Coming to America — for college


Paola Daza, an AU graduate student who works at ISSS.

Paola Daza moved in 2011 from Bogotá, Colombia, to Washington, D.C., to start graduate school at American University. She had attended college in Colombia and was prepared to face various cultural changes — traveling on a new public transportation system, eating new foods — when she came to America.

Another major change was specific to being a college student: living with a roommate. Daza was used to living with people she knew, but living with someone she had not met before was a new experience.

“Sharing a space with strangers is hard,” Daza said.

Daza was one of 1,470 international students who attended American University this past academic year, according to Kristina Thompson, associate director of intercultural programs at AU’s International Student and Scholar Services. According to AU’s website, its students come from 130 countries.

Several organizations help international students adjust to life at AU, including the International Student and Scholar Services, which has eight full-time staff in addition to student employees like Daza who work part time.

According to Thompson, ISSS makes a Facebook group for incoming  international American University students. At orientation, international students learn about the campus and meet other students. When the academic year starts, ISSS counselors hold individual meetings with students. In these meetings, counselors can help students find groups or activities that fit their interests.

Thompson and other ISSS staff encourage international students to join more clubs than just the ones relating to their culture or ethnicity. For instance, a Chinese student might join the Chinese Student Association on his or her own, but ISSS would urge this student to try other activities as well.

“A bigger role is trying to get those students to branch out from those cultural groups,” Thompson said.

Students can also seek help with their transitions to American college life by seeing a counselor at AU’s Counseling Center. Amanda Rahini,  the center’s assistant director for outreach and consultation, said both one-on-one consultations and group discussions (such as the International Student Discussion Group) can be helpful.

“Meeting American students can be very hard,” she said.

Even though it may be difficult for them at first, international students typically make friends with other international and American students. Daza  said she was able to make friends when she arrived in Washington.

Transitioning to the American academic system can be challenging as well. Rahini said some students come from countries with a very different style of education from America, like Saudi Arabia.  A student may be used to having one exam at the end of the semester, but American University classes often have projects throughout the semester and multiple exams. According to American University’s website, the Academic Core Support Team gives cultural and academic support to international students.

Getting used to being assertive in class is a change for many students coming from cultures where there is a large divide between the teacher and the student. For Daza, a positive change from education in South America was the lack of teacher hierarchy. Daza likes the teaching style at AU and said he has easy access to the faculty.