Coming to America
An American education may give them status and opportunity, but international students worry, “Will I fit in?”
By Margo Vanover Porter
"International students have always wanted to come to the United States to further their education," says Sudhakar R. Jamkhandi, professor of English and coordinator of the office of international initiatives, Bluefield State College, West Virginia. "Most people forget that our biggest export is education. It's the most sought-after commodity by the rest of the world."
Jamkhandi, who arrived in the United States from India in 1976 as a Ph.D. candidate at Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, believes one of the reasons international students choose U.S. institutions is the prestige factor. "It's a status thing for people to go abroad to study, because you're viewed as someone who is among the elite-a member of the intelligentsia."
Another reason to go such a distance to study is to pursue a dream that perhaps can't be fulfilled in a home country. "America is still a great country for innovation and opportunity," says Nithyanantha "Nithy" Sevanthinathan, system director of international programs and services, Lone Star College System, Houston. "Students from anywhere in the world can come here, work hard, and succeed. If they have a goal and seriously pursue it, they can make it materialize. That's one beautiful thing that I share with parents of prospective students during my journey of recruitment."
To obtain additional insight into the psyche of international students, flip through bestseller Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Penguin Press, 2011), advises Ann B. Radwan, associate vice president for academic affairs and international studies, St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud, Minnesota. "We have very few international students who don't retain their enrollment in the university because of academic performance. We have almost no attrition. Foreign students who come for a degree get a degree, because they are totally focused. They have been raised to optimize their opportunities. They look at education as an investment in their future."
When talking to international students, two words—opportunity and access—often pop up in the conversation, agrees Timothy Brunold, dean of admission at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. "There's a definite hierarchy in higher education systems in many other countries. International students always tell me they have more choices in the United States. They are amazed at their ability to be admitted to institutions that they perceive to be elite."
Brunold also fields questions about everyday campus life, such as, "Will there be other people like me who speak my language? Is the campus friendly to students of other cultures? Will I fit in?"
Brunold quickly reassures them. "We have large populations of various ethnic groups here in Los Angeles. It's clearly one of the most diverse cities in the world. Given Los Angeles's inherent diversity, international students don't stand out or cause any raised eyebrows.
"Let's not forget that many international students are coming from countries that are quite homogenous," he continues. "They are thinking how odd it would be in their own culture for an outsider to come and study."
In conversations with prospective students, be sure to paint a realistic picture of campus life in America, Sevanthinathan emphasizes. "Remember that a lot of what they see in the news and the media is completely different from what they'll actually experience. Give them a real picture."
MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Virginia, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.