Mid-1990s Cochran Campus International Students Maintain Ties, Share Memories

Author: Sheron Smith
Posted: Tuesday, May 19, 2020 12:00 AM
Categories: Students | School of Education and Behavioral Sciences | Pressroom | Faculty/Staff

Cochran, GA

The top photo shows international students at Middle Georgia College during the 1994-95 academic year and includes members of a core group whose members became close friends and kept in touch. The bottom image of some of the group members was taken from a recent virtual reunion held on Zoom.

Even now, a quarter of a century later, what they remember most fondly about their year as international students at Middle Georgia College in Cochran are things that maybe seemed inconsequential at the time. 

Sabine Vanderstricht recalls weekend jaunts to movie theaters in Macon. Fredrick Höglund remembers several of them taking driver’s tests somewhere in or near Cochran so they could get their Georgia licenses. In a recollection that students nowadays would hardly begin to comprehend, Carolina Benassi mentions standing in line at her residence hall waiting her turn to use a pay phone to call home.

From among all the international students at that time emerged a core group of about eight friends - young women and men who traveled to the U.S. from around the globe to spend the 1994-1995 academic year (a few were there a bit longer) as study abroad students at what is now Middle Georgia State University’s Cochran Campus.

Ranging in age from 18 to 23, they quickly befriended each other through a club for international students. But they probably became especially tightknit because they spent so much time together on the weekends. Unlike their American counterparts, they couldn’t make quick trips home.  

“We shared moments of study and fun as a little family,” said Benassi, who is from Argentina and lives there today, working as a teacher of English at private schools and at the university level. She was the 23-year-old, the “big sister” of the group who already held a teaching certificate but came to MGC to immerse herself in an English-language culture.

“We enjoyed spending time together for a year, long enough to leave a great mark on each other’s hearts.”

Thanks mostly to Benassi, who took advantage of evolving means of communication over the years to encourage group members to maintain ties, the majority – now all well into their 40s – stay connected. They began with what today seems quaint – pen and paper letter writing, in which they shared news of marriages, children, jobs, and more. But even after email became common, contact among group members was off and on for a number of years. The frequency picked up with the rollout of various social media platforms, including Facebook and Whatsapp.

Just recently, some group members held a virtual reunion over Zoom, an online video and chat platform rapidly growing in use due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We spent two hours laughing a lot,” Benassi said, “remembering anecdotes and also talking about life, always hoping to meet again face-to-face, defying the passage of time and enjoying friendship.”

Benassi wrote an article about the reunion for a newspaper in Argentina and forwarded it to Middle Georgia State University. Responding to follow-up emails, some members of the group shared a few memories of their time in Georgia.

The core group included Benassi; Vanderstricht of France, Höglund of Sweden; Armando Echeverria of Colombia; Tamaki Sato of Japan; Karin Lundberg of Denmark; Luis Ramirez of Costa Rica; and Jakob Gudbjarsson of Iceland. Most ended up at Middle Georgia College through scholarship programs for international students.

“I actually met Carolina and Armando at the airport when I arrived in Georgia from Denmark,” said Lundberg, who now lives in California and works as a software engineering manager for Google. “We all landed on a Saturday and someone from MGC picked us up. When we arrived (on campus) there were very few students there (most arrived on Sunday) so Carolina and I ended up sharing a room. I believe Armando had run into Luis and maybe even Fredrik, so a group of us went to find dinner. I believe we ended up at the Hardee’s (now Wendy’s) close to campus.”

Höglund, who lives in Stockholm and works in finance and IT, said he originally planned to study abroad somewhere in New England, but he recalls being told he could play on the golf team if he attended Middle Georgia College. That was a misunderstanding of some sort because Höglund learned upon arrival that MGC did not have a golf team. But he doesn’t regret staying.

“One of my fond memories was when we drove to Panama Beach on spring break,” he said. “We went on several road trips on the weekends and just hung out. I remember we tutored students at the (local) high school.”

Some recall showing off prepared meals typical of their home countries at the college’s International Food Festival, an annual event that continues to this day. They remember a Halloween parade, musicals, afternoons playing tennis, hours of studying in the library, and rushing to their campus mailboxes each day in hopes of finding letters from home.

Unlike most members of the group, Sato actually earned a degree from MGC – an associate’s in sociology. She lives in Tokyo and has worked for the U.S. Air Force as a squadron commander’s secretary and as a master resiliency trainer.

Prior to her time in Cochran, Sato had studied in Kentucky as a high school exchange student and loved the experience so much she looked for colleges nearby where she could return for study abroad. “On the map, Kentucky and Georgia looked close,” she said. “I had no idea how big the U.S. was.”

Among her favorite memories is hanging out with her friends late at night in a residence hall common area. “There was a table at the end of the hall where girls got together and studied for midterm and final exams after our roommates fell asleep and the room lights were turned off,” she said. “We ate ramen noodles in the middle of the night and gained the freshman 20 together.”

Another experience she enjoyed was when the gang piled into two cars and traveled to Helen, Ga., for the town’s renowned Oktoberfest.  “We shared hotel rooms to keep the costs down,” she said. “We used to joke that we were poor international students.”

Ramirez, now a civil engineer in Costa Rica, said he chose MGC for his study abroad experience after hearing about the college from two of his father’s friends, who attended in the 1970s. Some of his favorite memories are hunting and fishing with Georgia students he befriended and taking weekend road trips to South Carolina, Florida, and Alabama.

Echeverria, who now lives in Florida and works as commercial general manager for an HVAC company, said he has great memories of walking around campus with friends, getting to know professors and other students, and exploring Georgia and the Southeast through the weekend road trips.

Like the other students, he remembers fondly Dr. Randall Ursrey, who was Middle Georgia College’s vice president for Student Affairs at the time. Ursrey, who died in 2005, was known as a warm and caring man who mentored all the international students and spent time with each one asking questions about their home countries. He was active in the Rotary Club, the source of scholarship money for many of the international students.

“He was very close to us and did a tremendous job helping us to get to know each other,” Echeverria said.

Now that they have had their Zoom gathering, group members hope more of them can eventually reunite in person. Vanderstricht, who lives in France and works as a law firm business developer, visited Sato in Japan two years ago and had actually planned a trip to Costa Rica with her son and boyfriend this spring to visit Ramirez and his family. The pandemic put the trip on hold until 2021. 

If all goes well, Vanderstricht said, that reunion will not be the last.  

 “I’m not planning to stop there,” she said. “I wish to be able to meet them all again soon.”