Welcome back from AIEA, where it was great to see so many of you. In the weeks to come, expect to see coverage generated by the stimulating sessions and conversations in D.C. A highlight was the chance to lead a panel discussion with five international students sharing their perspective on studying in the U.S. Here are some of their insights:
It’s easy to talk about international students as if they’re a monolith, but their priorities and motivations can differ greatly. Take the factors they consider when choosing a college. “Prestige,” said Billy Wu, a George Washington University senior from China. He got excited about studying in the U.S. when he read the bestseller Harvard Girl, about a Chinese undergraduate at the university. But when Miriam Komuhendo, a master’s student in health promotion management, got accepted to American University, she cautioned her family not to celebrate – she wouldn’t be able to attend unless she got a generous scholarship. (Spoiler: She did.) Affordability also was the overriding factor for Diego Espinoza, who started at Northern Virginia Community College in January; he eventually plans to transfer to a research university to study physics and math. Hidden costs can derail students. When Diego went to send in his $75 application fee, he was told it would cost $300 to wire the money from Costa Rica. It was only the last-minute intervention from a family friend living in the U.S. that enabled him to make the payment.
The students love American classroom style – but that doesn’t mean it is an easy adjustment. Anna Piasek, from Poland, had studied in Germany and worked in the U.S. as an au pair, but she still found the transition to American-style teaching to be difficult. For her first semesters at Catholic University, she was afraid to speak up and marveled at her American classmates who didn’t hesitate to dive into class discussion, even if they got things wrong. Back home in Iran, only bad students talk in class, says Ghazal Darrehdor. It was difficult to break old habits, but she learned from her students when she worked as a teaching assistant at the University of Maryland, where she is a doctoral student in mechanical engineering. Miriam, who plans to earn a Ph.D. and return to Uganda to teach, says she’ll take some of the lessons with her.
Colleges can do more to help international students integrate outside of the classroom. It can be easier to gravitate toward other international students because you’re all in the same boat, Diego says. Ghazal says she regrets that she hasn’t made American friends since she came to Maryland in 2017. But some strategies work better than others. She really enjoyed getting to know other graduate students at a weekly social hour when visiting friends at Boston University. Assigning American students as peer mentors? Not so much. “We don’t want to be your volunteer project,” she says.
Finding work is tough. Anna, who will graduate this spring with a master’s in human-resources management, says potential employers shut down when they learn she will need sponsorship to work in America. Billy and Miriam, who also are about to finish their degrees, have found the job-search process difficult, too. Career-development office staff are well-meaning, but too often don’t have expertise in the particular challenges facing international students. Billy says he has done alumni interviews and sent out hundreds of applications for consulting positions but hasn’t gotten a nibble. In hindsight, he wonders if rather than international business, he ought to majored in a STEM field, which allows students to spend three years working on OPT.
Still, if they had to do it all again, the students said they would choose to study in the United States. Here’s some more from Anna and Billy about the advice they would give their younger selves.
First, from Billy:
I would like to tell myself two messages. First, enjoy my high school moments, cherish nature and the current environment, and try to visit places. When I go to college, especially in a city, the freedom of mobility and the view of the world from the purest and simplest perspective will no longer exist. Second, in terms of personal development, I would tell myself to make plans about what I want to do after college. This might sound a bit too far down the road, but it is extremely important to identify my field of interest as early as possible and determine how my interest is going to bring me a competitive advantage in working in the U.S. Therefore, I will be able to fully utilize the college resources, have no worries of transferring my major, and be welcomed by employers who are willing to sponsor.
I would like to say that regardless of how my career path will go after graduation I have no regrets and I am absolutely grateful to graduate from an American university. What I would definitely say to my younger self is that you have to have a clear purpose and goal of what you want to do after you graduate. I did not expect that trying to find employment would be that much struggle and complications. I did not give a second thought about it as I should have. I know that this degree will open lots of doors for me, but I wish I had specified long ago which one I would like to open.
Finally, I have to give special thanks to Senem Baker at American, Gudrun Kendon at Catholic, Jennifer Donaghue at George Washington, Catalina Novac at Northern Virginia, and Susan-Ellis Dougherty and Jody Heckman-Bose at Maryland for introducing me to the students.
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