The clock read 9 p.m. when Kirk Owusu Moore finished checking into the hotel in Accra, Ghana’s capital city on the Atlantic Ocean coast. For the then-16-year-old, it could’ve been the start of a nice vacation
The typical two-hour trip from his home in Koforidua was twice as long because of road conditions. Rather than explore the city as teenagers might be apt to do, Moore decided to call it an early night. He wanted to be prepared.
He woke up early the next morning – 12:15 a.m. is technically the next day – and left his hotel to make it to his business meeting on time. He made his way to the U.S. embassy – Accra boasts the only such American facility in Ghana – while wondering if he would be approved to study in the U.S.
“Everybody knows that it takes a really long time, and everybody knows it’s not easy to get an American visa in Ghana to come here,” Moore said at Indiana State more than four years after that initial trip to Accra to visit the U.S. embassy.
It would not be his last.
Thousands of international students through the years have journeyed from countries around the world to study at Indiana State, influencing their lives and the Midwest. They each have unique stories and experiences, trials and triumphs along the way. Though they study alongside peers from every state in the nation, they already have gone through a much longer process than American students to even get into class.
When international students submit their transcripts as part of the application process, they can run into a complication: The letter grading system common in the United States is not a universal system used around the world. International student advisor Pam Tabor is one of several office members who reviews international applicants’ transcripts and interprets them so that the Office of Admissions can make a determination on a student’s application.
“It’s incredible. There are so many variables,” Tabor said. “It’s a constant learning process, and I do a great deal of research as part of my work.”
The students also have to work with immigration officials on gaining approval to travel to the U.S. In countries such as China and India, where many students want to study in the U.S., it may take students weeks to schedule an interview at the U.S. consulate, said Maria Chaqra, assistant director of the Office of International Programs and Services.
Yet it is not uncommon for students to be accepted to study at ISU, only to be denied for a visa to enter the U.S. The student then has to re-apply for a visa.
“So the student requests a deferment, and the student goes again and applies for a visa,” Chaqra said, “and there have been times that they have been approved the second time or the third time.”
While it can be a multi-year process for some students, it can be a quick turnaround for others. Sophomore Nancy Kaj Mujing, an economics major from the Democratic Republic of Congo, knew growing up that she wanted to study abroad.
Her father learned about Indiana State through a family connection, and he told Mujing in December 2010 that she would be studying in the U.S. Just weeks later, she was at ISU.
She didn’t immediately start college classes, however. She enrolled in classes at the Interlink Language Center housed at ISU, which provides English training, cultural orientation and academic preparation. Though she had strong English reading skills, Interlink helped improve her conversational skills before she enrolled in ISU courses the following semester.
“If I really came in January 2011 and started ISU at the same time, I don’t think I would be comfortable in classes, so that experience helped me to be prepared psychologically and mentally for the university,” Mujing said. ”With Interlink, we had homework, and I had to organize my time … and so that experience really helped me to organize everything in my head and also to prepare myself for ISU as a university.”
Owusu reached the U.S. embassy at 1 a.m. Even with such an early start, he had no room for error: he had heard from other students that only 100 people enter the embassy to conduct business for the day. Scheduling an appointment via the World Wide Web was out, as he did not have Internet access at home.
So in 2009, the teenager made the appointment as countless others have done throughout the world: hurry up and wait.
Yet the seven-and-a-half hours he waited for the U.S. embassy to open isn’t the longest people have stood in line. Zachariah Mathew, associate director of the ISU Office of International Programs and Services, has witnessed a U.S embassy in India that featured two lines: one for people going into the embassy that day, and a separate line of people who waited overnight to conduct business the next day.
That was 13 years ago and is no longer the case, as many people now schedule appointment times in advance online, Mathew said, though it can sometimes be difficult to schedule an appointment quickly.
And that’s just to get into the embassy.
International students learn a multitude of things simultaneously as they adjust to campus and American culture while settling into a daily routine. Many international students ride city buses in Terre Haute, as it is difficult for international students to attain driver’s licenses or open bank accounts, Chaqra said.
“Sometimes it’s overwhelming,” she added. “It’s a lot of information, but we tell them that whatever questions they have, they can come to our office.”
Members of the Office of International Programs and Services need to know about the other campus offices and the services they provide, as international students typically will stop at the office first for questions about campus services.
“We usually call it the home away from home, and they come and talk to us many times not only about their classes or the immigration situation, they come and talk to us about their personal issues,” Chaqra said. “They see us as their friends.
“Sometimes students living off campus have problems with their landlords,” she added. “There are many, many issues they have, and we try to help them with everything the best we can.”
Though only two people stood in line ahead of Moore when he had arrived at the U.S. embassy, people who reserved Internet appointments pushed him back to the 50th person doing business with the embassy that day.
He had the required documentation needed to study in the U.S. Yet simply getting the interview provided no guarantee for visa approval. In the end, embassy staff delayed his visa application because of complications from his bank statement, which was in Japanese, as his father worked in Japan.
He appealed his case with the U.S. embassy, working through the confusion from the financial documentation, which the U.S. government requires for many students looking to study in the United States. Six months after his initial interview and another trip to Accra and interview later, he received approval for a student visa.
That was just for high school. After he graduated from Covenant Christian High School in Indianapolis, he returned to Ghana to apply for another visa to study in the U.S. – this time at Indiana State, which he had learned about while in high school. It took six more months and a deferment before he received a visa to study at ISU.
Moore, a sophomore legal studies major at Indiana State, plans on becoming an international lawyer after he graduates. Many international students who return to their native countries after graduating from American universities take on leadership positions, he said.
“It’s been really good, quite good,” Moore said of his experience studying in the U.S., including two years at Indiana State. “In terms of leadership, I think I have developed a lot and learned a lot of skills, and also my English has improved a lot.”
While on campus, international students quickly learn about different nuances of American culture. The international student office provides a session about some of the differences during orientation, though they learn much more through their living experiences.
Before starting classes at Indiana State, Mujing thought that college students typically had a lot of free time outside of the classroom. Once school started though, she learned it was much different.
“There is not much free time,” Mujing said. “From Monday to Friday you are very busy, and there is not just homework, there is reading and textbooks.”
One of the first cultural shocks she experienced was American students’ relaxed approach to attending college classes, compared to the approach she had been used to seeing. She also was startled the first time she saw ISU students attending class wearing pajamas.
“Back home, when someone is going to university, it’s something very big and people are buying handbags and folders and all these fancy things …,” Mujing said. “But here, people have backpacks, which is like high school.”
International students also learn from American students. Yet it’s more common for international students to befriend other international students, said Daniela Báez, a Quito, Ecuador, native who graduated from Indiana State in December with her doctorate in language education.
“I think that way we become friends, and almost family sometimes, because it’s so hard to make friends that are from the States, unless they are Americans who have been abroad or that they want to go abroad, or they want to study a different culture or language,” Báez said.
International students sometimes hesitate to approach American students because they are not fluent in English, Báez said. American students are friendly once international students get to know them, she added, though the challenge can be who takes the first step to overcome cultural barriers.
International and domestic students who are friends learn more about each other’s cultures through experiences together. Indiana State senior Bethany Donat has hosted friends who are international students for Thanksgiving, and has taught some of her friends about how Americans celebrate Christmas.
Donat has learned Japanese from a few friends from Japan. Once, while hanging out with a group of friends watching the “Gangnam Style” music video, a friend from South Korea translated the lyrics to the K-Pop hit, adding a new dimension to the group’s enjoyment of the most-watched video in YouTube’s history.
“It gives you more perspective to learn from someone who’s grown up in another part of the world, not in the United States like you have,” Donat said. “It’s fun to introduce them to parts of American culture, and then to learn stuff from their culture too.”
The distance from home can add to international students’ difficulties. Mujing can relate to American students who get homesick. Yet students in the U.S. also visit home more frequently than many international students.
“The support we get from people around us, that keeps us going, because we get homesick a lot,” Mujing said. “Depression is sometimes in our journey because we have our family very far from us, and our childhood friends” are far away as well.
Despite the challenges and hurdles, many international students make the most of their time in the U.S. Mujing and Moore have sought out leadership opportunities on campus, including organizing events. They also volunteered to teach Wabash Valley residents about their native countries. They recalled that several people were surprised to hear that the African students experienced racism while living in the U.S.
“Most of them didn’t think that it exists,” said Mujing, who hopes to become a global economist while working on social issues in her native Democratic Republic of Congo. “They were very, very shocked.”
Moore advocates that people should be open and supportive of their peers from countries around the world.
“A city like Terre Haute, for instance, should encourage different cultures, because the way the world is going, if you don’t get experience from other people’s perspectives, there’s no way you can polish yours for it to fit other economies around you because it’s a global village,” Moore said. “We do stuff together.”
Austin Arceo is the assistant director of media relations at Indiana State University.