The U.S. currently has about 210,000 international students, about 1 percent of the total U.S. college student population, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE), a nonprofit that studies international students.
Having been an international student myself — in Singapore and currently, at the University of Washington — I believe foreign students have a lot to deal with, apart from language barriers and cultural differences. These challenges tend to lie under the radar and seldom are addressed openly.
Higher tuition; more workload
Firstly, international students pay higher tuition, yet they tend have a higher workload. It means that these students have to get their degree as soon as possible. Every minute they spend in the U.S. means money. At major universities, the tuition difference is up to three times more than the in-state rate for students. Therefore, failing a class not only means costly tuition, but also extra living expenses.
Unfortunately, major universities and colleges require these students to take ESL classes in addition to their normal curriculum (except those who meet the English proficiency requirement). Therefore, some international students need to handle a higher workload at the same time. Additionally, these students have no freedom to take fewer classes when they find out that one of their required classes is too demanding. International students must register for a certain amount of credits each quarter or semester.
“Sometimes I just want to take fewer credits and focus on one of my core classes,” Tiffany Chen, a UW junior from Taiwan, said. “I really wish that I had the option to choose how many credits to take.”
Difficulty blending in to American culture
David Chan, also an international student at UW, said that he felt left out when he talked to his American classmates because they talked about different topics. Indeed, these foreigners are not ostracized in the sense that local people refuse to talk with them. In fact, we usually find ourselves chatting with local people on superficial topics because we have a different sense of humor and values.
On one occasion, Chan had a group meeting with his American classmates when they were working on a group project. Someone told a joke about Uncle Sam and everyone laughed. He didn’t know who Uncle Sam was and had no knowledge of U.S. history at that time. Simply laughing as everyone did was the only option he had to cover his ignorance, Chan said. As a result, many foreign students mingle with friends who speak their language and end up isolating themselves from American society.
International students don’t see their families often. This means that we don’t have people to turn to when we run into serious matters because our parents and siblings are thousands of miles away. My American classmates always ask me about my plans for major holidays. They always find it surprising that I don’t do anything during the holidays, especially winter vacation. They forget that we don’t have family nearby and it’s not practical to travel home every year. As an international student, learning how to combat homesickness is a prerequisite to living on one’s own. We would like to spend Christmas with our families, too. However, frequent traveling home is not cost-effective and few students can afford to do so.
These students usually spend their holidays with friends from student organizations, who are also international students. Student organizations at major universities serve as surrogate families for international students who can’t spend their break time with their family. For example, the Singapore Student Association, commonly known as SSA, is a student organization at the UW that offers fellowship among Singaporean students.
Making a transition back home
Most importantly, deciding between returning home or making a new life here after graduation is a dilemma for many international students. After spending a tremendous amount of time adjusting to life in the U.S., the thought of experiencing culture shock after returning to our home countries daunts many students. Some already experience culture shock during their home visits in the summers, after spending a year in the U.S, according to data from the IIE.
Additionally, the U.S., on average, offers higher pay and better working conditions than many countries where most of the international students come from.
“It was a tough decision for me,” Tony Hung, a UW alumnus told me. “I wanted to be around my family, but I won’t be making as much money working for someone in my home country. It really depends on what you value the most.”