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Dear Student Union Community...

Dear Student Union community,

When we launched the Student Union almost exactly three years ago, we didn't really know what we were doing. Or, more accurately, I had no idea what I was doing. All I knew was that it should be a place for international students to share their stories - stories to help other students who were going through the same things and to inform prospective students who were just starting to pursue their dreams.

Some of our very first bloggers visiting VOA
Some of our very first bloggers visiting VOA


I think the only guidance I gave writers at the beginning was: "Make it more profound than your diary and more personal than an advising service."

Not exactly the most refined concept. But boy, have you guys run with it.

You've shared stories about unexpected and fascinating cultural differences - like seeing a left-handed professor for the first time, or the way Americans complain about every perceived inequality - and the tension between embracing these differences and retaining your own identity.

Nick's brilliant illustration of his struggle with Americanization
Nick's brilliant illustration of his struggle with Americanization


You've given firsthand perspectives on some very real concerns - like whether Muslims are discriminated against, whether Americans actually like international students, or how high the extra costs of studying in the U.S. can actually get - and told inspiring stories of persevering through adversity.

You've shown how you've succeeded and how you've failed - both in and out of the classroom - so others can learn from your efforts.

Joy and her international friends at Phillips Academy. Just one of the many amazing people who've been part of the Student Union.
Joy and her international friends at Phillips Academy. Just one of the many amazing people who've been part of the Student Union.


I hope that in return we've been able to give you an honest account of the positives and negatives of studying in the U.S., to help you formulate advice that's right for you and your unique path, and to impart to you that success in life is about your own drive and resilience and not about achieving any specific goal (not even if that goal is studying at a U.S. university).

And I hope we've been able to have some fun together. I'm pretty sure we've at least succeeded at that one.

e Abhushan certainly had fun. This is him after Dashain celebrations at his school.
e Abhushan certainly had fun. This is him after Dashain celebrations at his school.


I feel profoundly lucky to have met so many amazing students from all over the world through my role as editor of this site. You have all inspired me and taught me and pushed me to do better, and I cannot thank you enough for that.

So it is with some separation anxiety, but also a lot of excitement about the future (both for myself and for the site), that I am turning the Student Union over to a new editor, Doug Bernard.

Doug is a talented journalist and a great guy, and I can't think of better hands to put the Student Union into. I can't wait to see where he - together with you - takes the site in the future. (Seriously, check out how cool he is!)

Anyone who's written for me over the past three years knows, and has probably come to dread, my rules for giving advice. "Don't write 'you should' and tell people what to do," I remind writers all the time. "Write 'I did' and let your readers learn from your experience." So I'm not going to leave you with any profound advice, but just share one last thing that I've learned from this experience.

It is this: People want to help you. Every EducationUSA adviser, every professor, every university official, every student, every alumnus I've met has been genuine in their eagerness to guide others. Most people are. Don't be afraid to reach out to those in a position to advise you, direct you, and help you when you need it.



But remember, when you do ask for someone's time or assistance, it's your responsibility to show that you're deserving of it - that you're making an effort to help yourself. Do your own research first using all the resources available (and there are many - our weekly events list and resources page can direct you to some of them) so you come in armed with knowledge and ready to ask the important questions.

Few people are braver and more tenacious than an international student. You kind of have to be to decide you want to move to a new country with a new culture and language, no less to actually do it and thrive there. So be brave in reaching out to those who can help you, and be tenacious in taking advantage of everything that's already out there to help you help yourself.

... Okay, maybe I lied. That edged into "you should" territory, didn't it? Oh well. In that case, I'll break my own rules completely and end with one final "you should."

You should: Apply to write for the Student Union during the 2013-2014 school year! Send resumes and writing samples to Doug if you're studying in the States and interested in being a regular contributor. (Of course, you're always welcome to share your stories, even if you're not on our staff.)

Getting to meet Tom and Annisa, two of the 2012-2013 writes (who, incidentally, bravely suffered many "you should" corrections ... and many other of my pet peeves)
Getting to meet Tom and Annisa, two of the 2012-2013 writes (who, incidentally, bravely suffered many "you should" corrections ... and many other of my pet peeves)


Thanks again for an amazing three years, and I can't wait to see this community grow and flourish with more stories, more experiences and more advice ("I did" advice, of course) in the years to come.

Your grateful and humbled former editor,

Jessica

See all News Updates of the Day

COVID forced one international student to go hungry

FILE - Masked students walk to the COVID-19 vaccination site at the Rose E. McCoy Auditorium on the Jackson State University campus in Jackson, Miss., July 27, 2021.
FILE - Masked students walk to the COVID-19 vaccination site at the Rose E. McCoy Auditorium on the Jackson State University campus in Jackson, Miss., July 27, 2021.

When Samantha (not her real name) enrolled in community college in the U.S., her family at home in South Africa scrimped and saved to support her.

But the COVID-19 pandemic hurt the family’s finances, and at one point Samantha had four on-campus jobs just to make ends meet. Many in the U.S. believe international students are wealthy sources of funding for universities, but stories like Samantha’s suggest otherwise.

Andrea Gutierrez reports for The World. (March 2024)

Tips for paying for a STEM degree as an international student

FILE - FILE - A visitor to the 21st China Beijing International High-tech Expo looks at a computer chip through the microscope displayed by the Tsinghua Unigroup project in Beijing, on May 17, 2018.
FILE - FILE - A visitor to the 21st China Beijing International High-tech Expo looks at a computer chip through the microscope displayed by the Tsinghua Unigroup project in Beijing, on May 17, 2018.

For US News & World Report, Melanie Lockert describes how to calculate the cost of a STEM degree, and where to find funding. (March 2024)

NAIA all but bans its transgender college athletes from women's sports

FILE - NAIA women’s basketball players gather after a game in St. Louis, Feb. 22, 2024. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the governing body for mostly small colleges, said Monday that transgender athletes would be all but banned from women's sports.
FILE - NAIA women’s basketball players gather after a game in St. Louis, Feb. 22, 2024. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the governing body for mostly small colleges, said Monday that transgender athletes would be all but banned from women's sports.

The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the governing body for mostly small colleges, announced a policy Monday that all but bans transgender athletes from competing in women's sports.

The NAIA's Council of Presidents approved the policy in a 20-0 vote. The NAIA, which oversees some 83,000 athletes at schools across the country, is believed to be the first college sports organization to take such a step.

According to the transgender participation policy, all athletes may participate in NAIA-sponsored male sports but only athletes whose biological sex assigned at birth is female and have not begun hormone therapy will be allowed to participate in women's sports.

A student who has begun hormone therapy may participate in activities such as workouts, practices and team activities, but not in interscholastic competition.

"With the exception of competitive cheer and competitive dance, the NAIA created separate categories for male and female participants," the NAIA said. "Each NAIA sport includes some combination of strength, speed and stamina, providing competitive advantages for male student-athletes. As a result, the NAIA policy for transgender student-athletes applies to all sports except for competitive cheer and competitive dance, which are open to all students."

There is no known number of transgender athletes at the high school and college levels, though it is believed to be small. The topic has become a hot-button issue for those for and against transgender athletes competing on girls' and women's sports teams.

At least 24 states have laws barring transgender women and girls from competing in certain women's or girls sports competitions. Last month, more than a dozen current and former college athletes filed a federal lawsuit against the NCAA, accusing the sports governing body for more than 500,000 athletes of violating their rights by allowing transgender women to compete in women's sports.

The Biden administration originally planned to release a new federal Title IX rule — the law forbids discrimination based on sex in education — addressing both campus sexual assault and transgender athletes. But earlier this year, the department decided to split them into separate rules, and the athletics rule now remains in limbo even as the sexual assault policy moves forward.

Hours after the NAIA announcement, the NCAA released a statement: "College sports are the premier stage for women's sports in America and the NCAA will continue to promote Title IX, make unprecedented investments in women's sports and ensure fair competition for all student-athletes in all NCAA championships."

The NCAA has had a policy for transgender athlete participation in place since 2010, which called for one year of testosterone suppression treatment and documented testosterone levels submitted before championship competitions. In 2022, the NCAA revised its policies on transgender athlete participation in an attempt to align with national sport governing bodies, following the lead of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

The three-phase implementation of the policy included a continuation of the 2010 policy, requiring transgender women to be on hormone replacement therapy for at least one year, plus the submission of a hormone-level test before the start of both the regular season and championship events.

The third phase adds national and international sport governing body standards to the NCAA's policy and is scheduled to be implemented for the 2024-25 school year on August 1.

There are some 15.3 million public high school students in the United States and a 2019 study by the CDC estimated 1.8% of them — about 275,000 — are transgender. The number of athletes within that group is much smaller; a 2017 survey by Human Rights Campaign suggested fewer than 15% of all transgender boys and transgender girls play sports.

The number of NAIA transgender athletes would be far smaller.

Humanities degrees are tougher sell for international students 

FILE - People walk near the campus center at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., Dec. 9, 2013.
FILE - People walk near the campus center at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., Dec. 9, 2013.

That’s the argument of one Princeton undergraduate from South Korea.

OPT, the government program that allows college students to work in the US for a short time after graduation without securing a work visa, is biased toward STEM degree holders.

As a result, many international students forego humanities, or choose tech or consulting jobs when their passions lie elsewhere.

Read Siyeon Lee’s argument in the Princetonian. (March 2024)

West Virginia University student union says fight against program cuts not over

FILE - West Virginia University students lead a protest against cuts to programs in world languages, creative writing and more amid a $45 million budget deficit, Aug. 21, 2023, outside Stewart Hall in Morgantown, W.Va.
FILE - West Virginia University students lead a protest against cuts to programs in world languages, creative writing and more amid a $45 million budget deficit, Aug. 21, 2023, outside Stewart Hall in Morgantown, W.Va.

Sophomore Christian Adams expected he would be studying Chinese when he enrolled at West Virginia University, with a dream of working in labor or immigration law.

He didn’t foresee switching his major to politics, a change he made after West Virginia’s flagship university in September cut its world language department and dozens of other programs in subjects such as English, math and music amid a $45 million budget shortfall.

And he certainly didn’t expect to be studying — or teaching fellow students — about community organizing.

But the cuts, denounced as “draconian and catastrophic" by the American Federation of Teachers, catalyzed a different kind of education: Adams is co-founder of The West Virginia United Students’ Union. The leading oppositional force against the cuts, the union organized protests, circulated petitions and helped save a handful of teaching positions before 143 faculty and 28 majors ultimately were cut.

Disappointed, they say their work is far from done. Led by many first-generation college students and those receiving financial aid in the state with the fewest college graduates, members say they want to usher in a new era of student involvement in university political life.

“Really, what it is for WVU is a new era of student politics,” Adams said.

The movement is part of a wave of student organizing at U.S. colleges and universities centering around everything from the affordability of higher education and representation to who has access to a diverse array of course offerings and workplace safety concerns.

The university in Morgantown had been weighed down financially by enrollment declines, revenue lost during the COVID-19 pandemic and an increasing debt load for new building projects. Other U.S. universities and colleges have faced similar decisions, but WVU's is among the most extreme examples of a flagship university turning to such dramatic cuts, particularly to foreign languages.

The union called the move to eliminate 8% of majors and 5% of faculty a failure of university leadership to uphold its mission as a land-grant institution, charged since the 1800s with educating rural students who historically had been excluded from higher education. A quarter of all children in West Virginia live in poverty, and many public K-12 schools don't offer robust language programs at a time when language knowledge is becoming increasingly important in the global jobs market.

As the school continues to evaluate its finances, the union plans to keep a close eye on its budget, mobilize against any additional proposed cuts and prepare alternative proposals to keep curriculum and faculty positions in place.

Another key goal is monitoring and influencing the school's search for its new president after university head E. Gordon Gee retires next year. Gee, the subject of symbolic motions from a faculty group that expressed no confidence in his leadership, said last year the curriculum cuts came at a time of change in higher education, and that WVU was “leading that change rather than being its victim.”

Higher education nationwide has become "arrogant" and “isolated,” he said, warning that without change, schools face “a very bleak future.”

Union Assembly of Delegates President and Co-Founder Matthew Kolb, a senior math major, said his group doesn't want a new president who believes running the school as a corporate or business entity is the only option for getting things done properly.

“We know, when push comes to shove, the results of that are 143 faculty getting shoved off a cliff with one vote," he said.

Adams, a north central West Virginia native who was the first in his family to attend college immediately after high school, said he could transfer to another institution and continue his studies in Chinese. But much of the reason he chose WVU was because of a commitment to the state and a desire to improve its socioeconomic outlook.

“A lot of West Virginians feel trapped in West Virginia and feel like they have to leave — not a lot of people choose to stay here," Adams said. “I made the conscious decision to go to WVU to stay here to help improve my state.”

The cuts meant reaffirming that commitment, “despite basically being told by my state's flagship university that, ‘Your major is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter, it’s not worth our time or money to teach.’”

FILE - West Virginia University senior Mailyn Sadler leads a protest in the university's free speech zone outside the Mountainlair student union against cuts to programs, Aug. 21, 2023, in Morgantown, W.Va.
FILE - West Virginia University senior Mailyn Sadler leads a protest in the university's free speech zone outside the Mountainlair student union against cuts to programs, Aug. 21, 2023, in Morgantown, W.Va.

Student union organizations have existed for hundreds of years worldwide. Commonly associated in the U.S. with on-campus hubs where students access dining halls, club offices and social events, in the United Kingdom the union also takes on the form of a university-independent advocacy arm lobbying at the institutional and national level.

Members say they envision the West Virginia United Students’ Union similar to those in the U.K., and it’s a concept they want to help grow.

That has meant a lot of work behind the scenes, strategizing to keep students interested and engaged and building relationships with the university campus workers union, student government and other organizations.

That work with the union helped keep up student morale as they watched faculty scramble to find new jobs and rewrite curriculum, student Felicia Carrara said.

An international studies and Russian studies double major from North Carolina, Carrara said she and many of her peers chose West Virginia University because it was affordable.

“The fact that we would now have to pivot to try and find the scholarships and other money to be able to afford an education anywhere else, or just not get a degree at all or get a degree that’s really bare bones. It’s just really disheartening," she said.

“When you come to higher ed, you think things are going to be better than they were in high school and in middle school,” she said. “And it’s very sad finding out that they’re not.”

Andrew Ross, a senior German and political science double major, will be the last graduate to major in the language.

A 31-year-old nontraditional student who transferred to WVU in 2022 after earning an associate's degree, Ross learned about the proposed cuts days after he returned home from a summer program in Germany he attended with the help of a departmental scholarship.

Ross, now the student union's assembly of delegates vice president, said the cuts “felt like getting slapped in the face.” The university told him to drop the German major. He's proud of his effort to finish the degree after twists and turns, but it's bittersweet.

“In some ways and it makes me sad because I hope there isn’t someone who is still growing up that can’t have this experience — we all deserve it,” he said. “This university isn’t just failing me, it’s failing the state.”

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