Isolated: International UB students not integrated
Siheng Wang has spent four years as a UB international student but has never celebrated Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July.
Mingi Jin used to sit in his South Korean high school classroom and daydream about American college life and all the American friends he would have when he went to UB.
But after four years here, the junior chemical engineering major has never had a meal with an American student or been to a UB football or basketball game. “I don’t really have any American friends, they’re just classmates,” Jin said.
He came to UB hoping to become “more American,” lose some of his shyness and perhaps find a job in the U.S. after graduation. But it hasn’t worked out that way. Although he can talk to students in class, he doesn’t know what to say to them in the halls, how to connect socially or get invited out.
“Students like me need more help interacting with Americans,” he said.
International students are flocking to UB to get an education, polish their English and learn about American society, yet many are leaving without ever having a first-hand experience of American habits, holidays or culture. Some never even make an American friend.
UB President Satish Tripathi credits international students, who make up 17 percent of UB’s undergraduates, for bringing diversity to campus. Yet, a look around campus shows a visible divide between domestic and international students in the libraries, at lunch and in the dorms.
“The split is obvious,” said Ian Carson, a senior economics major. “You can tell when you walk into the union, the library, wherever. International students or people from the same country tend to stick together, while all the other students from here make new, American friends.”
UB has seen a 500 percent increase in international students since 1996 and has made a lot of money having them here. That’s because international students pay more than three times what domestic students pay to attend UB.
And yet, UB has invested little to help these 4,321 students adjust to American university life.
“The school needs to play a much larger role in integrating the students,” said O’Brien Welsh, a British political science major who graduated in 2016 and who now attends law school in Amsterdam. “I am sure a lot of students at UB want to make friends from around the world. The school just hasn’t – or refuses to build that bridge between them.”
UB officials insist they have been trying to build bridges, but integration is not happening as naturally as they expected. Their philosophy has been to offer programs to all students and to assume that international students – like domestic students – would figure it out on their own.
Students say it’s not working.
But now, UB may have incentive to try harder.
President Donald Trump’s tough rhetoric about immigrants and Muslims is making some international students fearful to come to the U.S. Universities across the country are scrambling to accommodate and reassure international students that they are welcome and safe and that their U.S. experience will be positive.
The Spectrum has spent two years following international students to understand what services UB offers once they arrive on campus. The Spectrum has found a group of 14passionate educators who work in the International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) office and operate five irregularly-run and lightly-budgeted programs geared toward international students. The programs are: In Focus, BRIDGES, ISSS trips, ISSS workshops (on topics like taxes, filling out immigration documents and driving) and weekly International Tea Time.
None of the group members, nor administration, could give The Spectrum a budget of how much UB spends on integrating international students once they arrive on campus.
“There is no activities budget dedicated solely to international students anywhere at UB,” said Ellen Doussard, assistant vice provost and director of International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS).
That may soon change.
Last October, a task force of professors and administrators wrote a 160-page report that outlines the problems UB is having integrating international students both in the classroom and on campus and makes roughly 50 suggestions to enhance the international student experience.
So far, the report remains theoretical; the university has committed no additional money to helping international students integrate.
“A process is underway this semester (to conclude by June) to determine how the recommendations in the task force report will be implemented,” said John Wood, senior associate vice provost for International Education, in an email.
Stephen Dunnett, vice provost for International Education, whose office commissioned the report, admits that UB needs to work harder to help international students integrate.
“I think for any school that is going to receive students from abroad and to charge them a pretty steep tuition, and international students pay quite a bit more than domestic students, then there is some obligation to provide them with something extra and to help them make this successful adaptation or adjustment to living and studying or working in the United States,” Dunnett said.
Welsh has a blunter assessment.
“The school seriously has to do more to enhance the experience for internationals,” he said.
Devashish Agarwal, a junior computer science major from India, thinks language and cultural barriers contribute to the separation between international students and domestic students.
“A lot of times international students are very shy in trying to engage American students or even students from countries other than their own because that would mean talking in English and not their native language, which can be very uncomfortable for a lot of people,” Agarwal said. “They stop trying and start staying with their own small friend groups.”
The majority of UB’s international students come from China, India and Korea. The current class of international students – 1,648 undergraduate students and 2,673 graduate students – comes from 14 countries.
UB recruits these students heavily and pays the $149,176 salary of full-time recruitment officer, Joseph Hindrawan, the assistant vice provost of International Education. Hindrawan’s salary does not count his travel budget for recruitment or the money UB spends on events to recruit students abroad. The Spectrum tried to get those figures, but the university would not release them.
“It used to be somewhat worth it before because [tuition] isn’t as high as other schools but these days tuition is getting increased unreasonably,” said Jin, the South Korean student who dreamed of having American friends. “So now I think they should offer us a better system for learning English and having international social meetings.”
Megan Lin, a senior marketing major from Taiwan, was born in Albany, New York and then moved back to Taiwan with her parents when she was a year old. Since she is younger than 25 years old and her parents currently live in Taiwan, she has to pay the international student fee, although she is a U.S. citizen.
“On top of that I have to pay the domestic student insurance since I was born here,” Lin said. “It’s so much money and I don’t think being here is worth that much.”
International students each pay $48,964 tuition – about twice as much as in-state students pay. Add airfare, housing and living expenses and international students pay about three to four times as much as New York students. Their tuition payments total close to $71 million, or 10 percent of UB’s $716 million operating revenues.
UB international students also boost Buffalo’s economy. In 2013, that boost totaled $194.3 million, according to a report by NAFSA: Association of International Educators. Other universities – like Boston University and Florida Institute of Technology – have, like UB, taken in large numbers of international students and seen similar economic benefits to their universities and their communities. But, these other universities have invested in stronger integration programs, more counselors and better post-graduation assistance than UB has done.
To Welsh, who spent four years at UB, the answer is obvious.
“The school needs to play a much larger role in integrating the students,” Welsh said. “I can tell you that when I went to Amsterdam on exchange, the Exchange Student Network (ESN), got us from the airport and made sure we were involved in so many different activities aimed at integration and fun.”
ESN pushed him to join clubs and regularly checked in on his progress and sense of integration. The university, he said, made him feel like he belonged.
“If not the school, then who? In most cases, [international students] do not have family, they do not have friends, it's sometimes too difficult or expensive to communicate with people back home. They're in an environment where everyone already has their clique and breaking into these cliques or circles can be quite difficult,” Welsh said.
Jin Chen, who graduated last May with a degree in accounting, came from China to attend UB in 2012 and wanted to get to know American students. She joined an ISSS trip to Canada that was open to international and domestic students.
Chen had hoped to get to know American students on the trip, but she didn’t know how to start a conversation. She felt shy and unsure how to integrate with the American students and she said no one facilitated that integration or helped her begin to talk. The American students also seemed less interested in seeing Canada than she was. She overcame her shyness and made an effort to talk to them, but the connection fizzled.
“It was fun to go to Canada, but all of the American students just wanted to drink and we don’t really do that,” Chen said. “It was nice to speak to them but we are just so different.”
UB administrators feel integration is largely personal and up to the students.
“I would say that we offer a lot – some things are just out there and available so if students take advantage of them we can only encourage them to do that. Some do, some don’t. If they do, they have a very strong American experience,” Dunnett said.
Chen did try. But she didn’t succeed. Now, her friends are Asian, mostly Chinese, she said.
ISSS offers about 10 trips similar to the Canada trip Chen went on each semester and attracts 10-30 students – most of them international – per trip, said Chris Bragdon, the International Student Advisor and Coordinator for Student Engagement. ISSS spends about $1,000-$2,000 on these trips per semester for busing, according to Bragdon.
The Spectrum tried to get figures for how much UB spends on the other programs, but administrators did not supply the numbers. The Spectrum estimates that the cost for International Tea Time is about $100 per event, or $1,500 per semester.
Bragdon heads BRIDGES, developed in spring 2015 to bring domestic and international students together. But he’s struggling to attract domestic students to the program because domestic students prefer to go on trips with other UB clubs – like Schussmeister Ski Club and Outdoor Pursuits – rather than clubs geared to international students. Dunnett said his office hosts a variety of events to try to appeal to students.
“Sometimes a lot of people come and sometimes no one comes. It’s hard to know what motivates students,” he said.
A divided campus
Jennifer Kumar graduated from UB in 1998 and even then noticed the division between international and domestic students. She decided to work to remedy the problem. Today, she is the managing director of Authentic Journeys, which helps Indian students transition to America. She said newly arriving international students looking for friends are often drawn to clubs from their own countries or cultures, like UB’s Malaysian Student Association, the Indian Student Union or the Organization of Arab Students.
Indeed, at UB, cultural clubs have high percentages of students from the countries they represent.
“These groups can help international students find support among themselves, but can isolate them from Americans depending on how big the groups are,” she said.
Divisions also exist within clubs and sometimes, the international students and the domestic students only mix during events – the friendships don’t go deeper.
Rifts between domestic and international students are visible beyond lunchtime pairings and club memberships; students feel it in the dorms and in the classroom, too.
Governors residence hall is dedicated to Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) and honors students, many of whom are domestic students. Students only have access to Greiner through lottery and apply in February, which leaves out most international students, who often don’t know how to navigate the housing deadlines. South Campus’ Clement Hall, where the dorms are less coveted, teems with international students.
Dunnett said that housing is random and that international students are not purposely grouped together or with domestic students.
Alyssa Izzo, a senior nursing major at D’Youville College who lived in Clement her freshman year, said the language barrier kept her from talking to international students when she was at UB.
“It’s intimidating to approach an international student because it’s usually a group of them,” Izzo said. “I feel like I was segregated from them – sometimes I felt like an outcast, even though it was unintentional on their part.”
Living in the dorms is particularly American and something American freshman look forward to, but many international students arrive at UB unprepared for shared showers, communal meals and loss of privacy.
Mansi Tolia, a senior business major, came from Singapore in fall 2016 and said UB recruitment officers advised her and the 40 other students she came with to live with other international students in the Villas on Rensch.
“A lot of us live in Rensch but the dorms seem like a good way to meet a lot of people,” Tolia said. “I feel like I missed out on something by not living in the dorms.”
UB’s October report on international students highlights their tendency to self-separate and notes that “Asian students are less integrated” than other students. The report says most don’t feel they belong and don’t feel accepted by American peers.
“Most of my friends are from my country,” said Daryl Chong, a senior engineering major from China. “Many of them are from other countries in Asia. I tried to make more friends from the U.S., but it doesn't work very well. I have many people I know, but I nearly don’t have American friends.”
Chenfeng Jiang also doesn’t have American friends.
She came to UB from China expecting to experience college alongside Americans. She thought Americans would find her background interesting and she imagined she would live like the carefree youths she watched on American TV shows.
She didn’t expect to find herself surrounded by Chinese students, speaking Chinese and even eating American Chinese food.
“I don’t really have American friends because they’re hard to find,” Jiang said. “If you join a club or something you can try to make friends but if not, it’s really hard. I don’t really think American students are interested in being friends with us.”
Jiang, a recently graduated psychology major said forming friendships becomes more difficult as the semester progresses.
“The school isn’t very helpful either. The first few weeks they help a lot but after a while you’re kind of on your own to make friends in classes or something. It’s easy to make fast friends that you can have a conversation with, but not on that deeper level. We come from different places and have totally different cultures.”
Tolia, a senior business major who has lived in both Singapore and India, remembers making the decision to go to UB.
She attended the UB campus in Singapore for two years. There, administrators encouraged her to go to the American campus for at least one year in order to have the “American college experience.”
Tolia and 40 other students from Singapore took the 24-hour plane ride to Buffalo in August. At the four-day orientation, for which she paid $95, Tolia happily chatted with other international students, but she wondered where the domestic students were. Those students didn’t arrive until the first day of classes and none seemed interested in her. The orientation taught her how to set up a bankcard and use public transportation. But, it didn’t help her understand how to approach American students or professors or how to equip herself physically or emotionally for her new American life.
When the orientation ended, she and her roommates, all international students, spent 10 hours in Walmart trying to figure out what they would need for life in Buffalo. UB offered no tips or assistance, she said.
Fateh Singh, a sophomore industrial engineering major, is an Indian American with many international friends from India. He said he often has to bridge the gap between his American and international friends.
“First, I think there should just be one student orientation. And I wish there were more groups that were focused on majors because so many clubs and fraternities are cultural,” Singh said.
Other universities work harder at integration than UB does.
Boston University, with an international population of 19 percent, has nine advisers who mainly work on helping international students integrate and adjust. They help students with housing and offer tips on daily living and American life. In addition, Boston University has two international student academic advisers, who focus on making sure students can handle the coursework. This compares to UB’s four advisers, three of whom hold other titles and have responsibilities beyond international students. Bragdon is one of them. In addition to coordinating BRIDGES, he acts as assistant director of student programming. BU is a private school and international students pay $65,110.
Florida Institute of Technology has 33 percent international students and educators there have learned that integration takes work. Tori Leslie, the program coordinator for International Student and Scholar Services, said the school has developed programs to bring students together. But, she admits, it is often tough.
“Domestic students are apprehensive to get to know the international students. That’s why we’ve created programs like Global Buddies and the International Friendship Program. It’s not always a lot of people participating, but the options are there for students,” Leslie said.
The International Friendship Program pairs American hosts with international students and has the American student act as a cultural ambassador for the international student. The American students include the international students in parties, events and holidays and also help them navigate cultural pitfalls like what to wear to a football game and where to grab the perfect hamburger. They also give advice on classes and how to talk to professors or find study partners. Florida Institute of Technology charges students $58,256 per year.
Jin, the South Korean student who has never been to a UB sports game, remembers when his guardian told him about UB and encouraged him to apply. He thought going to America would make him more outgoing and that he would get a pack of American pals, stellar grades and find a sense of belonging within a community. He didn’t realize he would feel isolated and different and that he would become even shyer than at home.
“I always wanted to make American friends but it’s hard, I know we also need to find courage to talk,” Jin said.
He wishes the university would help him.
*Gabriela Julia contributed reporting to this story.
Tori Roseman is the managing editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org