Vassar’s international students have been an important part of the fabric of the college for decades, and their influence is growing. They comprise nearly 10 percent of the student population, up from less than 7 percent just eight years ago. And while this diversity enhances the college in many ways, it also poses some challenges, for the college and for the international students themselves.
We spoke to four international students and asked them how and why they came to Vassar, what challenges they faced when they got here, and how their journeys have evolved. Here are their responses:
AUSTIN OJIAMBO ’18, Nairobi, Kenya. Projected major: organic chemistry.
Ojiambo’s outstanding academic record in high school earned him recognition from the Equity Group Foundation, a Kenya-based organization that supports gifted students who wish to pursue higher education. The foundation helps selected students apply to college and pays some of their travel costs and other expenses.
“I scanned U.S. News and World Report for the top U.S. schools, and Vassar was on the list, and when I saw photos of the campus, I decided to apply. I had always dreamed of coming to the United States someday, and landing at JFK Airport as an 18-year-old kid was a surreal experience. Andrew Meade (assistant dean of campus life and director of the Office of International Services) had arranged for another international student to pick me up, so the support from the college began right there.
“Acclimating to academics was difficult at first. In Kenya, we listened to what the teachers had to say and took tests. Vassar is very writing intensive and interactive, and because of my Kenyan accent, I wasn’t confident about being understood in class discussions. But I used professors’ office hours and the writing center a lot my freshman year, and that helped me with my studies..
“My roommate, Andrew Thompson, went out of his way to make me feel welcome and helped me a lot in adjusting to the new environment, and as I became involved in some campus activities, I began to feel a part of the community. I’m an assistant for the track and cross country squads, helping the coaches keep statistics, and I’m a member of the African Students Union. About 15 of us meet weekly, and the college is very supportive of the events we plan.
“It’s hard sometimes being so far away from home, and my first winter here was quite a shock, but I love Vassar and feel fortunate to be here.”
ANISH KANORIA ’18, Kolkata, India. Double major: Economics and political science.
“I knew early in high school I wanted to go to a small liberal arts college in the United States where your education is driven by class discussions in small groups. This kind of education is not readily available in India or England. Vassar offers that intense, interactive education. I wanted to major in economics and political science because those two disciplines help you understand why things work the way they do, and India’s economy has been exploding in the last two decades.
“Acclimating wasn’t as difficult for me as it may have been for many other international students because I've traveled extensively in Europe and Asia, and Kolkata is a diverse, international city. There are only about 30 of us from India here on campus, a minuscule minority; but it’s a choice we all made. I won a national debating prize in my senior year of high school in India and subsequently joined the Debate Society my freshman year. I’m currently the President of Cushing House, representing the house at VSA (Vassar Student Association) meetings and am involved in the South Asian Student Alliance. The Office of International Services has been of invaluable support to me, as an international student.
“Currently, I’m involved with other students and faculty in exploring ways to address the refugee crisis. To some people in the United States, this may seem extremely distant, but U.S. foreign policy was one of the factors that helped create it, so we can’t just walk away from that. There are many aspects of the problem we can’t solve, of course, but if we can make life better for some of these people, then we should do it. There are some issues on campus that may divide us, but this should bring us all together.”
ROBYN COX ‘15, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, post-bac fellow in the Office of International Services.
“I went to a college prep high school in the Virgin Island and we got catalogs and brochures mailed to us from a lot of colleges in the United States. When I saw a picture of Main on the cover of a brochure from Vassar, I was sold. But when I came here, life wasn’t immediately beautiful. I had relatives in the United States, but even the time I spent with them was in a Caribbean culture, and life at Vassar was different.
“The course work was more writing-intensive than I was used to, and the work load was much greater, and I was painfully shy and reluctant to ask for help. When I started going to professors’ office hours, I began to catch up. I joined the Caribbean Students Alliance, and because I wanted to major in Japanese, I joined the Asian Students Alliance, and that helped me become more involved. And there were always interns in the Office of International Services who were willing to talk to you about anything. When I became team manager of the men’s basketball team, that got me in touch with other groups on campus.
“There’s a divide between the American students and the international students that never fully goes away, but I have realized there’s a lot we can learn from each other if you’re willing to reach out. As a post-bac, I recently finished my fall check-ins with all my students, and there was a first year student who was having a rough time. I knew her faith was an important part of her life, so I steered her to the Christian Fellowship group. Whatever interests you have, Vassar has a group for it, and that’s the best way to get acclimated.”
SIMEON BUSANO ’16, Istanbul, Turkey. Major: International Studies.
“I was born in Los Angeles, and I’m an American citizen, but I might be the most ‘international’ of all international students on campus. I moved to Belize when I was six months old, and since then I’ve lived in Korea, England, and for the past two years, Turkey. I chose Vassar because I wanted to be near New York City, and the International Studies Program casts a wide net; you’re given extraordinary latitude on how you approach the issues.
“Becoming acclimated wasn’t that hard for me because my parents are American – my mother is a human resources recruiter for the Defense Department and my father is a retired Army officer. It took me a while to catch up on popular culture stuff, though. You can hear Rihanna or Beyonce anywhere in the world, but there was a learning curve on the latest rap artists.
“I’ve been involved in lots of campus activities since my freshman year. I’m a member of the Britomartis theater group, which is non-hierarchical, so we all do everything, and that’s really broadened my skills. I’ve done some talk shows for VCTV, and I’m a student assistant in the President’s Office, so I help Cappy with research for her speeches and attend VSA meetings for her.
“There’s still some homesickness sometimes, being so far away, but the international student community is a safe place for me. Their support helped me venture into other areas of campus life. Vassar does it the right way.”