University of Pittsburgh

commons room

Red, White, and New

Written by Adam Reger

On a Saturday morning, a dozen Pitt students gather around as a guide recites her cell phone number—“in case you get lost or need help,” she explains. The students, all hailing from thousands of miles away, are getting ready for fall classes. They dutifully punch her number into their cell phones before grabbing red shopping carts and setting out. They’re in the Target store at the Waterfront shopping center several miles from campus. Pitt’s Office of International Services has chauffeured them here— in two yellow school buses—as part of an orientation to help international students adjust to their new surroundings.

In the laundry detergent aisle, freshman Yolandi Van Der Merwe from South Africa considers the options. “We brought clothes and now we’re buying everything else,” she says, echoing a common strategy for international students. Despite enduring a 24-hour flight from Cape Town to Pittsburgh, Van Der Merwe, who plans to study bioengineering, seems in good spirits as she sizes up the differences between powder and liquid detergents.

Over in the electronics section, freshman Echo Lee enlists the help of a pair of Target employees to hunt down a very special item: a tripod for her camera. “I love to take photos,” she says, “and I forgot to bring mine from Hong Kong.” Lee, a sociology major, will use the tripod to take photos of herself and her friends, and she’s planning ahead: “I think I will travel to other cities like New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C., during my stay here.”

Meanwhile, freshman Howard Wang from China stands in the sporting goods section, looking perplexed. He’s trying to decide on a water bottle for class from a full rack of choices. “I want to find a bottle that’s convenient, holds a lot of water, and is cheap,” says Wang, who plans to study chemical engineering. He picks up a bottle and fiddles with its lid, frowning before putting it back on the shelf. The bottles come in a vast array of sizes, colors, and designs. There’s almost too much variety—Wang looks stumped trying to decide.

Yet, over the course of nearly an hour, the students’ shopping carts fill up. Detergent. Hangers. Pillows. Tissue. Camera film. A water bottle. The beginnings of a new life in Pittsburgh sprout from the carts.

Later, when the buses return to campus, the students grab their packages, file off, and slowly drift away together, their red-and-white plastic bags marking progress, as they find their way home.