Passporting To Prestige: The International Student Experience At Elite U.S. Colleges

A look into the experiences of international students studying at American universities.

International Student Experience At Elite U.S. Colleges
Photo by Markus Leo on Unsplash

Top universities across the U.S. admit a certain number of international students and domestic candidates each year, reaching almost all seven continents. We will take a look at the international student experience at a top university and how the transition process affects these students’ lives.

Moving to an entirely foreign country for the most formative years of a young person’s life can damage their sense of self as students and individuals. Today, Ivy League universities have about a 5% admission rate for international students, while the rate for domestic students hovers around 4%, but that varies per school. Top schools, in the Ivy League or not, generally share these same statistics. The selectivity of top U.S. universities is a modern phenomenon millions of students around the globe try to understand yearly during the college application process. But, how do these international students actually feel once they’ve arrived at American colleges?

International Student Experience At Elite U.S. Colleges

In this article, we uncover the stories of two Yale students who were admitted to various other Ivy League institutions and top universities. Understanding their lived experience can aid future students in the process and possibly inform the general public of the cultural shock of living and studying internationally.

Looking at their stories

“The cold and the early sunsets definitely took some getting used to, as did getting used to living a 19-hour flight away from home,” said Yale University sophomore Eesha Bodapati.

Eesha is from Mumbai, India, and moved to the U.S. just over a year ago when she arrived at her dorm at Yale. Unfortunately, this future cognitive scientist and definitive change-maker could only visit home 2 times last year. Eesha Bodapati could not visit her family on shorter breaks, such as Thanksgiving, due to the distance of arriving home. While thousands of domestic students were taking a train or plane back to their home states at least 4 times an average academic year, Eesha was staying in New Haven, CT — the home of Yale University.

Alex Yu, a fellow sophomore at Yale University, shared the same sentiments as Eesha, as he calls Hong Kong home. Alex could also not return home for Yale’s shorter breaks, but his reasons were due to Hong Kong’s strict 7-day quarantine policies and the associated excessive quarantine costs.

“International students also have to worry about logistical issues that our American peers may be unaware of, from Visas to taxes to difficulties with finding internships and jobs. Traveling for upwards of 20 hours with 3 suitcases is also never fun,” the future economic and data science major said.

The advantages of an American education

For these two students, however, the pros outweigh the cons when it comes to moving across the globe. According to Eesha, the “flexibility” of U.S. colleges was eye-catching.

“The Indian education system is strongly modeled after the U.K. one, and as someone who wanted to be able to explore more than just my primary area of study, the U.S. allowed me to do that,” she said.

Both students mentioned wanting to improve their independence by leaving their home countries. In addition, Alex commented on how universities in Hong Kong had “very homogenous student bodies,” and he was interested in meeting people from different ethnicities and identities.

International Student Experience At Elite U.S. CollegesInternational Student Experience At Elite U.S. Colleges
Harkness tower. PHOTO PALOMA VIGIL

When asked about the differences in academics between his two options, Alex replied, “Universities back home have very rigid academic programs, meaning you have very little choice on what classes you take — you simply have to complete the required courses for your major. I love exploring different subjects and disciplines and a U.S. liberal arts education offers this freedom to learn as I please.”

The inherent flexibility and vast world of opportunities of American education has attracted millions of students yearly.

American culture shock

Immigrants to the U.S. of all kinds have experienced the notorious culture shock that comes with moving to a very capitalized and unique country. Likewise, many students have reported feeling like they have been Americanized while studying or living in the states.

For Alex, adjusting to being a minority on campus has taken a while. According to Yale University data, the enrolled student population at Yale University is 38.7% White, 16.2% Asian, 10.6% Hispanic or Latino, 6.53% Black or African American, 4.92% Two or More Races, 0.249% American Indian or Alaska Native, and 0.124% Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islanders. Alex says that many people can be ignorant of this fact at his school, but it rarely ever comes out with malicious intent.

Eesha has also felt some cultural shock while adjusting to American university life. Eesha specifically mentioned that she can’t work off-campus jobs, and she can only get a 2-year extension of her student visa if she wants to stay in the states post-grad to work on her STEM studies or internships.

Nonetheless, the two Yalies have thoroughly enjoyed the plethora of opportunities they have been presented at Yale.

It is important to note that the notion of the American dream has persisted through the lives of these students. Each comes to the United States with a different vision of their education, but each vision has one thing in common: the search for more opportunities that they feel their home countries cannot provide enough of. The American dream lives on through their stories.

Paloma Vigil

A Miami native, Paloma is an avid traveler eager to put pen to paper and describe all of her adventures. Her favorite way to experience new places is with a fork in hand. Whether it is a tapas snack in Spanish bars or freshly caught raw fish delicacies in Japan, she is always ready for the next bite. Her dual Cuban-American identity drives her to explore how cultural differences can bring people across the world together in unexpected ways. She is always seeking to find innovative ways on approaching global interconnectedness through travel.

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