Alfred Sunaryo’s parents tried to get him to stay in Indonesia because of President Donald Trump’s “anti-immigrant” rhetoric.
Sandhiya Karunagaran feared leaving her friends and family in Malaysia.
Kaoru Ro looked forward to a newfound independence, but was nervous about being lonely and missing China.
Yi Wu wondered if he would enjoy studying in the U.S. instead of China and whether or not it would be worth it.
Pedro Henrique Koeler Goulart was scared of being alone in a foreign country instead of at his home in Brazil.
From simple worries about Wisconsin’s winter, to serious fears of adjusting to a new culture, University of Wisconsin’s international students face a variety of challenges when coming to the U.S. for higher education.
“Back in my country we think Trump is kind of crazy.”Alfred Sunaryo
This semester, international students were met with an additional challenge: Coming to a country whose leadership has been outspokenly anti-immigrant.
With a travel ban aimed at countries with Muslim-majority populations, the rescinding of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and the failure to adequately condemn white nationalists after violence in Charlottesville, many have speculated the Trump administration would make international students hesitant to study in the U.S.
Is Trump influencing international student enrollment?
A survey from the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers found nearly 40 percent of surveyed universities reported a decline in international student applications. According to the survey results, the highest decline in applications was from students from the Middle East, but applications from students from India and China were also impacted.
Other studies, however, have found international student enrollment remaining steady. A report by The Power of International Education found that 165 universities reported there was no single trend across the U.S. when it came to international student enrollment.
Despite national worries, international student enrollment at UW remained steady. This year’s freshmen class had 547 international students, only a slight decrease from the 551 international students in last year’s freshman class.
“International students provide an invaluable component to our campus.”Steve Hahn
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Though this year’s enrollment numbers were largely sustained, UW freshman Sunaryo said the political climate was a concern for his parents, and they tried to persuade him not to come to the U.S.
“The political climate is definitely worrisome for my parents, especially because [Trump’s] policies are anti-immigrant,” Sunaryo said. “In Indonesia we have a vast Muslim population, one of the biggest in the world. Back in my country we think Trump is kind of crazy.”
UW sophomore Goulart finds Trump’s rhetoric regarding the travel bans “strange,” as it is custom for Brazilians to be open to meeting different people and different cultures.
“It’s really strange because in Brazil you don’t really have many people who say they don’t like international people,” Goulart said.
But some international students, like UW freshman Ro, were not affected by Trump’s presidency. Ro said the current political climate didn’t impact her decision to study in the U.S.
And while the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers study showed a decline in students from the Middle East, UW actually saw the opposite.
In addition to sustained numbers, Steve Hahn, vice provost for enrollment management, said the incoming class saw an increase in diversity.
In total, UW received applications from 122 different countries for the fall 2017 semester. Thirty-seven of those countries were not in the applicant pool the year before, Hahn said.
Hahn said this is in part due to UW diversifying its international recruitment. UW has always gotten a lot of applications from China, Korea and India, but there has been an increase in applications from Latin America, the Middle East and Africa in recent years, areas that some feared would see a decrease due to Trump’s rhetoric.
“The recruitment that we’re doing in areas that we haven’t been lately, as well as scholarship opportunities for international students, has contributed to our applications increasing and that has led to a strong international community here on campus,” Hahn said.
Another reason UW consistently attracts students from around the world is because of its high ranking and reputation, Hahn said.
UW’s ranking, reputation generates worldwide appeal
When it came to ultimately choosing a university, Goulart looked at a variety of websites with lists of the best universities in the U.S. for computer science, his intended major, and ultimately decided on UW.
For Sunaryo, the number of research opportunities offered was his main reason for coming to campus.
Goulart and Sunaryo are only a couple of the students who picked UW because of its academic prowess.
“The reason [international students] find UW-Madison attractive would be rooted in the excellence of our education, the opportunities for research, our strong national and international reputation, the reach of our name and the fact that we have 400,000 alumni around the world,” Hahn said.
Including upperclassmen and graduate students, UW has a total of more than 4,000 international students from more than 130 different countries and the total number of undergraduate international students has been steadily rising since 2007. UW is also consistently ranked among the top 20 universities in the U.S. for having some of the largest numbers of international students.
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And having a robust international population improves campus as a whole. The diversity international students provide to the educational experience is one of the “hallmarks of a great education,” Hahn said.
“International students provide an invaluable component to our campus and enrich the academic experience for all of our students,” Hahn said.
Though UW has a strong academic reputation and appeals to many international students, these students still face challenges when it comes to adjusting to a new environment.
The challenge of transition
Being half the world away from her home country of Malaysia was an adjustment for UW junior Sandhiya.
“For me, personally, the hardest was leaving behind my friends and family back in Malaysia,” Sandhiya said. “My whole 20 years was back in Malaysia — all the festivals, celebrations, culture, traditions.”
The immigration process was also “scary” because of how far away Sandhiya is from home. The journey itself is a minimum of a day of traveling, she said.
Goulart said one of his main concerns about studying in a different country was he was going to be alone in a country away from his home — more than 4,500 miles away.
“The way people talk and have conversations and the way things are taught in class, the whole atmosphere, it’s very different.”Sandhiya Karunagara
Apart from his aunt, who lives in New Jersey, the rest of Goulart’s family is in Brazil. He said his aunt helped make the transition of moving into college easier by helping him buy the necessary school supplies and preparing him for the Wisconsin winter.
“In Brazil, if you wear a shirt, you’re good for the rest of your life, but here you actually have to put layers of clothes,” Goulart said.
Goulart said many of his international friends don’t have any family in the U.S., which makes the transition even harder since it’s unrealistic for parents to take time off of work to help students move in.
In addition to the hurdles involved in simply traveling to the U.S., international students also have to adjust to a different culture when they get here.
Sandhiya said she is comfortable with the education system here, but it was a challenge for her at first.
“The way people talk and have conversations and the way things are taught in class, the whole atmosphere, it’s very different,” Sandhiya said. “People will just speak up in class, but in Malaysia people are more reserved. In the beginning getting used to the whole environment and being able to get out of my comfort zone was the most worrying, just adapting to a new culture.”
For Sunaryo, the language difference didn’t make adapting to the new culture impossible, but it was a small obstacle. Sunaryo wasn’t accustomed to the slang on campus.
Goulart didn’t find language to be a barrier for him and feels comfortable with English, but he had trouble writing essays.
“What I think was a barrier was that I’m not good at essays, not even in Portuguese,” Goulart said. “I was really glad they had the English as a Second Language program.”
Campus services make adjustment easier
International students who come to UW all take a reading and writing test which places them in the correct ESL course. The students complete the series of courses until they reach English 118 — the equivalent of the Communication A requirement.
“[The ESL program] was very helpful to me in terms of academic learning,” UW sophomore Wu said.
Beyond academics, International Student Services provides a number of programs to welcome international students into the campus community.
ISS staff provides assistance concerning visas and related immigration issues, ISS director Roopa Rawjee said in an email to The Badger Herald. For instance, ISS offers advising and workshops to help students navigate changing immigration regulations.
“In addition to providing orientation for new international students, ISS provides a variety of programs to support the transition to life in the United States, intercultural competence and co-curricular development,” Rawjee said.
ISS is constantly working to serve international students and meet their evolving needs, Rawjee said. She said she is currently in the process of assessing the students’ needs and the services ISS provides.
New summer program provides additional support
In an effort to ease the transition for international students even more, UW’s summer term created the International Student Summer Institute — a four week academic and social program designed to introduce freshmen international students to university life, associate director of the ESL program Gail Ibele said.
“Many schools do something like this where they have a special program for incoming international freshman to do two things: orient them to the university as a whole and help them begin working on their academic skills,” Ibele said.
The hope was that students who took the summer course would be able to move up a class in the fall, Ibele said, and the students who worked hard did in fact move up a class.
Ibele was involved with the academic portion of the program, where students learned how to read critically and efficiently, write an academic paper, find outside sources, properly cite sources and avoid plagiarism.
Sunaryo was surprised by how seriously the university takes plagiarism because it’s not emphasized as much in Indonesia.
The class explored two themes: The Wisconsin Idea and adjusting to university life. Students explored these two themes with reading, writing and discussion, Ibele said. At the end, students had to write a short research paper about one of the two themes.
On the social side of the program, students went kayaking, canoeing, explored State Street and shopped at Target, administrative specialist Maiya Weber said.
“We had a lot of very positive responses [from the students] saying that this is one of the best experiences they’ve ever had in their life.”Maiya Weber
Sunaryo, one of the students who participated in the program, said the program helped him get used to campus environment and adjust to the culture shock. Sunaryo said he was surprised by how much walking students have to do on campus
“We don’t do too much walking back in Indonesia. I do it all the time here, and it’s pretty tiring,” Sunaryo said. “My legs haven’t adjusted yet.”
Students also learned about the academic resources on campus, such as ISS and the Writing Center, as well as meeting with University Health Services to learn about the mental health resources available, Weber said.
“One of our biggest concerns was how these students were not only handling their transition to American academic university life but also the transition of leaving their home country and coming somewhere completely different and also balancing the academic load,” Weber said.
The program had 25 students from nine different countries.
Overall, Ro said the program helped her get used to campus, become familiar with the college lifestyle and allowed her to easily meet other students.
“I got to meet really good friends [because of the summer program], and they are my closest friends right now,” Ro said. “Summer program was the most effective transition for me.”
Ibele said she believes the students who participated in the summer program had an advantage because they understood academic expectations, were familiar with campus resources and developed a core of friends.
In the future, both Weber and Ibele said they’d like to see the program grow and have more students participating. Weber said she’d like to see at least 50 students for the next summer, and hopefully eventually grow the program to 100 students.
“We had a lot of very positive responses [from the students] saying that this is one of the best experiences they’ve ever had in their life, which is obviously great to hear for a brand new program,” Weber said.
As students become more integrated with UW’s campus, they also start to adopt more aspects of American culture.
Part of the reason Sandhiya came to the U.S. was because of her passion for global experience. Still, Sandhiya said she wants to embody her Malaysia roots. She said it’s important for international students to adapt to the American culture but not completely change their identity.
“Bring the differences you can bring,” Sandhiya said. “We have a whole different experience and perspective as international students. We can contribute that.”
Wu echoed these sentiments.
When Wu came to campus from China, at the beginning he said he wanted to learn everything American. Eventually, however, Wu found a balance between the culture he was getting introduced to and the Chinese culture.
“I really like the situation I am in now. I understand what is going on in the [American] culture but also I’m keeping my heritage of Chinese culture,” Wu said. “Instead of being pure American, I want to be international.”