Natalie Gil thinks she can handle spicy, even though she is from Lima, Peru, where the home cooking is rather mild. She has sampled Mexican dishes laden with chilies many times, and she has also dined throughout Europe on backpacking trips. She believes there is little about ethnic cuisine that could surprise her, but she is about to put her taste buds to the test. She is taking a break from her heavy workload at Heinz College for a student potluck dinner. It's a big deal for her because her constant state of "go" leaves her with little time to talk to many of her classmates except for impromptu moments like catching a bus together. At the potluck, she mingles with students from around the globe, including China, India, Japan, Mexico, Peru, and the United States.

After her first nibble from her plate—which has a mixture of beautifully julienned vegetables, rice, and sauce—a burning heat rises up from her mouth into her nose and eyes. She savors the taste and winces at the same time. "I didn't expect Asian food to be that spicy," she says through tears.

The smack to her senses is just another cultural misconception that Gil takes in stride. On her summer backpacking trips to Germany, Italy, and France, she quickly found out that something as simple as getting directions for which Metro line to catch didn't always come in a language she understood. On campus, even without language barriers, simple camaraderie can be a challenge.

During her first semester, she remembers having trouble finding a tennis partner among her international classmates. Everyone was always studying. Finally, she convinced a few classmates that time spent on the tennis court can clear the mind and make studying more effective. Gil had always found that to be true. Her tennis partners had an impact on her, too—on and off the court. "I found myself committed to working harder."

While in pursuit of her master's degree in information systems management, Gil has made a point to mingle with other international students by participating in any mixers organized by the Heinz College Diversity Initiative. When she first looked for a graduate program that blended business and technology, she looked as far as the Netherlands before she decided on Carnegie Mellon. The student body international mix in Pittsburgh has been an unexpected benefit. "When I meet people from different cultures in the future," says Gil, who plans a career in service management, "I will be ready."
Ann Lyon Ritchie (HS'05)