continue her education at SDSU.

“I don’t regret it,” Perez said. “I know I left my husband and family and all but I don’t regret it. This is helping me become more independent.”

Each student has taken time to adjust to a new way of life.

For Perez, school on Fridays was an adjustment as her previous college only had classes four days a week. She missed her first Friday of school.

For Mejia, safety and security was an adjustment. Assuming that Brookings is a safe haven, Mejia didn’t lock his bicycle for the first few weeks. He soon learned his lesson as his bike was stolen.

For Saadat, the lack of beaches and the ocean was a change in his way of life.

“Oh, god. You can’t even imagine,” Saadat said. “There was so much stuff to do there.”

The California students hope to get more than just studying out of their stay in South Dakota.

“I hope that I can learn to be more cultured,” Mejia said. “I can say I lived there as opposed to talking about it.”

“Maybe mature and grow more,” Perez added.