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Abroad At American University: The Experience of International Students

By Noman Ahmed Ashraf | 4/26/17 10:01am | Updated 4/26/17 10:01am
Jeff Watts / Courtesy of Abroad at AU

With the goal of bringing the world to AU and bringing AU to the world, the Abroad at American University and AU Abroad programs started about 10 years ago to bring international exchange and study abroad students from around the world to campus.

Abroad at AU is the largest exchange-based program at American University. Desiree Maruca, Abroad at AU’s incoming international student advisor office, said that while the office sends many AU students abroad, most of the programs are actually exchange-based.

Each fall, there are between 80 and 100 exchange students come to AU. Forty of those students spend an entire academic year at AU. During the spring, another 50 students join, bringing the total number of students in the program to between 150 and 180. Those students come from diverse backgrounds and from nearly every region of the world. Over the past years, the program has continued to grow in numbers, but Maruca says she is worried about the rising cost of college attendance.

“I think we are going to start seeing a trend, unfortunately, of our fee-paying students decreasing just because it can be really high – especially for someone who is coming from a country where they don’t charge for university,” Maruca said. However, the office is working to overcome this issue by increasing the number of accepted students and creating partnerships with more universities.

The Abroad at AU program is very important to both the university as an academic institution and to the AU community as a whole. It aims to help the university achieve one of its main strategic planning goals of integrating AU with the world and making it an influential university on the global level. ”[The program’s] mission is to… send students out to give them a taste of different places in the world,” said Maruca, “and if we can’t do that then we bring the world into the classroom.”

Maruca explained that while it is great for foreign students to experience AU and D.C., it is also extremely beneficial for American students.

“There is a lot to be said about kind of sitting in the classroom with other American students...having a student be able to come in and say well this is what we do in my country, this is my experience, this is what I’ve learned about American history and kind of just be that outside influence,” she said. Having diversity, different influences and different voices in the classroom and beyond definitely supports the goal of the program.

To get a better idea of AU’s international exchange community, I chatted with students from different backgrounds about their thoughts on being part of the AU community.

Why AU?

Jackie Salazar, a senior from Guatemala studying business administration, decided to come to AU to gain international experience and grow as a professional at a globally-recognized business school. While Salazar said the class schedules and structures are different here and the workload is heavier, she also feels she has accomplished a great deal. One of Salazar’s greatest achievements so far has been learning “how to integrate technology and resources into studies and be aware of the political and economic issues.”

Another exchange student at AU this semester is Kyung Been Kim from South Korea. He likes to go by KB, and he is a junior and a political science major. In describing his reasons for studying abroad, Kim said, “I want to explore different cultures, meet other people. It is my first time abroad and I want to make friends from around the world.” He chose AU because it is famous for exchange programs.

“I [have] explored new career options and I was impressed by other people and interested about learning new things about new cultures,” said Kim.

Jarrod Bryce, a senior from New Zealand studying government and management, agreed that he learned a lot while studying at AU. As a public policy student, Bryce said, “[Washington is a] cool place to be in terms of the heart of creation of American policy.”

It wasn’t easy to be admitted to AU though. Bryce went through a hectic and a bureaucratic process of forms and applications in order to study here. He wished that the process was easier and that more information on settling in could be provided by both his home institution and AU.

Rihab Attafi, a political science major and junior from Tunisia. Attafi came to the United States as part of her scholarship program to study abroad for one academic year. “It is an amazing opportunity to be here and to meet different people from different backgrounds,” Attafi said. She really likes learning about issues, such as gender identity, that don’t get enough attention back home.

The Challenge of Getting Involved on Campus

For many exchange students and those studying abroad at AU, getting involved on campus by making friends, joining clubs or playing sports can be challenging.

For Salazar, because the United States is influenced by Latin America, she didn’t struggle with getting involved. Salazar said she felt included in the diversity of campus and well-exposed to various cultures. She often goes to events with the Abroad at AU office and said that they have exposed her to a lot of American history and culture. She also joined the Latin American Student Organization (LASO) and said that she is encouraged to attend and participate in campus events.

Kim said that he has noticed how some people do not eat certain types of meat and cannot bear the smell of some foods. But what really grabbed Kim’s attention is AU’s politically-active environment and the way the community engages in debates and discussions. He said that in Korea, the media helps people get the picture, but no-one knows what happens in the government.

Despite his great enthusiasm for learning and exploring, Kim said that his weak English language skills hinder him from meeting and socializing with many people. This has been difficult for Kim, but he has tried his best to meet people from different backgrounds. As for the events offered by the Abroad at AU office, Kim said they are interesting but that they are structured around exploration and not so much socializing with other students.

Bryce mentioned that he does not have many American friends, as they are harder to build close friendships with. When asked about how he was integrating into the community, he said, “Not as well as I wanted to. Not many close American friends.” He primarily hangs out with other international students and thinks the Abroad at AU events help him do different activities with other international students.

Before coming to the U.S., Attafi thought that America was just about freedom and what the media advertises. However, after meeting different people of different races here, she noticed that there are people who talk about the racial problems that still exist in the U.S.

As a woman, she said she was shocked to see the situation of women in the country. Attafi said most of her friends are within the international student body because they share the same common experiences, issues and interests. She goes to a lot of activities provided by the Abroad at AU office because they are an easy way to visit sites that usually are hard to get to.

What Do International Students Think of the AU Community?

Salazar is excited about this great experience as she has learned many things that have had a large impact on her life, and she believes this will help her in the long term both personally and professionally.

Kim said the campus is diverse and liberal but that it is also very full of self-centered and culturally-unaware individuals who don’t know much about other cultures and do not spend a decent effort in getting to know students from different backgrounds.

On a different note, Bryce said he feels communication is really good at AU and that he gets to know more about various events and activities via email. At home, student activities don’t manage to get their voices heard. Overall, Bryce is having a great time at AU but he regrets doing an exchange program at such a late stage in his college career. “Time-wise, I came in late in [my] degree; it has generally made it harder,” he said.

Attafi wishes that there were more active Islamic clubs. For her, the most challenging aspect of being abroad is being so far from her family. Ataffi said she feels that Americans are ignorant about a lot of issues such as racism and women’s rights. She was deeply shocked to see a lot of racism, even on campus, and recalled meeting a fellow student who was blackmailed by his sister because he is gay.

Abroad at AU Offers a Support System

Even though students shared mixed feelings about their experiences at AU, the Abroad at AU office strives to make each individual’s experience enjoyable and memorable.

The Abroad at AU office brings American students as orientation leaders in order to initiate the integration of the incoming students into their new community. This also includes a student life fair where student are exposed to student activities at an earlier stage in their experience. Maruca said that a lot of work, in terms of integration, is done by the students themselves and that the office acts as a support system to address any issues or concerns they have. Moreover, the office has a graduate assistant, Jacob Klein, who works on planning events, acts as a student voice at the office, and makes sure the students explore different parts of American culture and the city. To the AU community, Maruca says it is important not to be intimidated by the Abroad at AU students.

”Take advantage of the Abroad at AU students that are here, find out where they are from and what they are doing,” Maruca said. “Make those connections. It’s really a good opportunity to find out about the world you don’t know yet.”