International students view Penn State with a global perspective

July 22, 2008

University Park, Pa. -- Most high school seniors tour college campuses before deciding where to go to school. For some, their impression of the physical campus can make or break the deal. But if the student is living on another continent, visiting isn't always an option.

When Karan Jani of India thought about going to school in the United States, he imagined himself in a big city, surrounded by tall buildings and lots of people. Stepping onto the Penn State University Park campus for the first time was a bit of a surprise.  

"I've never been to the United States. It's different from what you see in movies and on TV," he said. "The campus was nothing like I had imagined."

Jani wasn't the only one fooled by the silver screen. Owen Thomas, a senior film student from Hong Kong, used the word "shocked" several times to describe his first impressions of the area: shocked at the large size of the University, shocked at the small size of the town it was in, shocked at how different it was from other U.S. cities he'd visited. Vindhya Pandagoda of Sri Lanka said her husband, a doctoral candidate in chemistry, came to State College a year before she moved here and had to explain to her that the town was nothing like Chicago or New York City, as she had imagined.

"You see more students than people in the community," she said. "But it's a really good town."

Despite their initial reactions, these students found that the big university in the small college town was something they got used to quickly and actually enjoy now. Jani, a sophomore studying astronomy and astrophysics, said it didn't take long for him to fall in love with Penn State and State College, probably because the first thing he did on campus was sample the Berkey Creamery's famous ice cream. He also was quick to make friends with other international students and neighbors in his residence hall.

Although Jani applied to five different universities in America, he said he picked Penn State because it had the best reputation and his professors in India recommended it. He said being in the classroom here is a lot different from the college classroom in India.

"I left India because I wanted more exposure to physics. The professors here are really good with students and are hard working," he said. "In India they tend to be a little lazy."
Because he's from India, Jani arrived on campus before most Penn State students so he could attend orientation for international students. It was during this time Jani said he became more comfortable with his surroundings and made new friends.

Rachel Helwig, who is program coordinator for International Student Services, said that every fall, 700 to 900 international students come to Penn State to study. The one- to two-week orientation for these students is a time for them to get acclimated to living in the United States and State College. Students attend informational programs discussing topics such as academics, classroom structure and government regulations about living in the United States. In the evenings, upper-level Penn State students -- both international and U.S. residents -- volunteer to show the new students how to get around the campus and State College.

There are about 3,700 international students attending Penn State. At University Park approximately 3,400 students represent 130 countries, with China, India and Korea having the highest representation. Helwig said those numbers reflect both the large populations of these countries and also the students' interests in programs that Penn State offers. The colleges of engineering, science and business have the highest number of international students enrolled in their degree programs.

After Sept. 11, 2001, the number of international students declined throughout the United States. Helwig said this was partly because of the difficulty they had in obtaining student visas. However, she then cited a recent article in the Boston Globe that said the weak American dollar has more international students studying in American schools today.

Arpan Ghosh of Caluctta, India, grew up in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) but now considers State College his second home. He received his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and currently is pursuing his master's degree in the same field. He came to Penn State at the start of spring semester five years ago and said there was a huge blizzard his first day in town. He had never seen snow before and was excited to experience it for the first time. Since then, he said he has acquired a fairly extensive winter wardrobe. The smaller size of State College, as compared to the UAE, is a nice change of pace for him. He likes how clean the town and campus are in comparison with his homeland.

When Ghosh first came to the University, he made good friends in the residence halls and through a former high school classmate who came to Penn State a semester earlier. He played basketball and soccer with his friends and concentrated on getting good grades during his first three years at school. It wasn't until he knew he was staying in the area to complete his master's degree that he joined a campus organization. In the karate club, he said he has met a lot of people and  enjoys the sport. He travels with his friends on the team, attending different competitions. He hopes to get a job in the area after school, in part so that he can continue to be a member of the club.

Unlike Ghosh, Panagoda said when she stepped off the airplane in State College in February and saw the snow and felt the cold hit her, she wanted to get back on the plane and head home. She's used to the weather now and has found her niche on campus. Panagoda was able to come to the United States to be with her husband, Malika Kakumarasiri, but her visa would not allow her to work or take classes. Instead, Panagoda decided to spend her time volunteering at Penn State.

Panagoda works in the Global Connections office on a regular basis, filing paperwork and helping with programs, paperwork for international students, the tax assistance program and anywhere else she is needed. Since she was a teacher in Sri Lanka, Panagoda also volunteers at the Bennett Family Center on a regular basis.

Panagoda said it took her a few months to adapt to the area. She also learned to speak English better, adapted to the very different climate, learned temperatures in Fahrenheit rather than in Celsius, adjusted to having the steering wheel on the left side of a car but driving on the right side of the road, converted her recipes from the metric system, learned how to use a washer and dryer as well as a microwave and toaster, and tried eating different fruits and vegetables here than those grown in Sri Lanka. Despite the obstacles she faced, Panagoda said she loves State College now, has made great friends through volunteering and hopes that if she and her husband don't move home when he's finished with school that they can stay in State College.

Like Panagoda and Ghosh, Agnes Lim of Jakarta, Indonesia, made a lot of new friends by getting involved with campus organizations. She has taken advantage of numerous service activities during her three years at Penn State and has had fun while doing good work. As a third-year food science major with a minor in agribusiness, she is very involved in organizations that coincide with her studies.

"I have always realized how important it is to have the ability to network socially. Not only is networking important when you're looking for a job but also for everyday living," she said. "By joining a club I acquire leadership, communication and organizational skills and learn to work with some difficult people. These are all lessons I can't get in the classroom."

  • Karan Jani of India

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated November 18, 2010