In Muchen Wang’s official government file for her Visathere is a drawing of a dog.
When the visa officer asked her why she was going to the United States, she told him it was to attend art school and study painting. The visa officer then handed him a notepad and asked him to draw something to prove it.
“After I crossed him a dog that I drew, he did things of approval,” Wang said.
Wang earned a master’s degree in fine arts from Columbia’s Creative Writing program in 2022. She came to the United States from Zhengzhou, China, to study at the School of Institute of Arts.
Clare Lake, director of Services for international students and scholarsor ISSS, indicates that Columbia’s international student population is slowly recovering after a significant drop during the pandemic.
In 2018, the campus had nearly 360 international and exchange students in its graduate and undergraduate programs. This hit rock bottom at 235 students in 2020 but has since grown to 260 students This year.
Lake said newest international students this year come from China, India, South Korea, Mexico and Vietnam. Currently, 58 countries are represented on campus.
Lake said students seem most drawn to the opportunities the United States offers in their chosen creative fields, such as the film industry where students have the opportunity to study and intern in Los Angeles.
For Wang, an American art school was more feasible than a Chinese school because of the number of people she would have have to compete with. According to chinese ministry of educationthere were about 90 art schools in China compared to more than 300 in the United States, according to InternationalStudent.com. “In China you have to compete with billions, billions,” she said.
However, a higher education in the United States can mean additional tuition feeslanguage barriers, academic difficulties, social isolation, financial difficulties and culture shock, depending on the clay centera Boston-based online educational resource dedicated to mental, emotional, and behavioral wellness.
When Wang came to the United States, she said grocery shopping was a challenge. She worried about crime and was overwhelmed by American health care.
Columbia offers resources to help students meet these challenges. ISSS is a one-stop-shop for everything a student might need before, during, and after traveling from their home country to Chicago. This includes helping to visa application file, explain school health insurance, help file taxes, and find community through social events.
Lake said the ISSS also offers advice on city living and finding an apartment.
He had to help students in complicated situations, some of which could arise due to cultural differences.
“One of my students got a big ticket,” Lake said. “The student did not understand that she was stopped by the police, because in Germany, where she came from, the police stop in front of a car instead of behind it. So she kept driving.
Lake connects students with immigration and trial attorneys if they run into legal issues.
“There is no due process. So if an international student … has to go to court, it’s immediately on their immigration record,” Lake said. This can lead to being stunned by a secondary inspection at customs or having to reapply for their visa.
Another resource for international students at Columbia is English as a Additional language, or EAL programwhich currently offers linguistic and academic support through three courses: “International Writing and Rhetoric I”, a second level of the course and “International Oral Expression”.
Students admitted to Columbia must prove their language skills through a standardized exam or having studied in international high schools. One possible proficiency test is the Internet Test of English as a Foreign Language, called the TOEFLiBT. Another is the International English Language Testing System, or IELTS.
Students who score less than 110 on the TOEFL iBT or eight on the IELTS are immediately placed in the EAL program, although its director, Ellen Yeh, said the lessons are a valuable resource for all students of all language skills.
Yeh said academic writing can be a challenge for EAL students because different languages have different grammar rules, such as not using articles. such as “a” and “the” in sentences.
The program also helps in understanding English citation, academic plagiarism, critical thinking skills, and classroom debate, which may be different or not emphasized in their home country’s education systems.
The ISSS and the EAL program are places where international students can build community when they are away from home and their family is not close.
Another community for international students at Columbia is the International Students Organization. Students can also gain peer support from the International Student Senator of the Student Government Association.
“We notice that an increasing number of students have such a struggle in terms of aspects of social-emotional learning,” Yeh said.
According to American Council on Educationcommunity, social connection and an open culture are essential to the success of international students. Lake said some countries have more government censorship and less artistic freedom, which is important for creative arts students.
“In Guatemala, anything you might have to do with something like game design would be like software engineering,” said Adrian Leon, a major in video game design of Guatemala City. “So really, I just wanted to expand my opportunities here.”
Leon says the openness in American culture has been a huge draw for him.
“Guatemala is very traditional. And I don’t consider myself a very traditional person,” Leon said. “That’s something I was looking for when I was trying to go to another place, is to find like-minded people.”
In addition to resources from Columbia, Wang said she had another important support that helped her meet her social-emotional needs when she was away from home: her cocker spaniel, Xueli.
“She loves Grant Park,” Wang said. “So many squirrels and so much mud.”
And unlike Wang, Xueli’s papers to enter the United States do not have include a drawing of a dog.