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A world away: A personal narrative about one international student experience

University programs assist international students in their transition; some fall short

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A world away: A personal narrative about one international student experience

University programs assist international students in their transition; some fall short

Back then, everything was difficult.

Getting a visa, opening a bank account, speaking with my roommate, making friends, finding a place to live, obtaining anything I needed to live and adjusting to American culture were all more difficult than I had ever envisioned.

I am an international student. I've been in Arizona for about 13 months now.

After attending Hongik University in Korea for two years, I transferred to ASU with dreams of studying communication and understanding schools of thought I had never been exposed to.

I thought if I studied in the U.S., I would have gained new experiences my home country could not offer.

I quickly learned those experiences would not be easy.

Everything here was different from the Korea I lived in; everything was challenging for me and made me feel increasingly frustrated and depressed.

One day, I went to open a bank account. I sat in my dorm room and watched videos on YouTube to learn how to go through the motions.

The terminology used here is different from what I knew, and I didn't understand the American banking system. I used an online translator and dictionary to open a bank account, but instead of feeling some form of relief, I was consumed by further frustration.

I always wanted to ask for help, but I didn't know who to ask or how, so my life in America was full of suffering and loneliness.

Most of my roommates were also international students; there was a language barrier, so I could not get proper help from them even if I wanted to.

My roommates and I tried to understand and help each other, but there was a limit to how much we could support each other because of our different cultures and ideas. None of us knew much about American systems of any sort.

In the end, after much effort, most of the difficulties I encountered were somehow solved. But if I had received the help from someone who knew the U.S. well, I would have been able to solve problems more easily.

I am not alone in my frustration.

Despite the long stretch of sea and land between the two countries, the U.S. is home to one of the highest number of Korean diaspora.

And now, international students from more than 130 countries are studying at ASU.

Existing pillars

Among ASU's efforts to listen to and assist international students is the International Student and Scholarship Center — or ISSC. The center regularly sends emails to international students to try to assist in their transition, but many international students, including myself, pass up this help unknowingly amid so much change.

According to Daniel Hoyle, the director of the ISSC, center staff work to facilitate and support the success of international students while they are in the U.S.

The center's core goal is to ensure the compliance of international students and visiting scholars with the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, he said. The center works to assist these students with academic integration, cultural adjustment issues, leadership development and any other support they may need.

The center supports international students in communicating on a daily basis through services such as a walk-up counter service, phone calls, emails, live chat and appointments. The ISSC also offers a variety of activities to support international students and scholars from around the world.

These programs aim to support ASU international students and scholars in a holistic fashion. Many of these events include collaborations with other offices across campus.

For example, there are International Student Orientations that collaborate with new student programs and International Student Engagement, success at ASU conference, ASU's Global Leadership Academy, global peer mentor program, first-year global connections, international scholar fall festival and more.

Students are encouraged to share their experiences through surveys and interactions. As the staff learn more about their experiences and needs, they work directly with students to design processes and programs to support their experiences and help them achieve their goals at ASU. ISSC has staff members proficient in 20 languages — including Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Korean — to provide translation services for them.

Student experience

The help most international students get from the ISSC is visa-related. International students receive a student visa, F-1, when they come to ASU, and they receive information and assistance on this visa.

When international students return to their home countries for vacation, they need to renew their visa documents and I-20 information when they return to the U.S. If they do not renew, international students face many disadvantages, including not being able to return to the U.S. to study at ASU.

International students must apply for Optional Practical Training, or OPT, to work in the U.S. after graduation. Both processes can be done with the assistance of the ISSC, which includes advising on what documents and preparations are required to apply for OPT.

However, many international students are unaware that such a program exists, and in some cases, they are not informed of the need to stay on track with immigration requirements.

Gon Cha, an international student majoring in global management, participated in ISSC's first-year global connections meeting. Cha reminisced about the opportunity to meet students of all backgrounds and mentioned a close friend whom he has maintained a relationship with even now, three years later.

He added the event not only allowed him to make friends but also helped him to understand the cultures of different countries.

Yong-ho Seo, an international graduate student majoring in computer engineering, has participated in a similar conversation program hosted by ISSC in the past.

The program was a one-hour event where he could freely communicate and talk with domestic and international students. He said he took part in the program last fall for a semester, but due to isolation brought on by COVID-19, he did not have many opportunities to speak with native speakers.

During the semester, thanks to this program, he's been able to relieve a lot of fear around speaking English.

According to ASU English instructor Erik Johnson, for international students, learning English can be quite challenging. Most international students have studied English for many years prior to their arrival at ASU, but the quality of the English language programs they attended varies greatly. Even with the very best language programs, if there are not enough opportunities to practice English, progress will remain slow and challenges will persist.

Most students are quite nervous about these challenges when they arrive at college in the U.S.; this can cause them to avoid discussions and conversations in English both in and out of the classroom.

Sookja Cho, an associate professor of Korean and comparative literature at ASU, said, in terms of grammar, Korean and English have very different forms.

"Because different cultures have different ways of thinking, the Korean language has developed around verbs, and English has nouns and prepositions," Cho said. "Therefore, in order to learn a language and to use it properly, it is necessary to understand the culture."

Cha was very satisfied with the ISSC program, but he said he also wanted the ISSC to do more.

He said that he would like the ISSC to host more active programming. For example, he said he wished that the ASU's ISSC would have a program where the U.S. could feel a little more familiar to them, such as introducing international students to festivals where they could feel the U.S. or introducing football to them by going to see a game together.

Cha said he came to America when he was in middle school and had a lot of trouble adjusting to American culture at the time. So, he thought that such a program was necessary for other international students to adapt well to the U.S.

Many international students, myself included, moved to the U.S. to study, unaware and underprepared for the culture shock to come.

When I first came to America, I was reluctant to converse in English. I spoke nervously, reluctant to express myself.

Eventually, I was able to improve my English and make friends who created an environment receptive to my growth. There is much more to learn, but every history lesson and cultural experience adds richness to the way I communicate.

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