HOUSTON, TEXAS - Before hunkering down in lectures about chemistry or economics, international students at U.S. colleges and universities are learning about health insurance and visa specifications.
It’s international student orientation week at many colleges and universities, including Rice University, where many graduate students are just days into their new journeys in Houston, Texas.
“Everyone is a little bit confused, a little disoriented. Lots of people are jetlagged,” Arina Zaytseva, a Ph.D. candidate in religious studies from Russia, told VOA at an afternoon pizza party in the engineering building, following a long morning of information sessions in lecture halls.
Zaytseva was not particularly impressed with the pizza.
Health insurance and bike laws
“But there were many important helpful tips, so I’m glad I came here,” she added, noting that she found the orientation sessions on health insurance the most useful.
Health insurance, which international students are required to have while in the U.S., is just one of many things students learn about in orientation, which can last multiple days.
Victoria Graja, a Ph.D. candidate from Ecuador, attended a presentation about coming from a culture that is less direct than American culture.
“Here you have to know that people are very direct,” she said.
And for other students, the most vital, if not shocking information, was about U.S. bike laws.
“I’m still super freaked out by the turn right on red rule,” Konstantin Georgiev of Bulgaria said, speaking about a traffic law that allows cars to turn right even if their light is red. Georgiev, an avid bike commuter, said he bought a bike the first day he moved to Houston but has had a hard time adjusting to traffic laws in a city dominated by cars.
“I’m coming from quite a biking place so it really bugs me when I’m in the right lane waiting for the traffic light to allow me to go forward and suddenly there would be a big SUV making a right turn while the red light is still on, which is totally legal, although I still can’t imagine it is!” he said.
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Not new to US
Many of those attending international student orientation have spent time in the United States, particularly graduate students.
Takudzwa Tapfuma, originally from Zimbabwe, had attended Amherst College in Massachusetts for four years of undergraduate studies before moving to Texas for his master’s in architecture.
Standing under an archway over a stone staircase in one of the oldest buildings on campus, Tapfuma talked about how moving from Massachusetts to Texas was a culture shock.
“I’d heard a lot of great things about Houston. ... I had not been to this part of the country, specifically Texas, so it was an exciting new challenge,” he said.
“I didn’t come in thinking I knew it all about being an international student in the U.S., and I think the Office of International Student Services showed that there’s a lot to learn even if you’ve been living in the United States,” Tapfuma said. “I’ve learned a ton from the orientation. There are resources on campus, how you can make use of the resources and just how to adjust to this new intellectual environment.”
Houston has been recognized as the most diverse metropolitan area in the United States, boasting a population that is more than a quarter foreign-born and 44 percent Hispanic, according to Rice’s Kinder Institute and 2016 census data.
Rice University has an international student population of 1,676 this academic year, about 24 percent of the student population, according to Rice’s Office of International Students and Scholars.
“If Rice hadn’t contacted me in the first place, I would not have considered coming to Texas just because I had some previous ideas,” said Santiago Lopez Alvarez, a Fulbright scholar from Colombia. “I think it’s great that I ended up coming here because life teaches you that stereotypes and prejudice are always overturned when you get there.”
“What I like is the diversity that they have,” Graja said. “In these few days I have met people from different countries and cultures and backgrounds, and they are also studying different subjects so I think that that’s the most interesting part of it.”
But there are many things about their vastly different home countries that they miss. During a day bookended by a pizza party and a classic Texas barbecue at the university president’s house, many students said that second only to their friends and family, food is what they’ll miss the most.
“Five years into living in America, the food still leaves a gaping hole in my stomach,” Tapfuma said with a sad smile.
Plenty of leftover pizza remained after the students filtered outside before afternoon orientation sessions. As for the barbecue, it seemed the beer was more popular.
?You are wanted here
But more than 1 million international students braved American cuisine on college and university campuses during the 2016-2017 school year, making up 5.3 percent of the entire higher education student population in the United States, according to the International Institute of Education’s Open Doors report.
“I encourage everyone who’s considering coming to the States to pursue a graduate education to give it a try,” Lopez Alvarez said.
“The international component of the programs is one of the main strengths,” he said. “They do want to have you here. They do want international students, and American students want to get in touch with you and meet you, and that’s really cool.”