What obstacles do Hopkins international students face?

By CLAIRE GOUDREAU | November 7, 2019

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CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 International students recall the challenges of studying at Hopkins.

Over the past three years, the international student community on Homewood Campus has nearly doubled. This year’s incoming class was 14 percent international. When this year’s graduating class arrived on campus, that number sat at eight percent.

Living outside of their home countries, these students can face challenges as early as the application process itself that their American counterparts often never have to consider.

Finances

According to sophomore Serena Chan, an international student from Hong Kong, most international students do not apply for financial aid. They fear that if they ask for financial aid, the school might reject them outright, she explained. 

“There’s a perception that it’s harder to get in as an international student because the application body is much bigger than it would be in just students from the U.S.,” she said. “[The process] was not need-blind, so it would encourage people to not apply for financial aid because that could possibly lower your chances of getting in.” 

The University states that its admissions policy for international students is need-aware, meaning that a student’s financial circumstances are considered as part of their admissions process. 

Junior Cindy Choi, who was born in South Korea before moving to Shanghai, agreed with Chan’s characterization. 

“Applying for financial aid pretty much ensure[s] that you will not get in,“ she wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

The University also reports that only 10 percent of international students receive financial aid as compared to around 50 percent of the general student body. 

This results in international students often paying more for college than American students, Chan said, edging out the less affluent applicants. 

Junior Lily Daniels, an international student from Canada, wrote in an email to The News-Letter that when she arrived in Baltimore, she discovered that the Hopkins Federal Credit Union requires students to provide a Social Security number to open an account.

As a Canadian citizen, Daniels does not have a Social Security number. 

“I have struggled quite a bit in terms of trying to get an American bank account,” she wrote.

In order to get a Social Security number, Daniels would have to visit the Baltimore Social Security office in Mt. Vernon. Because the office is only open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays and closed on the weekends, she would have to skip a day of classes to go.

As a result, Daniels has been forced to use prepaid debit cards as her main payment method for the past few years.

Visas and Work Permits

Last semester, junior Vinicius Lepca, an international student from Brazil, found his immigration status imperiled by a summer internship program he had joined. 

The program had accepted Lepca without first placing him into an actual internship. This proved problematic when he went to fill out his paperwork, as he was required to demonstrate a link between his internship and his primary course of study for his work authorization. Lepca tried to connect the internship to his minor, but learned that minors were not sufficient. 

In the end he got his work authorization. The process, however, had disappointed Lepca. 

“I feel like part of college is changing what you’re interested in,” Lepca said. “I could see a situation where I get a good internship but then, ‘Oh, you can’t do it because it’s not related to your major.’”

For other students, simply getting into the country can sometimes prove challenging.

Although he has had no trouble renewing his visa since arriving at Hopkins, junior Junyao Li, an international student from China, has had such issues in the past. 

During his senior year boarding at an American high school, Li was denied reentry into the United States from China.

“I went back home for spring break, and then my visa expired, and I did not get it back until a month later,” he said. “I missed school for a couple of weeks.”

Cultural Differences

While visa issues and missing documentation for banks are experiences which are mostly unique to international students, international students also struggle with homesickness and cultural adaptation to a heightened degree relative to their peers. 

Dacia Gauer, the director for international students at the Office of International Services (OIS), explained in an email to The News-Letter that international students often report having issues adapting to American life.

“Some of the common problems we hear about are adjusting to food options and the American diet, acclimating to the individualistic nature of the classroom environment that rewards personal achievement and missing family and friends from back home,” she wrote.

International students often cope with these problems by getting involved in cultural, ethnic or religious groups to meet people from similar backgrounds. 

Junior Faris Almaari, an international student from Saudi Arabia, transferred to Hopkins earlier this year. For him, being able to meet other Muslim students through the Muslim Student Association made his transition easier.

“I remember I attended Friday (Juma’h) prayers during orientation week. It comforted me that I interacted with people who share a similar identity,” he said. “It helped me during my first weeks to meet other students outside the classroom.”

In order to better respond to the needs of international students, the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) has recently appointed Emily Hickey to the new role of assistant director of diversity education and international student engagement. 

The position was developed in order to demonstrate the University’s commitment to the specific needs of international students.

In an email to The News-Letter, Hickey shared her hopes to use her new position to give international students a platform to share their experiences.

“International students’ stories being heard is a critical first step in successful support. International student stories will shape what the future of international student support looks like at Hopkins, not only for students gathering in community today but for years to come,” she wrote. “It is my hope to build a strong network of international student leaders.”

This year also marked the first year that OMA was involved in orientation for international students, giving presentations, workshops and panels that covered cultural adjustment and immigration regulations.

OIS

The organization on campus that bears overall responsibility for supporting international students past all of these hurdles is OIS.

According to Gauer, OIS strives to help students navigate the often murky waters of living abroad.

“It’s quite common for immigration matters to involve a lot of gray areas where there isn’t a simple answer. In those cases, we try to help the student understand all of the factors involved and how different options will impact them, and help them determine the best course of action for their situation,” she wrote.

However, some international students complain that OIS does not do enough.

Junior Cindy Choi, a Chinese resident with South Korean citizenship, wrote in an email to The News-Letter that OIS has repeatedly let her down.

“I live in China but am not a citizen, which means I have to go to Washington DC to get a Chinese visa every semester, and OIS does not offer any help with these kinds of services,” she wrote. “Figuring out a way to get my Social Security number after getting an on-campus TA job was also difficult and took way longer than it should have, particularly with the confusions regarding the inability to file for tax exemptions.”

Likewise, Li says that OIS has not given him any help. He assumes this is because he went to high school in the U.S.

“I have no interaction with that office at all. I think it’s that they think I’m not international enough,“ he said. 

He added, however, that he has figured things out well enough on his own and is fine without OIS’s help. 

Gauer stressed that OIS does its best to aid international students in whatever ways they can, but that the Office is always looking to improve based off of student feedback.

“If they’re unhappy with a particular service we offer, we want to hear about their experience,“ she wrote. 

English as a Second Language

For many international students, English is a second or third language. Coming to an American university means taking classes entirely in English with English-speaking peers, a challenge that some international students initially have trouble with.

Li reported that when he first arrived in America for high school, learning English was one of the toughest hurdles.

“Coming in I understood maybe 50 percent of the language, but it definitely got better, especially after a couple of months when you have to speak and everything is in English,” he said.

But even for students more proficient in English, having conversations can be tricky.

Lepca said that when he first arrived at Hopkins from Brazil, he could not always communicate at the level he wanted.

“The first month or so was a little awkward. I wanted to say something, like maybe crack a joke, but then I didn’t have the right timing,” he said. “I would think about it, but then five seconds are gone, and then I’d miss it.”

Why Hopkins?

Despite all the challenges they face, many international students say that it is definitely worth all the hassle. 

According to Lepca, studying in the United States rather than in Brazil significantly broadens his professional horizons.

“[There are] opportunities that I wouldn’t get if I were back home, especially for my major. Computer science is starting to get a little bit bigger in Brazil, with startups and everything, but when you think of all the big tech companies, they have offices in Brazil, but they only do sales there. I would not get anywhere close to what I’m getting here,” he said.

For other international students, universities in the U.S. offer areas of study which are unavailable back home.

Junior Faris Almaari explained how important this was to his decision to come to Hopkins. 

“One of the greatest opportunities I got here was learning Hebrew,” Almaari said. “I’m learning more about Jewish people, about Judaism, about Israel. That’s part of why I came here.... I wouldn’t find this opportunity anywhere, as far as I know, in the Gulf.”

International students also seek out American universities for a sense of prestige and name-recognition.

Sophomore Serena Chan, an international student from Hong Kong, explained that by choosing Hopkins over equally competitive universities in Hong Kong, she was getting a more valuable degree.

“These schools, whether it’s in the UK or the U.S., have a global recognition. It allows you to basically be recognized all over the world if you have their diploma,” she said.

Still, for others, like Choi, the problems facing international students at Hopkins cannot be overlooked.

“The administration is genuinely disorganized and fails to effectively communicate with the students. A lot of the times, such disorganization causes frustrating complications for students, and it does feel like that the school simply neglects the specific problems of international students,” she wrote.

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