International Student Voices: Singapore, United Kingdom, Chile, and Dominican Republic

Four international students share their stories and advice on attending university in the U.S.A.

You know why you’re interested in studying in America—but have you ever wondered what led some of your peers to make the journey? This is your chance to find out. Here, four international students share their stories and advice.

Dion Tan

Country of Citizenship: Singapore

School: The New School, New York, New York

New York City is a microcosm of world art and culture. It attracts thousands of international students every year, and for Dion Tan, there was nowhere better to begin a career in the arts.

Tan came to America to study acting and earn an associate degree in theater, but he also wanted to direct. A professor encouraged him to apply to The New School in New York City, recommending it as one of the best places in the world to study theater and film. It had opportunities in all the avenues Tan wanted to pursue—theater, film, directing, acting—and a flexible curriculum that would allow him to major in film, minor in journalism, and prepare for a career in documentary filmmaking. “It catered to my needs and my career path,” he says. Tan suggests students look for similar flexible programs and support in their own choice of school.

Consider your potential universities’ advising programs and resources, Tan says. You’ll likely work with the office of international student services throughout the application and admission process, but don’t let the relationship end there, he says. The New School has an advisor for every international student, and Tan’s helped him with career choices and offered advice for picking classes.

Tan has been in the United States for three years now, but he stills calls home every weekend. Though he felt homesick when he first arrived, Tan says he connected with other international students, and “as the semester went by, it got easier because of all the friends I met here.”

Get involved, Tan says. “You’ll have more fun!” He participated in school events especially for international students, and most U.S. universities offer comparable programming.

What does Tan like best about the United States? “The food! I love the food here!” he says, laughing. And there is no shortage of interesting edibles in New York City. Tan was surprised but happy to find Singaporean food in the middle of Greenwich Village (The New School’s neighborhood). He says he goes there when he’s feeling a little melancholy and needs a taste of home.

From New York City’s eclectic shops to the refined eateries to the greasy sidewalk hotdog stands, “I love everything about it,” Tan says. He also appreciates the subway that links such different neighborhoods. You step into the ground, then come up in a completely different world, he says. The extensive public transportation also makes exploring that much easier.

In New York City and The New School, on any given street, in any given class, you can encounter people from different parts of the world, Tan says. At home in Singapore, local students are the majority at university, with few international students. Focused classes also allow for very little academic exploration, he says. “That’s the magic of New York and America,” he says. “You get a whole melting pot.”

“In Asia especially, classes are taught very ‘as it is,’” Tan says, but in his classes at The New School, different points of view fly around the room as students from Africa, Asia, and South America share their cultural understandings. “We learn from each other,” he says. “It opens up your horizons.” That kind of discussion fosters a different kind of education, he says, one just as important as exams and essays. “You learn to appreciate your own culture, and you learn about theirs at the same time.”


Kate McLaughlin

Country of Citizenship: The United Kingdom

School: Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, California

You can’t get much more “international” than Kate McLaughlin. “Both my parents are Scottish, but I was born and raised in London, England. When I was six, however, my family moved to Tokyo and I’ve been attending international/American schools ever since.” At the end of the day, she considers Hong Kong her home.

Like many globetrotting students, Kate attended an international school (Hong Kong International School) filled with other students interested in pursuing a U.S. education, and she felt pulled in a similar direction. Yet, it was the support of her college counselor (“The most amazing college counselor ever!” she says) that helped her settle on one American school in particular. “My college counselor . . . wrote Loyola Marymount on a long list of colleges, and it fit my description of the perfect school,” she says. “I visited and was sold instantaneously.”

“Putting yourself out there is the way to go,” says McLaughlin, now a junior majoring in communication studies. “At the beginning of the year, LMU has an event called Club Fest, in which all the different clubs and organizations get a table and have details about what they do. I signed up for anything and everything I was interested in, tried each of them out, and have made many of my friends through these groups I’ve joined.

“I met one of my best friends at the freshman dance on the first night we moved in. It was so random, but we would never have met otherwise!” McLaughlin says. “You can make friends doing anything in college.” How? Get involved! Go to campus-wide events, join small residence hall activities, and perhaps most importantly, attend your freshman and/or international student orientation.

When first-year students feel isolated on campus—particularly international students far from home—it often helps them to remember they are not alone. “All first-year students are in the same boat,” says McLaughlin. “No one has been to college before. We’re all new, and we’re all experiencing something different together. Everyone wants to make friends, so there should not be any worry about not meeting people.”

Living in a major global city like Hong Kong, McLaughlin had access to many colleges and universities with a variety of programs, including some offering an American-style curriculum. “But I knew that I wanted to study in the United States,” she says. The location, small class sizes, great resources for international students—“There are so many things I like,” she says. “I love LMU’s location because it presents so many different opportunities. We’re five minutes from LAX (Los Angeles International Airport), five minutes from the beach, and 20 minutes from Hollywood. There is always something to do, whether it be on campus or off. And McLaughlin says she gets the kind of attention on campus that makes her feel like “it’s impossible to get lost.”

McLaughlin echoes other international students when she praises her school’s diversity too. “My favorite thing about LMU is the Office of International Students and Scholars because there is such a strong sense of community. We’re all from around the world, but this fact brings us all that much closer together.”


Jose Olavarria

Country of Citizenship: Chile

School: Point Park University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

“I may not be the best student to interview,” Jose Olavarria says, thinking students wouldn’t relate to his experience—even though it’s actually very common. He didn’t come to the United States with a clear, unshakable dream, but he is a practical young man looking for better opportunities. He’s just trying to figure out his future along the way.

Olavarria finished secondary school in the United States as an exchange student, and then repeated his senior year in Chile. He eventually decided he wanted to pursue a Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.), and he felt the best place to do that was in America.

In his university search, Olavarria stumbled across Point Park University and the University of Pittsburgh, but he needed a scholarship to attend either. He applied to an affordable community college in western Pennsylvania instead. Two weeks into his time there, he learned he received a scholarship from Point Park, a school in Pittsburgh, a major Pennsylvania city. “I guess I was lucky to get those scholarships,” he says. “It’s crazy how expensive it is.” Otherwise, a four-year degree might have been unobtainable. International students need to be particularly proactive when it comes to searching and applying for scholarships, because many U.S. schools only fund domestic students. But if you can get a scholarship, Olavarria says, then never mind the expense!

In addition to financial concerns, applying for university can be difficult as well, particularly the visa application process. “Be patient,” Olavarria advises other international students. “Really think.” See if you have better options in your home country, he says, and be certain you really want to spend four or more years away from home. “It took a lot of thought and a lot of talking with my family,” he says. Ask yourself, “Is this worth it?”

Yet, despite his words of warning, Olavarria hasn’t been particularly homesick. “We’re just fine here,” he says, though he knows some students who want to go back home.

On his dorm room wall, Olavarria has a picture of a Chilean national park. He says he plans to visit that park when he finally returns home, and thinking about that day is an incentive to finish school. “It motivates me to keep working here,” he says.

Olavarria brought his guitar too. “I can’t imagine being here without [it],” he says. He learned to play as a hobby. Now, it helps him relax, he says, while also reminding him of Chile. Bring something that reminds you of home—but doesn’t inspire too much homesickness, he advises.

Throughout your time in the United States, remember why you came, why you left your family and friends, and keep those reasons at the forefront of your thoughts. Think about where you are and where you want to be, and then set goals, he says. Olavarria knows he wants to continue studying business, but after that, things are up in the air.

Universities in Chile use standardized tests similar to the American SAT and ACT, but the scores carry much more weight. They determine the major you study and the school you attend. Olavarria did well on those tests and says he got into his “dream college” in Chile. Although he could’ve studied business at home, he says an American education will provide a better future. “I think the U.S. is the best country to study business,” he says.

If he had another academic interest, he might’ve stayed in Chile, but Olavarria says he likes the U.S. culture, and he thinks the course objectives and grading systems are clearer too. He also appreciates the different viewpoints found on Point Park’s campus and in its classes. “I like that diversity of things,” he says. “I’m not just learning what the professor says. I’m learning what the students think. There’s more variety, more opinions. You can see things from different perspectives.” It’s much different from the business-centric classes he would have taken in Chile.

Olavarria is still unsure what will happen in the future, but that uncertainty is part of the college experience, no matter where you’re from. He wonders, will he be married? Working? In Chile or in the United States? It’s an adventure either way.

Olavarria had never known anyone else who had studied in the United States, and says he did not have any other resources or people to ask for guidance. “I’m making my own path,” he says. “It’s something that I like about myself.”

“Hopefully,” Olavarria says, “I’m doing what I should do.”


Mayleen Cabral

Country of Citizenship: Dominican Republic

School: Loyola University New Orleans, New Orleans, Louisiana

Mayleen Cabral attended a U.S.-accredited secondary school in her native Dominican Republic. Although the school promoted studying abroad in the United States, Cabral says she would have pursued a U.S. education anyway. She wanted to study music therapy, a unique niche field of study not available back home.

Yet, finding a school that offered music therapy proved to be a challenge as well. As a budding health care specialty field, few schools have an accredited program. “It was pretty difficult deciding where I wanted to apply, due to the limited choices,” she says.

“My ideal college has always been a small community style, in which teachers know their students by name and not just by a number,” Cabral says. Having grown up in an urban center, she also wanted a school removed from the busy streets and bustling crowds, somewhere she would feel secure. “I wanted to have the barriers between the city life and somewhere safe,” she says. “Loyola University of New Orleans was the perfect fit for me.”

To other international students considering universities in the United States, Cabral says, “Have an idea of who you are.” Conduct a self-assessment of what you like—or need—in a university. Like a college counselor, she rattles off criteria. “Do you like big schools? City life? Greek life? Sports? Look for schools that have your same interests in a generalized manner,” she says. “Does your school implement a lot of community service? What is the rate for its students’ preparedness when they embark into the professional world? If you know the major you want to pursue, does it have a strong department?” Try to imagine yourself five years into the future, she suggests. Can the schools you’re considering help you reach that place and achieve those goals?

Cabral was fortunate to have a supportive guidance counselor, and she suggests connecting with yours if you can. “Get along with your counselor; he or she can give you great insight of what to do or not to do,” she says. “Also, contact students from the colleges you are thinking of applying to. They may give you some facts that brochures would never have mentioned.” If those resources aren’t enough, you can always reach out to admission counselors at the American universities you are considering.

“As for the research and application process, my counselors and professors all helped me,” Cabral says. “If it weren’t for my counselor, I would have never considered Loyola University New Orleans. She had visited last year and truly believed that it was the college for me.”

Studying thousands of miles away from home, there will come a time when you crave something familiar. “Bring anything that is ‘you,’” Cabral says. “It may be your instrument, your iPod, your soccer ball, your clothes—anything that you feel you will need throughout the semesters. Most likely, someone will have your same interests, and those objects may become the starting point of a conversation.” When you’re feeling homesick, or even feel culture shock start to set in, that’s when it helps to have some keepsakes around you. “Bring things that remind you of home: pictures, your favorite pillow, something your mother made, anything,” she suggests. “I brought cookies and candy from home; it has become my comfort food when I miss home.”

When you first arrive on campus, you will work hard, but putting in the effort early on will pay off in the end. “Everything depends on you from now on. . . . Do your homework, balance your life, and get organized—clean your room, do laundry,” Cabral says. “As the semesters go on, you will notice what is most important and the priorities you must have on your to-do lists.”

In the Dominican Republic, Cabral could have studied a number of “traditional” subjects: business, engineering, medicine, or education. But more diverse majors (like music therapy) are not common, she says. Diversity is what Cabral most values about studying in the United States, followed by the variety of opportunities and independence students find on campus. “Also, living on campus is not available [in Chile]. If I would have stayed home, I would still be living with my parents,” Cabral says. “I would truly have a comfortable life if I had stayed in the Dominican Republic—but sometimes the college experience is meant to challenge you every minute of the day.”

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