Four students from around the world share their stories and advice for studying in the United States.
Country of Citizenship: Afghanistan
School: Simmons College, Boston, Massachusetts
"It was one of my biggest wishes to earn a degree in a developed country,” says Zala Ibrahimi, a native of Afghanistan and a 2009 graduate of Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts. And while many students share her dream of studying abroad, few ever encounter the obstacles that stood between this young woman and her education.
In war-ravaged Afghanistan, education is not a priority, and Ibrahimi says her country has lost many of its intellectuals. “Some were killed, while others migrated to the countries all over the world. Poverty and financial problems have devastated Afghanistan’s ability for universities to acquire technology and have access to modern teaching materials.” Ibrahimi knows this because she lived it.
She was able to escape with the help of the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women. The organization helped Ibrahimi achieve her goal of studying in the United States by guiding her in the search process and connecting her with a scholarship. “People who have the opportunity to get an education . . . should not take this golden chance for granted,” she says.
Ibrahimi says she appreciates her U.S. education, particularly the access to modern equipment, the focus on current events, and the prestige associated with her degree. “I like the teaching system here,” she says. “Students are encouraged to work hard and are given the opportunity to learn beyond the class lectures.” With a double major in finance and economics, Ibrahimi is ready to return to Afghanistan and help with economic recovery there.
Moving to a new country means adjusting to a new culture, which can be difficult—and most students who have traveled thousands of miles for an American education would agree. “We usually see the world through the eyes of the cultural concepts we grew up in, and when confronted by a culture different than our own, we tend to judge that culture,” Ibrahimi says. But she thinks that the university experience should be about diving into the situation with an accepting, open mind. “Enjoy learning new ways to do things, tasting new foods, seeing new things. Make new connections and friends. Be an active participant of various student clubs in your college. Stay aware of what is happening on campus and explore your new environment.”
As far as easing the transition, many international students suggest bringing pictures from home or finding a specialty market that carries familiar foods. Not Ibrahimi, who doesn’t even mention everyday items. “Have the ability to adapt to environmental changes and be ready to accept the positive aspects of change,” she says. “Those who are able to add on to their strengths and counter their weakness while going through transitions are the winners.”
Country of Citizenship: India
Attending: Monmouth University, West Long Branch, New Jersey
For Karthik Kova, there was no question about it: he was going to study in the United States. It was a practical decision. A no-brainer.
Kova, a 23 year old from Hyderabad, India, talks about his American education with the insight and focus of someone twice his age. “We are all now interconnected through our economies, and I wanted to be able to get an American education so I may have an advantage in obtaining a job,” he says. Kova is a junior at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey. It is no surprise that he is studying computer science, an appropriately stable and respected major.
Kova knew that finding the right school could never be a passive, easy experience; it requires seeking out more information and jumping into the research process wholeheartedly. “Students should make sure they do their research and find the college that best fits their needs and wants. They should find out what the classes are like, visit the college if possible, and contact other current or former students, if possible,” he says. And don’t stop at cursory information like campus size and location. Look up curriculums, class descriptions, extracurricular activities—even health and immunization requirements, he suggests.
All the time and effort is totally worth it. “I am very pleased with my decision,” he says. “I love it here and I am learning more than I thought I would due to the excellent professors.”
For Kova, his teachers are not just there to dispense exams and grades. “Each of my professors knows my name and my specific interests in the field of computer science. I know I can e-mail, call, or meet them in their offices with any problem or situation that I may have with the class. They are always willing to help.” And not only are these professors smart, experienced, and supportive, they are also just as career-minded as he is. “Many professors are former research scientists who teach us the practical side of computer science,” Kova says.
And it would be impractical not to take advantage of every facet of an American education, so Kova is determined to reap all the benefits of his international studies. “Not only have I been enjoying my academic career here, but I am also getting to know the culture of America, another essential element in participating in the global economies of the world,” he says. “Because the United States is a leader in many areas, it is just as important for me to understand the country as it is to have an American education.”
Determined and levelheaded, Kova has his future already mapped out. An American education was just the start.
Country of Citizenship: Germany
Attending: University of the Pacific, Stockton, California
Sport stipendien in den U.S.A.! That probably doesn’t mean much to you, but it was pretty important to Janine Maier. It translates to “Sport scholarships in the U.S.A.!” and it was just what she needed to pursue an education abroad at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. Currently a junior, Maier traveled from her hometown of Laberweinting, Germany, to pursue a U.S. education because of the options, the quality, and—of course—the college football (soccer in the States).
Maier put a lot of research into her university decision, and a big part of that research involved sports. She used a website specifically for international student-athletes, www.sport-scholarships.com, which connects coaches and potential players. A coach from the University of the Pacific actually reached out to Maier personally. “He watched our
soccer practice in Regensburg, Germany; explained the U.S. university system; and showed me pictures and brochures from Pacific,” she says. “The Pacific campus looked gorgeous, the boss of sport scholarships recommended it, and my own Internet research made me more and more confident to do the big step and go to the U.S.”
But Maier needed more than brochures and websites to make her decision. “I talked to lots of different people to get a broader knowledge of what to expect,” she says, including her English teacher, her faculty advisor, international student counselors from the University, and student-athletes who had been in America before. “After each conversation, I felt like I collected more pieces of a whole picture.”
She says students should expect a lot of fundamental differences between schools at home and those in the United States. The length of time it takes to earn a degree, the class work, exam requirements, and university costs are all much different from what Maier had known in Germany.
Luckily, Maier seems to have settled into life abroad fairly easily, but she says there are a few things international students should bring to make the move easier. She recommends basic electronics, like a laptop, outlet adapters, and
a cell phone. (Make sure you have the number of someone in the United States who can help you if you need it, she says.) Her low-tech suggestions include blankets, pillows, pictures and keepsakes from home, and a U.S. dictionary.
If you’re still not sure what to bring or even what to do when you get here, ask for help, Maier says. When she first visited a U.S. supermarket, Maier didn’t know what she was looking at or what she needed, but she had the Director of International Programs and Services from Pacific to explain. “It was so helpful,” she says. Try to make appointments with international counselors if you need similar assistance.
Her advice to students? “Definitely start early with this process. It takes a long time to collect information and get all the paperwork done.” Maier’s visa application alone took two months of waiting for an appointment, a three-hour drive to the embassy, and a five-hour process once she got there! “It’s important to bring all the required documents,” she says. “I saw a couple of students who forgot one thing had to leave and apply for another appointment.
“Most important,” she advises, “don’t give up during all the paperwork—it is worth the work.”
Country of Citizenship: Trinidad and Tobago
Attending: Slippery Rock University, Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania
She’s only 23 years old, but Nyssa Mendoza already talks like a diplomat. She is calm and eloquent but passionate as she explains her future plans to help her home country, Trinidad and Tobago. The small island nation faces many problems right now, Mendoza says. She believes her U.S. education will enable her to face those problems.
A 2009 graduate of Slippery Rock University in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, Mendoza says she wants to put her psychology major to use working with troubled youths. She is currently the clinical manager at George Junior Republic, a learning and rehabilitation community for disadvantaged and at-risk adolescent boys. This experience will prepare her to do the same thing for young adults in Trinidad and Tobago. “I want to give back to my country,” she says. “They have a market for psychologists now.”
Mendoza says she received the kind of well-rounded education in the United States that just isn’t available at home. In Trinidad and Tobago, like many countries, university students are expected to focus on one subject throughout their studies. “One does not get the opportunity to try out or experience other courses,” Mendoza says. “Here [in the United States] one takes liberal studies along with his or her major concentration, which helps broaden one’s horizon. And, if one is undecided, it helps them to choose a major.”
With all the different options available in America, it’s important to do thorough research, she advises. Pay attention to each university’s policies, costs, and services for international students. “I used the catalogs and websites offered by the U.S. Embassy’s library in my country,” she says. Her search criteria included tuition price, region, size, and financial aid offered to international students. She also recommends checking out university fairs and working with secondary school teachers who have experience studying abroad.
After arriving in the States, there are small things international students can do to feel more comfortable in their new surroundings. “Bringing a bit of home is a good way to ease the transition,” Mendoza says. “A flag, pictures, souvenirs all make it easier in my opinion.” Getting involved with student clubs and organizations is another great way to adjust. Students make new friends and become familiar with the campus. Plus, when you’re busy with student activities, you don’t even have time to get homesick!
Culture shock doesn’t have to be a problem for international students either, especially if they choose a school with a supportive international community. Slippery Rock has an inclusive community that promotes diversity in and out of the classroom, Mendoza says, and she should know. She was the president of the school’s Internations Club. The organization reaches out to the University’s relatively small international student body (about 95 students) with campus events and cultural celebrations. “We try to bring a bit of our world to the campus community,” she says.
Mendoza’s fellow students nominated her to lead Internations two years in a row, and she was also asked to serve as the activities chair. “People tend to listen to me—I don’t know why!” she says, laughing. Mendoza was also involved with student government, and she found herself working with plenty of other on-campus groups. These extracurricular activities were great practice for the leadership roles she is sure to hold in the future too, whether she finds them in America or at home. “I like to get involved,” she says. “I’m not the type of person to sit back.” Good diplomats never do.