When Nadya Stryuk ’17 stepped off the plane at JFK on a sweltering day in mid-August before her freshman year, she had one major concern: How would she get to Yale?
Stryuk, an international student from Russia, had never before been to the U.S. She had arrived for the Orientation for International Students, a five-day program before the start of formal freshman orientation. After landing in the morning, she spent the day wandering the airport, sampling American fast food and waiting for her 10 p.m. shuttle to Yale.
The next morning, Stryuk saw Yale for the first time. As is the case for many, she was struck by the Gothic architecture, the confusing names and the innumerable gates. She said it was “everything she imagined.”
Four months later, she was back home in Russia, unsure if she would ever return to Yale.
For many of Yale’s international students, adjusting to American college life is far from easy. These students — who arrive with a variety of family backgrounds and language proficiencies — must adapt to new cultural norms while getting accustomed to Yale’s plethora of academic, social and extracurricular offerings. Some attended international schools, speak English fluently and come from affluent families. Others attended rural, public schools, only began to learn English in high school and are on full financial aid.
“Our international student body is incredibly diverse, so it is very hard to make generalizations regarding their experience,” said Ozan Say, an advisor at Yale’s Office of International Students & Scholars. “Even for the seasoned travelers, living in a new country is always a process of learning — anything from imperial measurement system to which greeting words to use.”
There are myriad reasons to attend college in the U.S. The liberal arts philosophy, for one, is a major draw. American colleges uniquely allow students to easily change majors, and do not require them to declare a track or profession upon matriculation.
Lekha Tlhotlhalemaje ’19, a student from South Africa, said she was drawn to American universities precisely because of their academic flexibility. At South African universities one must apply to a specific program. Tlhotlhalemaje had enrolled in the University of Cape Town in January, but was unhappy studying mathematics. When she was accepted regular decision to Yale in March, she said it felt like an opportunity “for a redo.”
At Tlhotlhalemaje’s high school in Johannesburg, only one other student in her class applied to American colleges; both are currently at Yale. Tlhotlhalemaje noted that many of her classmates opted for the University of Cape Town, which is both prestigious and close to home. Attending high schools with infrastructure designed to place students in American colleges — guidance counselors able to keep track of deadlines, arrange recommendations and so on — is invaluable for an international student’s ability to study in the U.S., she said.
Yale International Relations Association President Salaar Shaikh ’17 said his school, Karachi Grammar School in Karachi, Pakistan sends many students abroad for college. As a result, he was well-versed in the application process and knew he wanted to attend university outside of Pakistan.
Others, however, pursued American universities through different avenues. Stryuk attended a Russian public school, which offered no guidance on the application process for universities outside Russia. Instead, her mother’s co-worker suggested EducationUSA, a U.S. State Department network that offers college advising for international students.
Many international students are unable to visit campus, but are attracted to Yale for its prestige, as well as its generous financial aid packages in comparison to prestigious British universities like Oxford and Cambridge.
“At home, everyone knows about Yale,” said Meghana Singh ’19, a student from India. “That’s big.”
CORNERS OF SUPPORT
When Ian Ishmael Irungu ’19, a student from Kenya, first walked through Phelps Gate, he was met with cheers from Orientation for International Students counselors.
“I just thought Yale was so beautiful, and I was scared out of my mind,” Irungu remembered.
According to OISS Director Ann Kuhlman, around 80 percent of international students begin their Yale careers with OIS. The program generally starts the Monday before freshman orientation, lasting for around five days. Run by OISS staff and international student counselors, it introduces life at Yale. It also assists students with the logistics of living in the U.S., such as setting up a P.O. box, obtaining a bank account and finding a phone provider. OIS additionally provides a social network, as well as crash courses on campus safety and academics.
“Every year, I have seen how freshmen find a community and a family within Yale and who are close because they share the experience of being an international student at Yale,” said Maia Eliscovich Sigal ’16, who participated in OIS for three years as a participant, counselor and head counselor.
All students interviewed who participated in OIS reported positive experiences, and numerous students mentioned that they had met some of their closest friends through the program.
Unlike other preorientation programs, such as FOOT or Harvest, OIS undergoes structural changes each year, adjusting its offerings based on how students and counselors respond to certain activities. Still, according to Eliscovich Sigal, the program’s primary focus remains maximizing the amount of information provided without overwhelming students.
Peter Wyckoff ’16, a student from France, said while he believes OIS has good intentions, he thinks it clumps international students together and prevents smoother integration when the school year starts. He said he found his experience with FOOT to be less restrictive.
“OIS is great if you’re coming from somewhere that is radically different,” Wyckoff said. “[In that case] it is really helpful to set up a phone or get a bank account. But I think that if you’re coming from somewhere like Paris, you already know these things. It’s not that different.”
OIS lasts only five days, but many international students choose to retain a community through the International Students Organization, a group that offers international students a support network and helps them share their cultures with campus through events and discussions.
ISO comprises an executive board and three councils. The social council oversees study breaks and parties throughout the year, the political council hosts speakers and the cultural council hosts culinary events and intercultural colloquia.
Last semester, ISO added an inclusion council in response to race-related protests on campus. Currently, council members are working alongside cultural center directors to investigate how international students are incorporated into these centers. The council will release a report at the end of the academic year.
ISO President Yuki Hayashi ’17 said while OISS is extremely helpful, she believes it is principally concerned with the administrative realm of visas and taxes. She added that she hopes Yale can establish a community or organization that focuses not on administrative help, but students’ well-being.
Olga Karnas ’16, the previous president of ISO and an OISS peer liaison, said the bonds formed during OIS do not always last through senior year, as students adjust to Yale and forge other relationships. A house, she said, could reinforce a sense of community within the international student body.
“Places like the Asian American Cultural Center and the Afro-American Cultural Center very well serve their purpose in building a community,” Karnas said. “They really document the life of a certain community at Yale. We’ve been pushing for this for a while, but it’s a long process.”
After OIS, students are left with the help of the student-run ISO and the administrative department of OISS. They must navigate life in a new country with the full-time obligations of a Yale student, and adjusting is not always simple.
Many international students set foot in the U.S. for the first time when they arrive at Yale, where they have to familiarize themselves with the dollar, as well as an entirely new social currency.
Tlhotlhalemaje’s lack of familiarity with U.S. currency stood out most to her when she started patronizing New Haven restaurants; she had no way of discerning what was considered overpriced, and no grasp on how much she should be spending, and what items she should be spending on.
Numerous students interviewed said they had a hard time understanding certain social interactions in the U.S, such as when it was appropriate to hug or shake hands, and how detailed a response to “How are you?” ought to be.
Opelo Matome ’18, who is from Botswana, said she struggled to understand whether polite interactions were cursory or the sign of real relationships. As a result, she said she ruled out potential friendships during her freshman fall because she did not think they were genuine.
“I ended up cutting off getting into potential groups and meeting new people,” Matome said. “I maybe cut off meeting non-international students.”
English language struggles also hindered several students during their adjustment to campus. Yale does not offer sustained writing workshops for incoming international students, although some partake in the Freshman Scholars at Yale program, which provides roughly 48 incoming first-year international and American students the opportunity to jump-start their Yale career by moving to campus and studying for five weeks in the summer.
Instead, many choose to enroll in an introductory writing seminar during their first semester to bolster their command of English.
Francis Cishahayo ’19, an international student from Burundi, said his transition to English proficiency was particularly difficult. He said that when he finished high school, his level of English was not more than “Hi, hello, and how are you.” He enrolled in a gap-year program, Bridge2Rwanda, where he received English instruction and college application advice, and the summer before Yale he participated in FSY.
Hayashi said the language barrier is a major reason why most Japanese students do not apply to American colleges; in fact, she had to edit her own recommendation letters for grammar. Studying for the SATs, she added, forced her to relearn concepts in English.
In addition to social and academic struggles in the U.S., students pointed to challenges in the way those at home interacted with them — while a Yale acceptance is considered an accolade in many communities, some international students noted their choice of college has not elicited wholly positive attention.
Matome said some in Botswana view attending college abroad as unpatriotic, and treat students that do with hostility. The flip side, she added, is extreme reverence and hard-to-fulfill expectations.
In rare situations, students are forced to deal with the challenges of adjusting to Yale in conjunction with life-changing events at home.
Cishahayo cited political violence and instability in Burundi as a major stress during his first semester at Yale. He said he felt guilty being separated from his family, and that the tension affected his academics.
“I talk to my family more now than I did first semester, so it’s easier for me to cope with it, though it’s still as much of a burden,” Cishahayo said. “OISS and my peer liaison have been great resources, but they can only do so much. This is a problem that has few solutions.”
Four years after these students first walk through Phelps Gate, they are forced to make a choice: return home, or continue to live and work abroad. The decision can be painless and resolute, or it can be full of uncertainty and anguish.
For some, returning home is a given.
Karnas said she always knew she wanted to return to Poland upon graduation, and will be working for an American company in Warsaw. She said working in the U.S. would be easy, but she believes she would get too comfortable here. In her opinion, the longer she stayed, the harder it would be to leave.
Several students said their desire to return home after graduation was informed by the experiences of alumni who stayed on to live in the U.S. The students noted that choosing to continue working abroad would perpetuate the “brain drain” in their home countries.
Shaikh said he still feels a strong connection to Pakistan, and plans to return after graduating, though not immediately.
“I’ve seen many people who have been able to access high standards of education and have then settled abroad,” he said. “I feel there’s a big sense of personal responsibility when you have the opportunity to access education like that. Pakistan is a developing country, and its development is really accelerated if people can go back.”
For students that hope to live and work in the U.S., the choice is not always theirs. Foreign students that attend college in the U.S. typically obtain an F-1 visa, a nonimmigrant visa that allows one to study in the United States. With an F-1 visa, students are eligible to work off-campus for a total of 12 months in what is known as Optional Practical Training. A student who graduates with a STEM degree is eligible for a 17-month work authorization extension, on top of the 12 months of OPT. If a student undertakes a summer internship in the U.S., however, that time is deducted from their total OPT.
When students graduate from Yale, they then apply for an H-1B visa that will allow them to work past their OPT. A lottery each April determines who is awarded a H-1B, and consequently allowed to stay in the U.S. Last year’s cycle capped the H-1B visa distribution at 65,000 graduates with bachelor’s degrees. The odds were roughly 1 in 3 that a student would be allowed to stay in the U.S.
“It’s really unfortunate for a lot of people,” Shaikh said. “You can do well at Yale and have a visa on track, but if the lottery doesn’t work out it can cause a big problem.”
One international senior — who asked to remain anonymous because of his tenuous visa status — will be working at Uber in the U.S. next year. He assumed that with a Yale degree he would have no trouble staying in the U.S. after graduating. He believes OISS should be more proactive in teaching students about the nuances of the visa system, and the benefits of choosing a STEM major.
He added that he felt Yale did not do enough to help students in difficult visa situations. He noted that some universities, such as Brown, allow their international students to access Curricular Practical Training, which gives them an extra 12 months of authorized work time. When he asked OISS, he was told that there were “hardly any chances” for Yale students to obtain CPT. Additionally, he said that given the way the system currently works, non-STEM students only have one chance for a lottery, in the April after their graduation. Were Yale willing to send a letter saying graduating seniors had fulfilled their requirements for graduation the April of their senior year, he said, students would have a chance at the lottery during that year — an additional valuable opportunity to stay in the U.S.
Kuhlman said that immigration information is readily available, and students only have to seek it out. She did note it is challenging to know when to present this information, however, as freshmen and sophomores are not usually focused on post-graduation plans.
“The reality is that it’s getting much harder to stay here,” she said.
Almost three years after her arrival in the U.S., Stryuk feels well-adjusted to life at Yale. An architecture major interested in urban studies, she finds herself in a far different place now than during the winter of her freshman year.
That break, at home in Russia, she was exhausted from the emotional labor of acclimating to American culture and the workload associated with an English-language education at Yale. While she contemplated not returning to Yale, her time at home functioned as well-needed rest, and she resolved to continue her studies in the States.
The break proved effective: Stryuk returned well-energized and found her spring semester easier to handle. The only member of her high school class to attend college in the U.S., she leaned on ISO and her OIS connections for support.
Still, some problems remain for Stryuk. She works 10–14 hours per week to pay for the student self-help contribution and to buy her architecture materials for class. With that time commitment, she has difficulty pursuing extracurriculars.
But Stryuk says she feels better-equipped to handle these challenges now than when she first arrived. Looking back on the first photograph she took at Yale, in front of Vanderbilt Hall during OIS, she laughed.
That day — a cause of unbridled stress and anxiety — still had a happy ending: Struyk met one of her best friends. She recalled an agitated girl approaching her in the middle of Old Campus.
“Do you know where the Pierson dining hall is?” the girl asked.
“No,” Struyk said. “But I have a map.”