International Student Explores Immigrants’ Lives Through Magellan

Created: January 10, 2017
Last Updated: July 9, 2020

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WASHINGTON, PA (Jan. 10, 2017) – Generations of Washington & Jefferson College (W&J) students remember diving into Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in their first year seminar courses. While the philosophical tale can often evoke a range of feelings from amused bewilderment to enlightenment among readers, one W&J student is embracing the tale from the perspective that she is the allegory.

International student Nikha In-amkha journeyed throughout the United States for her Magellan Project, stopping in Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York City, Seattle, and San Francisco to interview Chinese immigrants about their lives. The project grew out of a desire to see if the experiences of other immigrants coming to this country were similar to her own and how the transition shaped their lives.

Nikha, who is both Chinese and Thai, admits she experiences a range of highs and lows as an international student in the U.S.

“I wonder whether other Chinese/Thais who once set foot on American soil before me have shed the same tears and laughed the same laughs, and how they manage to pull themselves together,” she said. This personal reflection was a driving force behind her Magellan, which aimed to understand how Chinese immigrants came to, survived, and bettered in the U.S.

Vising restaurants and shops in each city’s Chinatown, Nikha asked employees and business owners why, when, and how they immigrated, who they came with, if they had any regrets, and the first job they had in the United States. As she engaged in deeper conversations, in both Chinese and English, she then asked to shadow some of her interviewees for a day or two to get to know their stories.

Over the course of her travels, Nikha had the pleasure of getting to know a former optometrist in Hong Kong who now owns a flower shop in Seattle; a former employee of a chemistry material company who now is a licensed acupuncturist; a former nurse who is now the co-owner of a massage shop in New Jersey; a business woman who opened a Japanese buffet restaurant in New Jersey; and a former model from China who now operates an education agency that prepares Chinese immigrants to settle in the U.S.

Nikha drew comparisons between her experience and the man in Plato’s tale, who finally leaves his cave and realizes the shadows on the cave walls were his only reality. When he steps into the light, though, he begins to see the world as it really is. Nikha said that through her Magellan, she too was able to understand another worldview.

“I walked in their shoes and saw the world in their eyes….As I saw and heard what they have been through and who they have now become, I got to see myself in the future,” she said.

Her Magellan showed her that fellow immigrants have faced similar hardships as well as rewarding successes. In particular, Nikha concluded that those who actively engaged in American society—by taking evening classes to learn English or finding community in religious service for example—had a smoother transition and higher economic and social standing in the U.S.

Most importantly, she learned to stay humble and keep working hard in her studies.

“After my Magellan, I felt like I was the cave man described in Allegory of the Cave who escaped the cave and saw the sun for the first time. I never knew people could be that smart, that efficient, and that well-rounded. Now I do.”

About the Magellan Project

Established in 2008, Washington & Jefferson College’s unique Magellan Project extends liberal arts learning outside the classroom by providing scholarship funding for students to spend the summer pursuing independent projects and internships in the United States and abroad. Learn more about the Magellan Project on the W&J website.

About Washington & Jefferson College

Washington & Jefferson College, located in Washington, Pa., is a selective liberal arts college founded in 1781. Committed to providing each of its students with the highest-quality undergraduate education available, W&J offers a traditional arts and sciences curriculum emphasizing interdisciplinary study and independent study work. For more information about W&J, visit www.washjeff.edu, or call 888-W-AND-JAY.

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