International students reflect on transitions, academics and the American college experience.
By Hannah Mouyal
Across the United States, high school students are making preparations: ordering caps and gowns, wrapping up final assignments and cleaning out their lockers.
For many high school graduates around the world, additional preparations are being made: securing visas, getting sponsors and booking flights.
These incoming international students will come to the U.S. in August to spend the next few years immersing in an academic and social experience. They come to this country for the full package of an American degree.
In recent months they have been thrust into the national spotlight as concerns about travel plans and visa statuses hinder the ability of some current students to continue their education abroad.
The policy changes beg the question: why would an international student come to study in the U.S. in the first place, and why would they fight to stay?
Ali Marhoon, 23, is a junior international politics major at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
He is a recipient of the Crown Prince’s International Scholarship Program, an initiative in his home country of Bahrain that sends 10 students to study overseas for free.
Marhoon said in a phone interview that he chose America “for pragmatic reasons” and for the opportunities here. He said, for those studying politics or international relations, “D.C. is the candy store.”
On the opposite coast, Poonyaweera “Pim” Temcharoen studies business at the University of Southern California.
She said in a video call that her goals for going to college abroad were to live away from her parents, grow up and get a degree from a reputable school, eventually landing a job here in the United States.
For Temcharoen, a sophomore, it was never a question that she would leave her hometown of Bangkok, Thailand, for college. Raised by two parents who received master’s degrees in the U.S., she attended an international high school for her secondary education.
To Adrien Gosmand, 21, of Paris, France, coming to the U.S. would help him further connect with the culture of his American mother. Gosmand, a dual citizen, actually applied as an American student, avoiding the legal complications of an international status. Yet he still faces the cultural differences.
As a junior business administration major, Gosmand has had the opportunity to work on projects and create products or services. He competed in an entrepreneurship competition at American University with a concept for a taco restaurant called “A Taco for U,” which would offer late-night Mexican fare to students on campus.
His team placed third. They were all freshmen.
Across Washington, Marhoon’s experience in the classroom was also constructive. According to him, professors at Georgetown “welcome dissent, they welcome disagreement. It’s value added.”
According to William Badke, an associate librarian at Trinity Western University in British Columbia, Canada, this style of teaching is characteristic of the West.
He said in an email, “Western education and research focuses on addressing problems, using critical thinking, and assuming that there are few easy answers. Research in the west is not compilation and synthesis of information but the use of information as a tool to answer open questions and solve problems.”
Badke added that, while international students seek the benefits of this Western education, they are concurrently seen as commodities for domestic students. International insight and cultural backgrounds can foster enriching environments on campus.
“You develop two identities depending on where the airplane lands. Your cultural vocabulary changes. You start to think in a different language.” — Ali Marhoon
Marhoon reflects on his role in the classroom, saying, “The point is to add to the conversation, not to other yourself deliberately.”
Adjustment to the American classroom
The initial learning curve in American classrooms, however, can be steep for international students. This is true for freshman Julia Naciemiento, 19, from São Paulo, Brazil.
She made the decision to study in the U.S. after visiting her sister Deborah at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, Kentucky. She decided on the same school.
Although the language barrier was minimal — she grew up learning English in Brazil — Naciemiento remarked on how Portugese and English speakers explain things differently.
They even have distinct methods of doing division in math.
And after enrolling in classes, the university didn’t provide much help.
Badke recommends increasing international students’ involvement in social and extracurricular activities to improve their American college experience. He said that universities do not do an adequate job of “helping them understand Western educational philosophy and processes, including research methods and academic writing.”
At the University of Alabama, for example, efforts to help students adjust are already in place. The English Language Institute, a six-level intensive language program, helps students learn English and adjust to the classroom before starting the semester.
Back in Kentucky, without help from international student advisors, Naciemiento eventually got her footing and established her major in biological sciences with a minor chemistry. She’s on the cellular molecular genetics track and hopes to go to medical school in the U.S. She said earning her bachelor’s degree in the U.S. makes this much easier to do than if she had chosen to study back in Brazil.
Cultural immersion and added capital
An American education is attractive to prospective students because of not only the promise of a quality degree, but also “an overseas experience that will lead to self-development,” wrote Suzanne Beech, a lecturer of human geography at Ulster University in Ireland, in the book “Multi-dimensional Transitions of International Students to Higher Education.”
But it’s not that simple.
As Karin Fischer, a senior writer at The Chronicle for Higher Education, said in a video call, “It’s not as if you can put a bunch of international students in a dorm with American students, and they’re immediately going to get a cross-cultural experience.”
For Marhoon, Temcharoen, Naciemiento and Gosmand, part of their immersion coincidentally manifested into joining Greek life.
Greek organizations have provided the four a support system, opportunities for growth and, frankly, fun.
Temcharoen has attended TV premieres, been to fraternity parties and even rallied on campus for her pledge class’s fundraiser.
Apart from Greek life, other opportunities exist for international students to integrate into American college life.
During American University’s Welcome Week his freshman year, Gosmand attended his very first baseball game at a university-sponsored Washington Nationals outing. He noticed students hanging out and eating food, not even bothering to watch the game, he remarked.
Back on campus, sports gave both Gosmand and Temcharoen opportunities to connect with classmates. They play on the tennis and rugby teams, respectively.
Temcharoen also commented on school spirit, saying, “The Trojan family is strong here.”
On being caught between two cultures, Marhoon said, “You develop two identities depending on where the airplane lands. Your cultural vocabulary changes. You start to think in a different language.”
Rethinking the American Dream
But the illusion of normality was shattered after the administration’s travel ban reminded the students that their time in America was not certain.
Although unaffected by the policy, they expressed concern about implications of a ban.
The feeling, as Marhoon says, is that “you’re legally not welcome anymore.”
Marhoon hopes to switch to an H-1B visa after graduation, which will allow him to stay and work in the U.S. Like Temcharoen and Naciemiento, he is currently here on an F-1 student visa.
As for Temcharoen, she says, “I’m questioning it more, whether there is an ‘American Dream’ now for people who come to the States to get jobs.”
Gosmand is less cynical, saying, “People ironize on the fact that we talk about the U.S. as being ‘a land of freedom’ and all that, but I think it kind of is, to be honest.”
He wants to work at a finance firm in D.C. after graduation. Long-term plans include moving back to France.
Although Gosmand expressed gratitude for his education and time in the U.S., his feelings of loyalty and pride toward France remained in his mind.
Marhoon and Temcharoen also plan on returning to their home countries later in life. Naciemiento, on the other hand, hopes to work as a doctor in the U.S. after obtaining her medical degree here.
The uncertainty after graduation awaits at the commencement stage. But for now these four students have other things to worry about.
Banquets, fraternity formals and final exams are drawing near.
Featured photo by Faustin Tuyambaze