Wei Zuo left China and arrived at the University of Washington four years ago, shy and doubtful. Last week, she spoke, bold and self-assured, before a crowd of about 60 students part of an event called “Thriving American Universities.”
“At this moment, I stand in front of you confident and not scared, but I clearly remember being scared to ask a question,” Zuo said. “In a 90-minute class, I would think should I ask a question, should I, should I, should I? But I never did.”
Zuo spearheaded the instructional event geared towards helping international students adjust and succeed. The students at the event were from China, Mongolia, Egypt, Portugal, and Saudi Arabia.
Zuo’s English Ph.D. dissertation explores how international students study and socialize in the United States. As part of her research, Zuo followed six foreign students, spoke to their professors and classmates, and organized events such as this one, but for Chinese students specifically.
After enlisting the help of Wenbi Wu, and May Lim, a student and an academic counselor, respectively, the three agreed to host an event open to all international students. The three women emphasized the importance of undergraduate research and scholarships, communicating with professors and classmates, and gaining confidence.
According to UW’s international student services, as of 2014 there are 7,299 foreign students enrolled at the Seattle, Bothell, and Tacoma campuses. Nearly 4,000 of these students are Chinese, 600 are Korean, 500 are Indian, 400 are Taiwanese, and 200 are Indonesian, The majority of the remaining students are from Japan, Canada, Thailand, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia.
These students face numerous challenges, including the inability to apply for many scholarships. Several scholarships advertised to UW students often have a few upsetting words written in small print: “U.S. citizenship required.”
While there are indeed scholarships open to international students, the limitations make the process much more difficult. The same limitations occur in the common job search.
“I remember I applied for so many things and I never heard anything, and I thought I might have to go back to China and not finish my degree,” Zuo said.
Instead of moving back to China, Zuo said she overcame the challenges and became a confident, empowered woman.
“The important thing is I went through all those challenges and so can you,” she said. “Confidence is a gift you can give yourself, if you don’t believe in you who else will believe in you?”
Zuo explained international students tend to either integrate, assimilate, marginalize, or isolate.
“Where do you want to be? I want to be here,” Zuo said as she pointed to one of the four boxes she had drawn on the whiteboard marked “integration.” She continued: “I don’t’ want to forget where I am from because it is a beautiful place, but I want to know what is cool and what’s fun here too.”
One method of integration emphasized was participating in undergraduate research. Last year the UW received over $1 billion for research in grants and contracts, placing it second, behind John Hopkins University, in top universities receiving research and development funding.
One Chinese freshman, Xue Li, admitted she wished she was more integrated, but truly belonged to the marginalized category.
“I am trying to go to the integration part, but my friends are mostly Asian still,” Li said. “When I am talking to an Asian I feel like the possibility of being friends is bigger. I need to have more courage to make friends.”
Wu, who is a Mary Gates research and leadership scholar and has researched in a chemistry lab since her freshman year, said research is not only a way to learn and expand your horizons, but it is a way to socialize with both American and foreign students.
“We have a lot of fun,” Wu said. “Imagine 20 chemistry nerds at a bar at the same time. We do some crazy stuff.”
The two students, Wu and Zuo, stressed the importance of having fun and getting involved.
“Academic experience is very important, but that is not the whole picture,” Wu said. “It isn’t enough to have just a good GPA. It’s important to have activities.”