It was last September and all the international students were gathered for “coffee-time,” where they could meet and socialize with other international students. One international student from Paris showed up with her fellow Parisians to attend the event. Finding not many people there, and being treated almost as a child, she waved her hand, said “Bonjour, I’m Victoria,” and soon left.
Struggling to find a voice within the student population and stumbling through cliques of well-spoken Americans, the experience of the average foreign exchange student entails much more than a nametag and a hello, as was the case for Victoria Cohen, a business and marketing major from Paris.
While the program is meant to introduce foreigners to life in America and expose them firsthand to the American education system, just getting here isn’t enough. According to these international students, the struggles were threaded from start to finish, ranging from misunderstandings with professors to serious communication obstacles.
“There are lots of things wrong, for instance, from my school, we have the opportunity to go [abroad] for one year or six months. So we thought that for a whole year at school we would have access to everything, but we don’t,” said Cohen. “We’re not really involved in the life of the school, and it’s a shame because we’re here for the whole year. But that’s the way it is. They don’t even respond to you.”
One of the biggest difficulties for these international students is trying to be more involved on campus, but with busy schedules and a language barrier, it proves to be a serious obstacle.
“I haven’t attended any campus activities,” said Hilal Avci, a health and nutrition major from Istanbul. “To be honest, there is nobody who helps me while I am here. I have a brother who lives here in NYC and we spend a lot of time together. When I have difficulties with homework or exams, I generally go to the Learning Center or friends. When I first got to the U.S. I didn’t speak English that well, so it was difficult for me to communicate with people and make friends. So, I felt alone.”
Though there is not much in terms of outreach for these students, the Office of International Studies is working to develop some programs in order to better integrate the students.
“We have an international studies club. I don’t know if the paperwork is through yet, but the idea of starting it was brought up last semester,” said Oleksander Loyko, an administrative assistant at the international studies office. “As long as there is no employment involved, they should be allowed to join clubs. There is a student activity fee which is also paid by international students, so they have a right to join any club they want.”
The aspect of employment is another obstacle for these students. As they are not legally allowed to work in this country without proper paperwork, including visas, according to the Department of Homeland Security. This creates a lot of pressure in terms of living expenses.
“The general problem is that the education is very expensive for international students compared to domestic because every student pays out-of-state tuition no matter how long he or she have stayed here,” said Loyko.
“This is the hardest thing, especially financially,” said Avci. “You have loans, scholarships and FAFSA, but we have to pay double for each credit, plus living expenses, and it’s sometimes too much. I never thought of how expensive it would be living here in NYC as an international student.”
One thing all of these students had in common was their wish to be more involved in campus activities and be more exposed to American culture.
“Maybe they could do some stuff to get us involved. I understand not being involved in the big stuff because we’re only here for a year, but nothing?” said Cohen. “I don’t think that’s nice. America is all about people from all over, especially Brooklyn College.”
Academic policies are an important aspect of the foreign exchange experience, as they have strict regulations on credit requirements. Falling into two classes, F-1, who are students staying the full course-load to obtain a degree from Brooklyn College, and J-1, exchange students staying only the duration of a semester or year.
“Their status is completely different here in this country. They cannot withdraw from classes because one of the requirements to remain at F-1 status, is to be a full time student,” said Loyko. “So they have to be enrolled for at least 12 credits, undergraduate and nine credits graduate. Sometimes, you’re authorized to withdraw, but there is a lot of paperwork and headaches. If they do not tell anybody that they withdrew from a class, but they did, and they go below full-time, they’re status is terminated.”
These policies make it incredibly difficult if they want to drop a course or are failing, as it not only affects their academic studies, but status in this country. If they violate these policies, there is the possibility of termination and they will have to return to their home country.
However difficult, there are options the international student can look into to try to save their status.
“People transfer out or in, they can also go below, usually during the first year, you can go below the full-time course load,” assured Loyko. “You can sign a form that says the student has struggled, most of the time because he or she is unfamiliar with the American approach to education, or the system, or had trouble with language. So you could be given credit and that is a legitimate excuse.”
Language still being the most difficult hurdle, it has restricted these students from American assimilation more than anything else.
“The people were really nice and helpful who were around me, but I always felt there was a lack of communication because of my English,” said Avci. “ I am a social person who likes talking and spending time together with friends, but when I was here, I felt like I was the only person in the world. I just couldn’t talk or communicate and that was the only thing that stressed me a lot.”
As with every challenge, there will be struggles and these students are not always focused on the negatives.
“A great thing here at Brooklyn College is the approach of the professors to the international students,” said Avci on the brighter side of her experience here at Brooklyn College. “I can say that if I had trouble with professors, especially in my first semester, I would have never stayed here in the U.S. To be in a different country can make your life difficult and if you also experience trouble in school it makes your life harder. So the best thing here was the professors.”