A day before shopping period, Aaryaman Scindia ’19, a freshman from New Delhi, India, and many of his international friends flocked to their respective Freshman Counselors’ rooms to sort out their doubts — they asked about credits, shopping period and distributional requirements. Many of them weren’t even sure what a section was. Scindia felt that these questions should have been addressed much earlier during Camp Yale.
Before coming to Yale, Scindia was very confused about the academic system and thought the University would do more to explain the system to him. Instead, Yale emphasized the softer aspects of orientation, such as sex, drugs and alcohol training.
Scindia said that his friends at other colleges, like Columbia and Princeton, “had it easier.” They were well acquainted with the basic academic structure and had resolved many of the doubts that still plagued him and some of his fellow international Yale freshmen. Finally, Scindia resorted to asking his upperclassmen friends about academics.
All the academic information is available, but not focused on during orientation programs or the first days of college, said Scindia.
“These are among some fundamental issues that a lot of International students face –issues that should be dealt with properly during Camp Yale itself,” he added.
Ipsitaa Khullar ’19, from New Delhi, India, had a similar experience. Although the Orientation for International Students (OIS) was a good introduction to Yale’s campus and culture, she found the regular freshman orientation following OIS to be repetitive. This time should have been used instead to talk about academic details, she said.
And while shopping period and Yale’s academics cropped up in conversations, this happened mostly in casual contexts and Facebook posts. They were not explained with the detail she had expected.
“Shopping and class credits, which were masked to appear all fun and enjoyable, should have been explained better,” she said. “Had we been given a hint, we might have been a bit better prepared to deal with all the stress.”
While João Pedro Drechsler ’16, a student from Porto Alegre, Brazil and head counselor at OIS 2014, recognized that some freshmen leave OIS with unanswered questions about academics, he doesn’t think this is a concern. He said OIS focuses on practical issues related to move-in rather than school because these need immediate attention.
To Drechsler, the creation of a community and the provision of a comfortable space to discuss American culture is a priority. Such conversations need quality time, whereas the opportunities to discuss academic structures and regulations are numerous. He believes that sex and drugs need personal conversations, and OIS meets this need rather than answering academic questions.
According to Camila Franco ’18, a student from Pilar, Argentina, and counselor at OIS 2015, opinions about international orientation differ according to students’ backgrounds and cultures. For instance, a student from a Westernized city might have more experience with American culture than a student from a comparatively conservative place.
“Not everyone is going to give importance to the same things or enjoy orientation the same way,” she said.
The administration also takes a similar approach, bearing in mind the diversity factor when addressing international students’ concerns. Ann Kuhlman, Director of the Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS), said that since the international community of every Yale class is very diverse, it is impossible to generalize and speak categorically about international students’ needs.
For some students, freshman year is their first time in the United States.
“Students come in from many different backgrounds,” she said. “We are here to fill in the gaps of knowledge.”
OISS aims to create a sense of community, but remains alert to those international students for whom the experience of an American college is new and perhaps uncomfortable, she said. OISS is not responsible for disseminating academic information or information about Yale in general.
Despite these differences, these incoming international freshmen share a common worry: adjusting to life at Yale. Stephanie Siow ’17, a student from Singapore and head counselor at OIS 2015, said this transition is crucial, and freshman orientation is necessary to assure new students and their parents that they have guidance through this phase.
“Most of the international freshmen and parents we met at OIS seemed to be primarily concerned with the immediate practical concerns of move-in,” she said. “But their overall biggest concern, of course, was how to thrive academically and socially at Yale.”
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When Azan Virji ’15, a student from Mwanza, Tanzania first came to Yale, he was pre-med. However, as he learned about becoming a practicing doctor in the U.S., he began to consider other options.
He realized that the prospect of practicing medicine as a non-US citizen was bleaker than doing consulting or finance. Virji said he only realized this after his freshman year, since Yale did not explicitly offer him all the necessary details — which include visa processes and qualifying exams. He added that Yale often does not discuss an unpleasant possibility for international students after graduation: being sent back home.
“Yale was presented to me as a candyland when I first came in,” he said. “Nobody tells you the hard facts, such as the statistics for the number of international students who get turned back to their country after graduating from college in the US.”
He added that he only properly understood the restrictions on his future later, when the novelty of being at Yale began to wear off.
As an international with a limited time in the U.S., Virji felt obliged to be on top of his game. He said that since internationals like him are expected to be fully prepared once they graduate, there is less room for international students to be relaxed.
“There are only two options at the end of the day: either get a job here or go home,” he said. “ And the pressure to find a job narrows down your possibilities to only those companies that are willing to pay for your work visa — often investment banking or consulting … I started looking for other options to combat the fear of going home, since it would hurt going to the most prestigious university in the world and not going anywhere from there.”
Yuki Hayashi ’15, a student from Chiba, Japan and President of the Yale International Students Organization, explains this “candyland” phenomenon: a focus on all the positive aspects of life at Yale, but very little discussion with international students about the reality of their lives after Yale.
This reality includes the logistics of the F-1 Optional Practical Training (OPT) and the often unpredictable H1B work visa process, which international students enter through a lottery after graduating from Yale. According to the OISS website, the F-1 OPT is “a temporary employment authorization [which international students may apply for] that provides an opportunity to apply knowledge gained in the classroom to a practical work experience off-campus.” In other words, the OPT is a way for international students to intern in the U.S., often before they secure a permanent job.
The website also states that STEM majors may be eligible for a 17-month OPT extension to their first 12-month OPT.
“I only learnt about what an OPT was, and what the exceptions were for STEM majors, my sophomore year,” said Hayashi.
Abhijoy Mitra ’17, a STEM major from Kolkata, India, believes that such problems can be avoided. He said that a mandatory orientation for all international freshmen during Camp Yale could serve to clarify questions regarding OPT and OPT extensions for STEM majors. Many students might not even know that an extension exists for STEM majors, he added.
Mitra said that, while Kuhlman was very helpful when he approached her, he had to take the initiative and actively seek her out. He added that the all the information regarding OPTs is “nothing we can’t Google search and find out,” but that it would be useful for OISS to categorically explain all the logistics to international freshmen.
According to Kuhlman, OISS will be holding workshops this fall and spring for international freshmen regarding their summer plans — this chat will include a conversation about OPT, STEM and perhaps H1-B. She added that one or two workshops will be held for sophomores, juniors and seniors regarding their summer and post-graduation immigration options. In addition to these workshops, OISS meets with a number of students individually in the office who want to talk about these matters.
OISS does not have the statistics for the international Yale graduates who finally secure H1B visas to work in the U.S., Kuhlman added.
Despite these efforts to keep the international student body informed, Hayashi remembers that the focus during her first year at Yale was on the “Yale experience”: the excitement of being in the U.S., the academics and social life at Yale and the experience of independence.
She said that the “marketing” during Camp Yale and freshman year — from the lectures given by professors or administrators to the informal chats with upperclassmen and even the casual jokes — is not targeted at international students. But, she added, internationals might be more influenced than American freshmen by the marketing since they have not been exposed to the country’s educational system.
“Some international students have never had to make many of the decisions that they now have to make,” Hayashi said. “Back home in high school, I didn’t even have to individually schedule my classes or buy my own textbooks.”
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During OIS this year, Scindia heard many lectures about how privileged he and his peers were to attend Yale.
“By repeatedly reminding us that we are the elite group of students that had been selected from a pool of 30,237 applicants, they instill in some of us a pressure to appear happy,” he said.
For Kugan Ishwar ’17, a student from Sungai Petani, Malaysia and a counselor at OIS 2015, the pressure to seem happy is strongest at the beginning of freshman year, when students begin to understand a lot of subtle cultural differences. Once they become familiar with American culture, students become more comfortable in their own skin.
A second pressure on new students can also come from their families. Billy Cavell ’17, from Romford, United Kingdom, sees a tendency among some international students to mirror the excitement of family and friends back home — a sense of obligation that “they should probably feel really good about being here.”
“In a lot of ways, how students handle academic and social life is a culture of appearance,” he said.
He added that every student — whether American or international — has the responsibility to challenge this if they’re not truly feeling happy.
Indeed, American students also face some of the same challenges that come with starting college at Yale. To Emily Locke ’19, a freshman from Seattle, Washington, American freshmen must also adjust to a new environment. The resources for drug and alcohol workshops and sex education were very important for students, she said.
“Because in our freshman year, we are all simply not used to having so much freedom.”
Yale Deputy Press Secretary Karen Peart said that while some students come from countries with stigma concerns, many do come to talk about the initial transition.
“The longer international students are in the USA, the more likely they are to feel comfortable in seeking care,” she said.
She said that there is only a modest difference in utilization. They are somewhat more likely than U.S. students to have concerns relating to transitioning to a new country, she said.
Cavell said everyone has worked hard to get here and deserves to feel good about it. But we have to remember that the academic successes that have brought us to this point are only just the beginning of our journey, he added.
“It’s nice to have candyland in sight, but important to remember that Yale is absolutely not the endpoint.”