For international students, studying in the U.S. is a mix of freedom and frustration
For many incoming freshmen, leaving home for the first time is a source of excitement and fear, regardless of how far they’re going.
But for international students, like Music, Theatre & Dance junior Jessica Gomes-Ng, living thousands of miles from home for years at a time is adds new elements to that experience.
Gomes-Ng said studying in the United States was an easy transition because of her previous education at international primary and secondary schools in New Zealand, Vietnam, Belgium and Singapore.
“I went to an American school in Belgium, so I was around that type of environment for a while,” she said. “I was a little homesick for a while, but I got used to it because I’m quite used to being independent.”
According to the University of Michigan admissions website, international students make up 14.4 percent of the University undergraduate population and originate from 118 different countries. Despite obstacles such as securing jobs in the United States, this number continues to grow.
Across the nation, the number of international students studying in American universities is at an all-time high. According to the annual Open Doors report released Monday by the Institute of International Education, since 2015 the number of international students in the United States has grown by 7.1 percent to reach 1 million total.
Many students from global backgrounds, like Gomes-Ng, attended international schools either in the United States or elsewhere for their primary and secondary education. University alum Alice Song, who graduated in 2015, said her parents’ decision to send her to boarding schools in Thailand and Canada was influenced by their concerns with the Korean school system.
“It’s a lot of studying and conformity (in Korea),” Song said. “Everyone takes the same classes and there are not many extracurricular activities or resources available.”
Many international students said the highly rated programs offered by the University are also a strong draw for enrollment, particularly in specific fields of study like engineering or pre-medicine. Engineering junior Tay Tantivirun said he also likes the emphasis that both his international schools and the University place on learning outside the classroom.
“The difference between my international school and public schools in Thailand is that they really emphasize sports and doing activities,” he said. “That’s what I like about coming to Michigan. You’re not just here to study.”
A shift in identity
For many students, their time studying in the U.S. is characterized by the personal as well, experiencing shifts and changes in their identities.
Song, who identifies as bisexual, said escaping the constraints of traditional Korean society and studying abroad has allowed her to explore who she is and become more open-minded.
“Here, there’s a lot more freedom as to what you can identify with or what is OK,” she said. “I feel like when I go to Korea it’s like I have to be in a certain way because that’s just how it is considered. People care a lot.”
She said she has not told her family about her orientation because she believes her mother’s conservative upbringing in Korea has contributed to a lack of understanding of the LGBTQ community.
“She’s trying really hard to understand,” she said. “It’s me that’s changing, not her. That’s why it’s so difficult to talk about certain things because it’s hard to understand from her perspective.”
Song said she felt a disconnect with her identity during sophomore year overall — living outside of Korea for so long made her lose connection to her ethnicity. She also said she was influenced by the fear of being associated with negative stereotypes reflecting international students.
“I didn’t very strongly identify as a Korean,” she said. “There was nothing good that could come out as identifying as Korean because there were a lot of stereotypes about Asians in general or studying abroad that I didn’t want to be associated with.”
Tantivirun echoed these sentiments, saying the prolonged time he has spent outside his home country has left him feeling alienated in both Thailand and the United States.
“I’m really different from people back home in Thailand because I’ve been abroad for so long,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like an outside when I’m home. And sometimes when I’m in the United States, I don’t feel exactly at home.”
Despite this, Tantivirun said he is glad to be attending school in the United States. He said leaving the country he has lived in for most of his life to learn in a new environment has allowed him to see opportunities that he did not have at home.
“You’re so used to the world that you live in,” he said. “But once you move out, you start realizing the flaws and what’s wrong with certain things.”
Life on campus
Coming from an international school, Tantivirun said he was prepared to handle the difference in the environment of American colleges. He credits this ease from culture shock to the extracurricular activities offered at the University, citing student organization BLUElab in particular as an outlet he could use to discover what he was passionate about. The organization, comprised of 12 multidisciplinary project teams, promotes collaboration with local and international stakeholders on a variety of issues.
“It really changed my perspective,” Tantivirun said. “I really want to do engineering for humanitarian purposes. In the long run, I want to come back home and help out my country.”
For Song, her time in English-speaking international schools in Thailand and Canada was also beneficial in transitioning into post-secondary education in the United States. She said international students coming directly from their home country may have a more difficult period of adjustment because of the stark contrasts in culture.
“A lot of people have a hard time because it’s harder to make friends and relate when the language barrier is a big thing,” she said. “They end up going back or dropping out because they have such a hard time trying to adjust. They only hang out with other Koreans and their English never improves, and then they don’t understand what the professor is saying.”
Gomes-Ng said attending international schools with a diverse body of students has made her more tolerant and respecting of others.
“It makes me more open minded,” she said. “For me, having a different religion is not weird. It clearly is for some people, though. Everyone is from a different place, and that’s OK.”
Future job prospects for non-resident aliens
Finding work opportunities and internships are a necessary part of college for many students, but because of the difficulties surrounding work visas, international students are at a disadvantage.
As a musical theatre major, Gomes-Ng said her status as a non-resident alien in the U.S. has made her summer internship search arduous. She said one of the most popular companies to audition for, the Municipal Theatre Association of St. Louis, forbids international students from even auditioning.
“There’s a lot of places that I can’t audition for because they don’t take international students,” she said. “(The Muny’s), the one that everyone applies to, it pays the best and probably is one of the most reputable ones, but I can’t even audition there.”
This restriction is fairly common among international students, though it varies depending on the visa they hold. Students holding an F-1 visa, a type of student visa for those attending an academic program at a U.S. college, are subject to Curricular Practical Training. This set of guidelines, enforced by U.S. Immigration, limits students to participating in work that directly applies to their field of study.
Gomes-Ng said she is discouraged by the lack of practical positions for her major in the United States, which she said isn’t a concern for her domestic peers. She cited in particular the difficulty of joining Actors’ Equity, a large labor union for stage actors, as a foreigner, which she said is necessary to perform on Broadway. According to the Actors’ Equity handbook, non-U.S. citizens or non-U.S. resident aliens may only join if they enter into an employment contract that is approved by the union.
“Even upon graduation, there’s all these laws about where I can audition and joining the Actors’ Union that most people don’t have to deal with,” she said. “I think it’ll be quite hard for me, I don’t know if I have too many expectation.”
Song, who will be attending medical school in Australia, said she was dejected to discover she was ineligible to apply to the University of Michigan’s Medical School. Publicly funded institutions, including the University, are instructed to allocate all or most of their funds toward in-state students, and only a select U.S. medical schools take applications from international students. The University of Michigan’s medical school accepts applications only from citizens and permanent residents.
“One hundred percent of people are surprised when I tell them,” she said. “It’s definitely a brick wall.”
Tantivirun remains more optimistic about his major, and said he believes the U.S. economy needs more STEM majors domestically and from the international community.
“As an international student, it will be a little harder to find jobs in the U.S.,” he said. “It’s one thing I had to come to terms with. But I really think the (technology) industry in the U.S. needs skilled workers from other countries. It’s the only way to develop as a country.”
Impact of the presidential election
Beyond ongoing questions of jobs or identity, for many international students a new element has emerged in their experiences — the question of how they may be impacted by the recent win of President-elect Donald Trump, who ran on a largely anti-immigrant platform.
Gomes-Ng said because she thought race had not been an important factor in her interactions in Ann Arbor, she was surprised to see how significant of an issue it played during this election cycle.
“People at Michigan are in a bubble,” she said. “For the most part, people are very unaware of race. It’s not a significant factor in how we treat each other. So I just assumed that the election as going to reflect that across the United States.”
The election was disappointing for Gomes-Ng, who is now reconsidering her future plans to remain in the U.S. because of possible changing border control laws and because of the strong rhetoric and racism she witnessed during the election.
“It was quite disheartening for me,” she said. “I was planning on trying to stay in the U.S. and just don’t know if that’s going to be a possibility, or if I even want to anymore. It’s really saddening.”
According to the Washington Times, during one of the GOP debates in March of this year, Trump stated his intention to re-evaluate and potentially abolish the H1-B visa program, which allows employers to hire foreign students at the graduate level in STEM fields such as IT, finance, engineering and medicine. He said the program hurts American workers.
Song said another concern specific to international students are the threats posed by Trump’s anti-immigration campaign now that he is president-elect.
“It’s hard to know what your privileges are if you have the age and identity,” she said. “But if you have the target identity, obviously you can notice it because you’re restricted from doing certain things.”
But despite the uncertainties on international students, Song said she wouldn’t change her choice of university, or the experiences she’s had in Michigan.
“Studying abroad is and has been the best decision that I could have ever made,” she said. “I feel like I’ve become so much more open and have had more diverse experiences. There are a lot of restrictions but I wouldn’t have changed a thing.”