(Photo by Jordan Encarnacao on Unsplash)

What International Students Think

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 have 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.

And Anna:

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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Australia Could Relax Coronavirus Travel Ban

Australia could begin to relax travel restrictions on students from China if coronavirus cases do not show a “material increase” in the next week. The country’s prime health-emergencies commission recommended that students — except those from Hubei, the province that has been the epicenter of the outbreak — be allowed to enter Australia. The panel cited the lack of new cases of the infectious respiratory disease in Australia and better containment throughout China.

Students’ return will likely be slowed by flight cancellations, the committee warned. And universities will have to provide support for students during a period of self-quarantine following their return.

While the decision on college students could be made within a week, some high-school students from China can immediately begin applying for an exemption to the travel ban.

Australian universities may have dodged a bullet if travel restrictions are relaxed. The timing of the outbreak, when many students had returned home for summer vacation and the Lunar New Year, had stranded some 100,000 Chinese students, half of all those studying in Australia. Higher-ed officials had estimated the outbreak could have cost Australian universities as much as $8 billion, or $5.3 billion U.S., in lost tuition and other revenue.

American officials have not lifted prohibitions on travel from China.

Other coronavirus news:

  • The March sitting of the TOEFL English-language-proficiency exam has been called off in China because of the outbreak, while the College Board announced that it had canceled the registrations of students who appear to be traveling from China to other countries to take the SAT. (The college-entrance exam is not offered in mainland China, except at a handful of international schools attended by foreign-passport holders.)
  • An outspoken professor who criticized the Chinese government’s handling of the outbreak has been placed on house arrest and his access to social media cut off.
  • Italy has closed universities as coronavirus cases surge.
  • The coronavirus could weaken the job market for new Chinese college graduates.
  • A professor on a Fulbright scholarship in China writes of being evacuated and quarantined.
  • Scientists “strongly condemn” conspiracy theories about the coronavirus.
  • The University of Albany could discipline students over a coronavirus-themed party.
  • The International Association of College Admission Counselors held a forum on the coronavirus.
  • Advice on student recruiting amid the crisis.

The Future of International Recruiting

India rises. Colleges continue their dependence on China. A “directionless” United States falters. Those are some of the predictions on the future of international student recruitment from global-education consultants Education Rethink. “It is looking increasingly likely that the 2020s could be far more volatile than the 2010s,” they write in a new report. “For education institutions, this means that the strategies which proved effective in the last decade will not suffice in the next one.” They’re not the only ones dusting off the ol’ crystal ball — check out my take on the new international student.

Around the Globe

Presidents of Illinois colleges are the latest to send a letter to their state’s congressional delegation, expressing concern about visa delays and other obstacles to attracting international students and scholars.

House Democrats are scrutinizing FBI and NIH investigations into Chinese scientists, saying they are concerned about racial profiling.

How a Chinese military officer landed a position at a Boston lab.

A German professor who studies far-right populism has been waiting for months for a visa to teach at the University of Virginia this semester.

In contrast with the White House’s public posture, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told a private gathering that the U.S. is “desperate” for more immigrants. Mulvaney praised the immigration system in Canada, which favors international students and other skilled immigrants.

Two-thirds of professors in Hong Kong believe academic freedom there has deteriorated in the past year.

Demonstrators protested a speech at Johns Hopkins University by two young Hong Kong pro-democracy activists.

Three Kashmiri students have been held on sedition charges in India.

A Chinese student pleaded guilty to taking photos of a U.S. naval base.

This college had no students or faculty. Could Reagan National University have been set up as a potential visa mill?

Marwan Kraidy, an associate dean at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert in Arab media, has been named dean of Northwestern University’s campus in Qatar. The American University of Rome will have a new president as of July 1.

Spot news you think I ought to cover? Email at latitudesnews@gmail.com or find me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

And finally …

In keeping with the theme of international-student voices, two pieces to check out:

  • A chance encounter at an airport led a Georgetown senior to consider how we form our own identities — and how others see us. (Full disclosure: Ali was part of an earlier international-student panel I organized.)
  • A doctoral student writes about the mental-health challenges that graduate students from abroad can face. An important point: Because of visa restrictions, for international students, there are no mental-health breaks.

’Til next week — Karin

A freelance journalist and expert on global issues in higher ed, Karin has been writing for more than a decade about the changing relationship between American colleges and the world.