International students face challenges coming to America

Note: This is the second in a three-part series on international students and recruiting efforts at Wayland, presented during International Education Week, Nov. 14-18.

PLAINVIEW – When the typical American student decides to attend college, the process doesn’t have to be very daunting. They choose a school, take entrance exams, apply and enroll. If need by, the entire process can be done in a few days, and the scenario is a familiar one at Wayland Baptist University each semester as students make the last-minute decision to enroll.

But for students outside the United States, there is no such thing as last-minute. Attending college in America is a process that takes months of time and plenty of paperwork and perseverance. The goal is enough to make the work worth it.

“When you’re out there, the U.S. is a far away, unreachable place,” said Maureen Coutinho, a sophomore from Comoros in Africa. “To me, (coming to the U.S.) was undoable. It never crossed my mind that I’d actually come here.”

A criminal justice major, Coutinho followed her older brother, Daniel, to Wayland after he reported a positive experience here. The family had learned about Wayland from American missionaries in Comoros, and sought more information. The island nation has no universities, and the public schools only go through the ninth grade, so Maureen had attended her secondary schooling in France. She wanted to come to the U.S. as well, knowing the esteem that came from an American education.

“The degree commands respect wherever you go,” she said.

Once she decided to attend Wayland, Coutinho said she was able to take her SAT exam in France. But the application for her student visa to the U.S. had to be done back in Comoros, then 10,000 miles away. Though time-consuming and expensive, the trip to obtain the visa was successful. Trouble would come, though, when Coutinho got ready to leave for the U.S.

The day she was to leave, the airplane was oversold and a riot broke out, meaning Coutinho had to go back home. The missionaries suggested another route to America and she purchased another ticket (losing the $3,000 invested in the first ticket) to leave the next day. Impending volcano eruptions nearly grounded the planes, but Coutinho made it out OK, arriving in the U.S. on Sept. 9, 2003, several days after the fall term had begun.

The visa process was the most harried experience for Priscilla Edwards, a Wayland graduate who now works in the admissions office. A native of Barbados, Edwards said she arrived at the U.S. Embassy office at 6 p.m. and got in line with about 100 other people.

“It took me six hours to talk to the right person and cost $225 to get the interview,” she recalled. “They want to know where you’re going and you have to have all your paperwork done. You tell them how long you’re going to be gone and then they give you a visa that’s not for a long enough time.”

The long lines continue once students get to the airport, and Edwards recalls being able to bring only two 70-pound suitcases, a carry-on bag and a purse. Customs took awhile and the trip was many hours as well, but Edwards took it all in stride, knowing the reward was on the other side.

Coming on an athletic scholarship as a pentathlete and an academic scholarship as well, Edwards said studying in the U.S. was key to being able to get a good job once she returns to Barbados. The educational system there is so different and the only university is so small that it is highly competitive.

“There are not many jobs there after you finish your education, so you usually need more education,” she said. “Most people made fun of me for wanting more education and not following the normal route people take: getting pregnant, being broke and in low-paying jobs.”

Edwards earned her bachelor’s degree in business in 2003 and her MBA in 2005 and is working at Wayland for another year before she plans to return home and perhaps start her own business.

Getting a leg up in the job market was also incentive for Sergiy Oliynyk of the Ukraine, who came to Wayland as a freshman in the spring of 2005. A decathlete, Oliynyk wanted to be able to study, run track and have the American education experience, all things he is currently enjoying.

While leaving home for college is difficult enough for any student, international students find the transition tougher. They are many miles from home and, often, the expense of a plane ticket is too much to make regular visits. Many end up staying their entire three or four years without a visit to their family, making homesickness rampant.

“About the first two week here I was having fun, then I started really missing my family and friends,” Oliynyk said. “The time seems to go by so fast now, and I’m busy with classes and track practice, so I don’t get too homesick anymore. (The transition) wasn’t easy but it wasn’t as difficult as it could be. I met other students who spoke Russian and that helped me.”

Being away from home in a strange place ties many students together, even if they are from different countries.

“Essentially, they become a family of their own, no matter how many countries they are from,” said Debra Sherley, international student advisor at Wayland. “They cling to one another, and when one of them leaves, they grieve as if losing a family member.”

Culture shock is another issue international students must face, with many finding America – especially Plainview – to be far different from what they expect. Markose Chenthitta, a freshman from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, was one of several international students who were surprised by what they found.

“Everyone there sees America like New York or Los Angeles; they don’t think of the agriculture in America like what is here,” Chenthitta said. “Of course, a lot of people here don’t know the world either. They don’t know where Dubai is and they think all of the Middle East is a war zone.”

One thing most international students agree upon is the difference in climate.

“The weather here is really random. It’s hot one minute and the next it’s raining,” Chenthitta laughed. “I’m used to really hot weather most of the time. It is cooler at night (at home) but not like this place. This is like Alaska to me.”

“I thought Texas would be hotter, but it’s not. It’s brown and flat,” said Coutinho with a smile. “I come from a tropical island where it’s green and lush.”

The food is another area of difference, as American food tends to be much greasier, and portions larger, than in most countries. Most students have found the diet hard to get used to but cope the best they can.

Another common belief among the students is the friendliness of the West Texas region. For a few, it’s even taken them by surprise.

“Everybody is very friendly and it’s easy to communicate with them,” Oliynyk said. “I heard it’s more common for this area than in the rest of the United States. I live in a big city in Ukraine and if you don’t know people, they’re usually not very kind to you.”

Countinho agreed, adding that after spending two years in France – not known for its warmth – she found the open friendliness a welcome change.

Chenthitta, who finds many similarities between America and his native country of Dubai, is enjoying the experience all around, a sentiment most international students share.

“I like Plainview. It reminds me of home – it’s quiet and peaceful,” he said. “I’ve met a lot of new friends and have learned a lot, too!”