Enders spent his sophomore year in Athens and has now returned as a senior, continuing to study sports management. He’s enrolled at Ohio University as part of a dual program with his old school, and he said he loves the feeling of an authentic American university.
“I think it’s really (an) unfiltered American experience here,” he said. “It’s a vibe like a music festival because everybody is young and just wants to explore themselves and have fun and have a good time.”
Creating a home away from home
Enders came to the U.S. with short notice both times, which meant he did not participate in the international student orientation. Enders said the university provided him with resources such as advice on what he should bring and where he can buy items in the U.S., but otherwise he relied on the friends he made.
“My roommates helped me out greatly,” Enders said. "That's the coolest part actually. They helped me out with everything.”
Enders said he was particularly interested in studying in the U.S. to broaden his horizons and was intrigued by what he saw in movies. He said he has not been disappointed, pointing to block parties and everyone wearing OU clothing as things he had seen through Hollywood.
“Everybody's just itching to get a good experience,” Enders said. “Especially, for instance, the move in weekend. Everybody's just all smiles and excited, like, ‘Hey, what's going on here?’”
Roshni Ashiq, a grad student studying health communication, arrived in the U.S. with an open mind. Having earned two degrees in public health, she had already experienced the workforce and knew how she wanted to make a difference.
Ashiq worked in a tertiary care hospital for two years where she was mainly focused on pediatrics. Although she had an enjoyable experience, she felt pulled to the communication side of medicine to connect communities with vital resources they might not have known about.
The way Ashiq ended up at OU was a little unconventional. The Higher Education Commission of her home country of Pakistan had just begun a scholarship program for PhD studies. Ashiq applied and received the scholarship to continue with her studies in public health. Once she was approved for the scholarship, the committee recommended OU. Ashiq said that she had her sights on Scripps College of Communication due to the good reputation and rigorous course load.
“Scripps College is so far one of the best colleges when it comes to communications,” Ashiq said. “I wanted to do it, but I never knew that I would actually be able to do it– it was a dream come true thing.”
Ashiq said she has had a great experience at OU thus far, most notably enjoying the opportunity to teach a class. In the second year of her program, she taught the Fundamentals of Public Speaking and Communication Among Cultures. She admitted that at first, she struggled with the language barrier and American cultural norms as she is now, but she has created an established rapport with her students and has learned a lot over time.
Additionally, Ashiq has loved making friends from all around the world. Not only is she meeting a lot of new people from the U.S., but she has also had the opportunity to meet fellow international students.
“Because there are so many international students now, I can say I have so many nationalities as a friend circle, so that is one thing really exciting about OU,” Ashiq said.
Keamogetse Yasmine Khudu, a Ph.D. student studying counseling education and supervision, serves as the president of the International Student Union, or ISU. Khudu hails from Botswana, and said being a part of ISU has allowed her to connect with other international students and build a new home.
ISU is an umbrella institution for 18 student organizations such as the African Students’ Union and Indian Students’ Association, each representing a global identity found at OU. Khudu said one of her favorite things about ISU is its ability to connect students in its network. ISU hosts events specifically for international students, such as the upcoming trip to Columbus on Dec. 3, but Khudu said her favorite events occur when international students are celebrated at a university-wide level.
“One of my favorite moments was during the homecoming parade, and just seeing so many of us from different parts of the world holding our country flags, that means a lot,” Khudu said. “I feel like at that moment all eyes are on us. Everyone is wearing white and green and all that, the OU colors. Those flags bring something else, they just bring that beautiful pop of color.”
Diana Cahill, the director of International Student and Scholar Services and the interim director of the Office of Global Affairs, said the university celebrations of international students are initiated by student organizations.
“One of the things the students and I have been talking about, or at least in the ISU with the group, is the idea of trying to figure out ways to really make sure that we’re highlighting the students themselves,” Cahill said. “What I mean by that is trying to make sure that we’re not just saying, oh, cool outfit or their music’s neat or the food is good, which it all is, but that’s not why they’re here.”
Khudu said there is nothing she loves about her experience in the U.S. more than feeling like the international community at OU is truly interwoven into the fabric of the university.
“Those are my favorite moments, when we are celebrated, when we are recognized, when we are seen, but also, when we are heard.” — Keamogetse Yasmine Khudu, a Ph.D. student studying counseling education and supervision
“(When) we hold those spaces where we can talk about our issues, those are the moments that I actually look forward to. I don’t want to be all about events and happiness, I also want to address issues that will affect us.”
Land of the Fee
For Enders, the hardest part about studying abroad is explaining Athens to his German friends and family. However, for international students who spend their entire undergraduate or graduate career in the U.S. rather than participating in an exchange, there can be more frequent difficulties.
To study abroad, students are required to have American visas. There are two main types of U.S. visas. The first are nonimmigrant visas that indicate a person is traveling to the U.S. temporarily. The second type are immigrant visas, which are for people who will be living in the U.S. permanently.
In order for international students to study in the U.S., they must apply for student visas. To do so, they have to already be accepted into their higher education institution or program.
The U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs’s website allows for students to select a U.S. Embassy or Consulate in their home country and view wait times for visa interview appointments. An interview at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate is required for people between the ages 14 and 79.
Before the interview, one must purchase the $160 application fee and gather additional documents and documentation such as a passport, the nonimmigrant visa application, application payment receipt, a photo and other forms sent by the school a student plans to attend. A consular officer conducting the interview could also ask for documentation including but not limited to academic transcripts, previous standardized test scores or their financial plan for moving.
A student visa can be issued as many as 120 days prior to the start of a program. However, international students are not allowed to travel to the U.S. on their student visa more than 30 days before the start of their study. This can make for quick planning. Enders said for his first bout in the U.S., his visa came just three days before he flew across the world.
Upon arriving at a U.S. airport, a student can still be denied entry into the country, which is a decision made by officials of the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Costums and Border Protection.
Khudu’s student visa only allows her to be employed through the school. However, OU caps student work hours to 20 per week, to ensure students prioritize their schoolwork during the semester. The cap on student work hours is a result of federal regulations, Cahill said. But during breaks, which the university considers to be during summer and winter, the cap increases to 36 hours, which was decided by the university, as there is no federally enforced limit during those periods.
“There were regulations around when an employer had to offer their own insurance,” Cahill said. “And so that cap, it’s like when you switch from part time to full time, and so students were working 40 hours a week on average for a year (and) they would be eligible for employee sponsored insurance.”
If students work more than the caps allow, they violate their immigration status and risk being deported, Cahill said.
However, International students still have bills to pay and they all add up.
“We have to pay rent and the living expenses can be too much, or a bit expensive,” Khudu said. “That's another issue that we tried to kind of talk about, but also sometimes I feel guilty because I'm like, you know, they're paying for my school, my tuition and I'm working for them. But sometimes, even trying to afford rent is a little bit difficult.”
Khudu said most students she knows often utilize school resources such as Cat’s Cupboard and they are also able to use the same resources as domestic students. Khudu said many international students also get health insurance through the school, which is an additional expense.
According to the OU International Student and Scholar Services’ website, the U.S.’s lack of universal healthcare means students either have to pay out-of-pocket for medical costs or use health insurance. However, OU already requires students to have health insurance.
The Health Insurance Policy is provided by United Healthcare Student Resources and is automatically charged to students’ tuition, according to the Student Health Insurance website. It costs a premium of $1,071 for the 2022 Fall Semester and will decrease by around $30 for the Spring Semester, according to the university’s Student Health Insurance website.
“A lot of students are coming from countries where there’s universal healthcare,” Cahill said. “Coming to a country where you go from universal healthcare where you walk into the clinic or the pharmacy or whatever and you just get what you need to a place where there’s many layers, many options, many impacts—it’s really intense.”
Another issue that arises is when international students, especially graduate students, begin to get paid for their jobs.
“Your pay as a graduate student or even as somebody working at the institution,” Cahill said. “The first payroll date is often about a month after students arrive because of just the way all of the processing works.”
The wait for payments to enter students’ accounts makes it difficult to meet payment deadlines and afford basic necessities.
“The other day I was sitting with a group of friends from different parts of Africa talking about how we came here for school and you know, life is full of struggle, so we have to kind of accept it,” Khudu said. “But sometimes I disagree with that because I cannot accept it if every single month after I receive my stipend and I pay all my bills and stuff, I'm so sad that I'm like, ‘What am I going to eat?’”
Khudu said some international students also send money to their home countries, which can cause additional financial stress.
“We have to figure out how do we pay for rent, how do you pay for certain expenses?” Khudu said. “Some people send money home to family, to parents, to the kids, so imagine having to save $100 after paying rent and paying insurance. And then you're like, how do I survive?”
Resilience in relocation
Some international students may help provide for their families, but most miss them, particularly those who complete the entirety of their degree abroad.
Enders said he gets caught up in the semester, in meeting others and in the many experiences he has, which minimizes how much he misses his family. Perhaps this is why Khudu said summer is the loneliest time of the year. With plane tickets back to Botswana priced between $1200 and $2000, traveling home is difficult, and she said she feels especially homesick when Athens dies down in the summer months.
However, throughout the year, there are always pieces of home students wish they could find. Khudu said she particularly misses the food, especially given there are few options for African cuisine in Athens.
She said sometimes she dines at African restaurants in Columbus, but the hour and fifteen minute drive mostly only brings restaurants from the opposite side of the continent from Botswana, not her homely comfort foods.
Jisoo Jin, a freshman studying international relations, said he was looking forward to enjoying authentic Japanese food from home. He said there are not a lot of places to satisfy that craving in Athens.
Ashiq is on the same page, saying that the only thing she misses more than her family is food.
“I tend to have to travel so far to actually even get like a spice from home,” Khudu said. “Or someone who's coming from home I ask them ‘hey, can you bring this box of spices or bring me this?’”
When people are able to visit, it is often few and far between. Khudu said many international students have family members in the U.S., but they are often states away. She has no family in the U.S., and the lack of familial faces in the same time zone can be particularly lonely when she’s missing home.
Khudu said missing one’s family can be particularly aching for students with children. She said she’s had conversations with international students who have kids still living abroad, describing sorrowful phone calls with kids confused about when their parents are coming home.
On top of missing home, the adjustment to a new culture can be jarring. Living in the U.S. also means adjusting to the social issues here. Khudu said one particularly tricky learning curve was understanding microaggressions, especially when they applied to her.
“I have faced a lot of microaggressions and sometimes it's too late to pick it out,” Khudu said. “I go home and I'm like, ‘what is that about?’ And then my American friend will be like, ‘yeah, that's a microaggression.’ I wouldn't pick it up quickly, because I'm not used to that where I'm from, so it’s another thing that you have to quickly be aware of.”
Similar to Khudu, Ashiq has also faced microaggressions. She said although none of them have been extremely serious, the toll builds up over time, creating a very hostile environment to live and work.
Ashiq recounted an incident when she was walking down Court Street with a friend when a man walking his dog passed them. The dog started to suddenly bark at Ashiq.
“That guy told me very explicitly to my face, ‘Oh yeah, he does not like Brown people, that’s why he’s barking,’” Ashiq said. “I think I’m very resilient, and I usually am not offended by these statements because I know these are a part of every culture.”
While international students frequently face these incidents with resilience, these adjustments, especially without familiar support systems, can become mentally exhausting.
“Now that I'm aware of what a microaggression is, I tend to sit down and kind of dwell on that which sometimes really can affect my mental health,” Khudu said.
Mental health can also be impacted when there is turmoil at home. Khudu said it is difficult when students cannot fly home for funerals or to say goodbye to loved ones. She added it was even more harrowing when there is a large-scale issue at home, citing the protests in Iran, the war in Ukraine and the Taliban’s control in Afghanistan.
“How can a student concentrate in class or even send in an assignment when they're on the phone all night with their parents trying to see if everything is okay? That’s heartbreaking to even think about.” — Keamogetse Yasmine Khudu, a Ph.D. student studying counseling education and supervision
Ashiq has a different perspective when it comes to keeping up to date with the news of her home country. Even when she was back home, she chose to not consume news and media about recent tragedies.
“I would not watch much news for two reasons,” Ashiq said. “First, because it would make me depressed. Second, I think that they always would be highlighting the negatives more than the positives because I still feel that even though all the turmoil is going on, people need that hope and positivity, and the media has a very big role to play in that which I felt was missing.”
The university does offer some emotional support for international students. Recently, OU Counseling and Psychological Services hosted a support space for Iranian students given the violent protests in their home country. The event took place Nov. 8 via Teams meeting from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. with the intention of providing a space for affected students to share their feelings. While this was a valiant effort on the university’s behalf, it can be difficult for international students to feel comfortable seeking professional help.
“Yes, we do have some resources here on campus, but some of us are from cultures where modernized counseling is not really our thing,” Khudu said. “So it takes a while for us to really reach out for help.”
Khudu is studying counseling, and noted she therefore has a good understanding of the importance of therapy, but said seeking counseling services was difficult even for her.
“Growing up I've been taught to be resilient, be strong, you know,” she said. “So having to sit down and talk to a stranger about my feelings can be hard.”
Spaces are being created for international students to communicate with one another to share similar experiences. Counseling and Psychological Services, or CPS, Cahill said, is leading some of these groups and can bring students together.
“One of the things students have said is that they’re already talking to each other,” Cahill said. “But sometimes they don’t want to talk about the reality of what’s going on because they don’t want to put that burden on their friend. But their friend actually understands what they’re going through."
In Athens, it is easy to get caught up in the bubble. Often, local things take precedence in students and staff’s minds because of their immediate relativity to the environment they are in. However, Khudu said she wishes there was more attention to events happening abroad, particularly from the university.
“We recognize that when things are happening back at home, yes, it might be far from us right now, but there’s definitely members who are experiencing that,” Khudu said. “A lot has been happening and I feel like the school hasn’t done anything yet.”
Instead of generally communicating about an incident in another country, Cahill said she prefers to reach out to different organizations and check on the students.
“I just think people need people. I’m sure that the statements because it does help with the other students to understand what’s going on and helps the faculty. I think those things are important. However, for me, I actually really want to make sure that the people are okay.” — Diana Cahill, the director of International Student and Scholar Services, interim director of the Office of Global Affairs
“I just think people need people,” Cahill said. “I’m sure that the statements because it does help with the other students to understand what’s going on and helps the faculty. I think those things are important. However, for me, I actually really want to make sure that the people are okay.”
Although there are different resources and offices for international students to reach out to, there are still students who hope to see more.
Khudu said she wishes there was an easier way for international students to voice concerns to the university, and more of an effort made to make international students feel heard.
“It goes back to creating a space where students can sit at a table and talk to the president of the school and say, ‘Hey, this is what we need right now from you, as our president, because you are hosting us as international students,’” Khudu said.
International students work through many hurdles in addition to the general stresses of being a college student. Even with the extra work and effort many of them have to do, Khudu said sometimes there is a feeling of being left unseen in the general university sphere.
Khudu said it can be difficult to balance acknowledging international student issues with a sense that they should not be complaining with this opportunity.
“You feel so stuck between being appreciative and then also feeling like you're being let down,” Khudu said. “I want us to be included because again, we bring a lot of rich diversity to this university. And I'd like us to feel like yeah, we are part of the university. I want to push for our existence to be recognized here as part of the Bobcats, not only during International Week, but every day.”