Sophomore Raneem Al-buaijan came to the University of Miami in August 2013 after receiving the Kuwaiti Merit Scholarship, a grant issued by the Kuwaiti Cultural Office that gives high-achieving students from Kuwait the opportunity to study in a U.S. institution. UM was on the scholarship list for her Electronic Media major, so she decided to pursue the American higher education experience.
Al-buaijan is one of the 2,739 international students pursuing a degree at UM, the third most diverse university in the state according to the Open Doors 2013 report. Open Doors is an annual report compiled by the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit focusing on international education.
When Al-buaijan came to UM in fall 2013, international students represented about 16 percent of the entire student body.
“To be honest, at first I loved being here but could still see myself transferring somewhere like California,” she said. “But after a year of being here and establishing who my friend group is and who I am as a person and what I want to do with my life, I can honestly say that I couldn’t see myself transferring at all.”
At the undergraduate level, there are at least 20 international students in every school and college at UM, according to 2014 data issued by the International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS). The School of Business Administration, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the College of Engineering account for the highest numbers, with totals of 743, 664 and 370 international students, respectively.
In the case of the College of Engineering, there is a large percentage of international faculty as well as students.
“It should be noted that international perspectives are also pervasive in our learning environment since 54 out of our 72 faculty, or 75 percent, are foreign-born,” said James M. Tien, dean of the College of Engineering.
Quang Nguyen, a second-year business student from Vietnam, said that many international students are drawn to the School of Business Administration because of the job security provided after graduation.
“Business companies and financial firms are the ones that are more likely to sponsor you for visas, so that is one of the reasons why a lot of people from Asia and other places opt for business majors, as they need that job security,” he said. “Also, a business major is something that is more applicable to their country market if they wish to return so it is something more practical.”
Before selecting which school they want to enroll in, international students must go through the application process.
International students have a similar application process as American prospective students. However, they are exempt from taking the SAT or ACT exams and need to meet English proficiency requirements, mainly by taking the TOEFL exam, a standardized test that measures proficiency in English.
“A lot of international students worry about their credits not transferring, us not being able to understand them, or them not being able to understand classes,” said Martina Sandoval, a sophomore majoring in Latin American studies who works in the Office of International Admission.
Sandoval is originally from Guatemala. She attended high school at Miami Palmetto High School in Pinecrest, Florida after her family moved to the U.S. in 2008.
“As an international student, I can also relate to these concerns,” she said. “Even though I graduated from an American high school, I was in their ESL program, so I thought I didn’t speak and understand English as well as I do.”
Aside from English proficiency, students must obtain a student visa to study in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of State’s website. They can only obtain a visa once they have been accepted into a Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) school.
Despite all the necessary paperwork, Al-buaijan maintains a positive outlook as an international student.
“Just being an international student in this country is a challenge sometimes,” she said. “Dealing with ISSS and I-20 forms can be a hassle, but personally, it wasn’t as hard assimilating as would be for other people just because I came here with an open mind and already expecting this wave of cultures coming at me.”
The I-20 form is one of the required documents needed to obtain a visa. The form proves a student has been admitted to a full-time program of study and has the financial resources to attend.
The fear of not fitting in is one of the many challenges international students face when assimilating to the U.S., according to Sandoval. However, because of the diverse culture at UM, some international students find it is easier to adapt.
“I grew up in the Middle East, and although I personally had a more Western upbringing so-to-speak, the culture change was still a bit difficult to adjust to,” Al-buaijan said. “But because there are so many people from all over here at the university, it made it so much easier to kind of find my own self and make friends and figure out what I liked and didn’t like.”
In the Princeton Review’s “The Best 379 Colleges: 2015 edition,” UM ranked No. 6 in Race/Class Interaction. Additionally, according to the Open Doors report, UM is No. 3 in number of international students in the state, falling behind the University of Florida and Florida International University. The report also ranks Florida as the seventh state in the country with the most international students.
Like Al-buaijan, many international students decide to attend UM because of scholarship opportunities, but they decide to stay because of support they receive outside of the classroom.
“UM is a very desirable location to go to, so a lot of international students want to try it out,” said Marcus Lim, vice-president of External Affairs for the Council of International Students and Organizations (COISO). “But we are also very accepting of many cultures. UM fosters the idea of a home away from home through many events that help students assimilate into campus life, such as Homecoming.”
ISSS also provides on-campus support services and programs that tend to the needs of 3,500 international students, faculty and researchers from 120 countries representing every region of the world, according to Claudia Zitzmann, associate director of ISSS.
“Schools with a strong global presence usually offer a variety of cultural groups and events, thereby allowing international students an opportunity to share their culture with their U.S. peers, the university, and the community-at-large,” Zitzmann said.
Obstacles: culture, language
Usually, one of the main challenges for international students is dealing with the culture shock of being immersed in a different environment. American students may experience that same shock, too.
“I think the positive has outweighed the negatives, but I would say the positive is in the fact that it gets people exposed to different cultures and people from all over the world,” said Kelsey Flitter, a senior in the Fellows in Latin American Studies (FILAS) Program and the Jewish president of Jews and Muslims (JAM).
FILAS is a dual-degree program where students receive their bachelor and master’s degrees in five years. Because it is an internationally-focused major, Flitter explained that there were big international student populations in her classes. This has exposed her to a variety of cultures at UM.
“People can ask questions to a person, not just an image of someone drawn by the media, for example,” she said. “The only negative that I’ve seen is when students’ English levels aren’t as high as they should be for an academic setting”
Both faculty members and American students mentioned that the language barrier was one of the main challenges in the classroom.
“International students enrich the learning environment, provided they meet the course prerequisites and are fluent with the English language,” said James M. Tien, Dean of the College of Engineering. “They bring different perspectives and cultures to any class discussions.”
Jeffrey Kerr, chair of the Department of Management at the School of Business Administration, said that having such a diverse campus could pose challenges, but that is what makes teaching so rewarding.
“Diversity is a two-edged sword. Sometimes you have to work through the process, but the differences in the classroom made me a better teacher,” he said.
Kerr acknowledged that the language barrier can be tricky as a professor, but it allows him to learn.
“It is puzzling to sit through a paper that is written in a way that is hard to understand. It means more work, but that is why it is so valuable,” Kerr said. “Stuff that comes easy, you don’t learn from that.”
Other American students see the language barrier as a challenge they can benefit from.
“It is a good representation of how engineers work in real life,” said Eric-Dillan Smith, a third-year Industrial Engineering Major. “We do a lot of international projects and sometimes you have to go to other countries, but other times you have to go have video conferences and things like that, so I think it’s really good that we have so many international students.”
Zitzmann echoed this sentiment, reinforcing the fact that these skills are vital in the job world.
“Attending a diverse school like UM prepares U.S. and international students for ultimately working in jobs with a diverse work force,” she said.
While the international student presence at UM poses both benefits and challenges to our community, UM’s diversity allows for the exchange of ideas and information.
“I think that our lives are shaped by culture, everything we do is meaningful because of the culture that surrounds us,” said Dina Birman, an associate professor in Educational and Psychological Studies. Birman specializes in immigrants and refugees, having researched and written on the subjects of acculturation and adaptation for both groups.
Birman explained that international students are different from immigrants because they usually come by themselves with financial support from their home countries and the intention to return home.
Both groups, however, tend to experience the same stressful culture shock.
“I sometimes ask my students ‘Can you think of anything you do in the course of your day that is not culture?’ and they’ll say breathing, or sex or going to the bathroom,” Birman said. “But everything is shaped by culture and when people go abroad and spend a meaningful amount of time in a different society, they start to see the world very differently.”
The Open Doors report also highlights statistics on American students studying abroad. The full 2013 report can be found at iie.org/opendoors, and the 2014 Open Doors report is set to be released on Nov. 17.