Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.

Abroad in America: The unique opportunities and barriers faced by international students in the U.S.

When American students study abroad, the experience is short-lived, often treated like a vacation. For international students who travel to the ASU for college, the circumstances couldn’t be more different

leah story.jpg

Abroad in America: The unique opportunities and barriers faced by international students in the U.S.

When American students study abroad, the experience is short-lived, often treated like a vacation. For international students who travel to the ASU for college, the circumstances couldn’t be more different

This year, thousands of college students will choose to embark on the “once-in-a-lifetime” experience of studying abroad. Here in the U.S., it’s common for some students to take semester-long or year-long excursions around the world — a highly coveted opportunity for those looking to broaden their horizons.

At ASU, studying abroad is advertised as a way for students to “enhance their education”; it “prepare(s) them for meaningful careers.” Spend a few moments browsing the Instagram page of ASU’s Global Education Office and you’ll quickly get the idea. Its account is filled with tales from students brave enough to venture far and wide, outside their comfort zones.

Despite universities’ marketing efforts to entice student interest in global education, fewer than 3% of undergraduate students in the U.S. take advantage of studying abroad, according to the ASU Global Education Office. 

At ASU, the numbers are similar: data from the Global Education Office says 2,651 students studied abroad in the 2018-2019 academic year, representing just under 3% of the University's undergraduate population at the time. The Global Education Office has not updated its enrollment statistics on its website since the 2018-19 year.

Here in the West, the idea of going to a different country and immersing yourself in foreign cultures is romanticized through social media and the entertainment industry. TikTok and Instagram influencers document their time abroad with lavish clips of dreamy excursions, wild parties or thrilling romances.

When students outside the U.S. choose to study in America, however, their experience is often a far cry from the romanticized excursions Americans typically equate with study abroad programs.

“I wanted to study abroad, but not specifically at ASU,” said Brian Jacob John, a sophomore studying applied mathematics. “It was one of the universities that just happened to accept my application.”

According to ASU’s International Students Admission page, the University is the “No. 1 public university chosen by international students.” ASU utilizes its International Experience page to promote both its success in innovation and its proximity to Phoenix as factors international students should consider when deciding which U.S. university to attend.

John, who is from India, believes his home country’s educational system is more “bookish” compared to explorative math programs in the U.S. — a difference that influenced his choice to study abroad. But he also knew the financial barrier to education would be much steeper in the U.S.

“Monetarily speaking, this is a much more intensive financial investment compared to if I had stayed back home,” John said.

In the 2021-22 academic school year, 15,293 international students attended ASU, a 17.5% increase from the previous school year, according to the University. Despite the growing numbers of international students across the entire University, John said the non-Tempe campuses have smaller international student populations. “I go to ASU’s West campus where there aren't a lot of students, and even fewer international students,” he said. 

Compared to the Tempe and Downtown Phoenix campuses, West campus is one of ASU’s more sparsely populated campuses, making it difficult for students to make friends and immerse themselves in ASU’s culture.

READ MORE: Lost in orbit: Experiencing ASU from its satellite campuses

Financial instability is one of the most strenuous burdens on international students' shoulders.

Unlike some international students, John considers himself privileged to have family who can pay for ASU. “I get scholarships too, but they don’t do nearly enough to cover the cost,” said John. “I’m on one of the highest paying scholarships.”

John, like many international students, is a recipient of a New American University Scholarship, which he said grants him $15,500 per academic year.

“It’s nice that ASU wants to help with some of the burden, but compared to conversions back home, (the scholarship) amounts to much more than what they offered.” John said. “I paid a lot to come here.”

Visas, employment and financial aid

Although ASU offers plenty of resources meant to aid international student success, some students have reported experiencing setbacks despite the ongoing initiatives to acclimate to the American lifestyle. One recent poster on ASU’s subreddit, for example, asked why “almost all of the food service workers (are) Indian.”

Many users replied with context about international student visa limitations. Students who come to study at ASU are required to fill out I-20 forms for an F-1 visa.

I-20 forms prove to the government that an international student is legally enrolled in a course of education in the U.S., while an F-1 visa allows a student to enter the country.

“Visas are really tough for international students,” said Yujin Bae, a junior from South Korea.

The F-1 visa is crucial for ensuring international students’ legal enrollment in U.S. education programs, and it comes with some restrictions. For example, international students can usually only work on-campus jobs during their first year abroad — though there are some programs which allow exceptions.

READ MORE: A mere 17 and a half years

“I’m double majoring, and I personally want to pursue my career in supply chain more than marketing,” Bae said. “But some international students are not provided with (Curricular Practice Training) opportunities in some majors.”

CPT is a form of off-campus employment for students with an F-1 visa. A CPT allows international students pursuing specific majors to complete internships and gain experience in their field of choice, depending on the requirements and opportunities specific to the school’s curriculum.

The authorization process for a CPT is lengthy, requiring passport information, filing an additional I-20 request and waiting up to 10 days for the application to be reviewed before students must apply for a Social Security number. 

“Supply chain doesn’t have CPT programs,” Bae said. “One of my friends was offered an internship, but wasn’t able to do it because accounting majors are not provided with CPT.”

According to Bae, students still attending the University, or those who have graduated, can seek job opportunities through Optional Practical Training, or OPT.

OPT provides students who have graduated opportunities to get experience in their field of choice, which gives individuals a pathway to obtaining an H-1B visa by giving them time to find employers who will sponsor their visa.

In recent years, under 30% of people who applied for H-1B visas were approved.

“All of my friends got rejected this year. I’m currently looking to see what jobs I can get, but a lot of them don’t accept OPT or CPT,” Bae said.

Because of this, international students are disadvantaged in the job market compared to students from the U.S. Although ASU has received praise for its ability to integrate international students to campus life, paying for basic necessities tends to be a common obstacle.

“The Norwegian government gives me a mixture of a loan and stipend,” said Kathrine Langen, a senior studying kinesiology. “But obviously it only covers the academic side. Everything I do outside of that has to be paid out of pocket.” 

Langen, who currently holds a senator position for Undergraduate Student Government Downtown, believes the university job has been beneficial in filling that financial gap. “I’m not getting the best pay as a senator, but it’s still helping,” Langen said.

Langen was already familiar with American culture prior to college, having participated in a high school exchange program in Nebraska in 2016.

“I knew if I wanted to thrive as a person, I had to move away from Norway,” she said.

Scholarships are one of the most common ways for international students to afford ASU. Because these students generally do not qualify for federal or state student aid, many rely on merit-based opportunities, such as the New American University Scholarship, or private scholarships that do not require U.S. citizenship in their eligibility criteria.

Like John, Bae is an international student who received the New American Scholarship. “Out-of-state tuition is really high,” Bae said. “But ASU’s scholarship covers a third of the cost.”

Although ASU’s decision to raise out-of-state tuition has put many international students in a bind, Bae is among the more fortunate individuals who participate in study abroad. “The company my parents work for also provides an incentive for my schooling,” Bae said.

Compared to South Korean colleges, ASU’s tuition rate is relatively similar. “I felt the cost was okay,” Bae added. “I also work on campus, so I get just a little bit of money from that.”

Beyond undergrad

While much of ASU’s international student population tends to be composed of those seeking an undergraduate degree, students from around the world are invited to pursue both master’s and doctoral degrees at the university.

“It was really nice to meet people from different cultures,” said Syed Hassaan, a fifth-year ASU student studying mechanical engineering. “The research here is more cutting-edge than other places in the world.”

Hassaan, who is originally from Pakistan, saw Arizona’s dry climate as another positive factor in his decision to attend ASU. “The weather is very similar to my hometown,” Hassaan said. “I was (more) interested in coming here than other places in the United States.”

Similar to the undergraduate process, the graduate enrollment process requires international students to provide lots of information prior to acceptance. This includes visa documentation, such as the I-20 form and a student visa, a nonrefundable application fee, and providing proof of proficiency in the English language.

Although Hassaan has experience being a college student outside the United States, he still notes the financial differences between Pakistan and America were the most difficult adjustment.

“The cost of living (in Pakistan) is substantially cheaper than in the U.S.,” Hassaan said. “When I came here for my master’s degree, I had to take care of expenses on my own for the first time. My savings from Pakistan adjusted to United States currency was challenging to fit my expenses to.”

Hassaan, who will be graduating this semester, plans on staying in the United States after completing his degree. 

“The work here in the U.S. is vastly more advanced than anywhere else,” he said. “The research I’ve done for my degree is far more applicable in industries here than other countries.”

The growing job pool and wide-range of graduate opportunities in the United States tends to be what draws international students most. An Tran, a senior from the Lake Havasu City campus studying psychology, plans on pursuing her graduate degree on the east coast. “I was already accepted into a clinical mental health master’s program in Washington, D.C.,” Tran said. “It’s going to be a pretty big move for me.”

Despite Tran’s achievements throughout her four years at ASU, she still believes the strenuous paperwork process was the most significant burden throughout her time as an international student. “Handling everything for international students requires a lot of effort,” Tran said. “The process prevents a lot of prospective students and delays their plans.”

Though this obstacle remains, there are resources for international students to take advantage of before deciding to pursue an undergraduate or graduate degree. On ASU’s International Student Admissions webpage, those looking to pursue their education at ASU are able to converse with current international students “ready to answer any student life questions.”

A small bio providing information about the current student’s name, home country and major are provided. Both Tran and Bae are ambassadors, offering help to anyone interested. 

“I thought it’d be fun,” Bae said. “When I was a freshman, I found it hard to get through the year. I knew nothing about the United States or its culture.”

When the International Students and Scholar Center first reached out to Bae, she felt inspired to ease the transitions of any international students attending ASU.

“I felt I could give a lot of help to internationals like me,” Bae said. “I don’t get paid for the position. I’m just answering questions and sharing my experience with other students.”

Edited by Sam Ellefson, Alexis Moulton and Camila Pedrosa.

Reach the reporter at and follow @leahmesquitaa on Twitter.

Like State Press Magazine on Facebook, follow @statepressmag on Twitter and Instagram and read our releases on Issuu.

Continue supporting student journalism and donate to The State Press today.

Subscribe to Pressing Matters



This website uses cookies to make your experience better and easier. By using this website you consent to our use of cookies. For more information, please see our Cookie Policy.