Over the past few years, the population of international students at VCU has increased, with a total of 1,278 students from around the world attending VCU this fall.
That number was at 998 in the fall of 2007 and 1,118 in fall 2010. Last fall, VCU had a total of 1,254 international students, said Amber Hill, Ph.D., director of international student and scholar programs at VCU’s Global Education Office.
Hill said international students are attracted to VCU degree programs offered through the schools of business and engineering. The opportunity to learn English is a plus, too, she said.
“Many of our students come in and spend anywhere from a semester to three (semesters) learning English before they actually start their academic work,” Hill said. “The fact that they can come here, study, learn English and then go straight in is a big advantage at VCU. It’s a wonderful product that we offer.”
The countries where students most often hail from are Saudi Arabia, China, India and Korea, Hill said. These countries have represented the largest population of international students at VCU and nationwide, Hill said.
The most common obstacle international students face is getting involved in their community and learning how to make friends, Hill said.
“I think becoming part of the community (is the biggest challenge),” Hill said. “I think it takes a real effort on the part of the international students to get out there and take advantage of all the resources, but most of them do and once they do, they realize how rewarding it is.”
Ali Alaithan, a 19-year-old freshman from Saudi Arabia, is spending his first year in the U.S. as an English major. So far he said he hasn’t participated in any clubs or organizations on campus, but said he hopes to in the future, as a way to make American friends and practice the English language.
Richmond wasn’t quite what he expected it to be Alaithan said.
“I was thinking (Richmond) would be like New York, but it’s a small city,” Alaithan said. “It’s OK, but it’s very expensive.”
Alaithan plans to graduate from VCU in 2017. After graduation, he said he plans to return to Saudi Arabia to find a job.
Linn Oedegaard is another international student who is spending her first semester at VCU, but she’s no stranger to Richmond. The Norwegian first came to Richmond two years ago to attend J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College.
“I was thinking about studying interior design in America and I knew one person in Richmond,” Oedegaard said. “So the plan was to come to Richmond and do one year in community college and then transfer to New York, but I ended up liking Richmond so much that I stayed, and I switched my major to business.”
Oedegaard then transferred to VCU to earn her bachelor’s degree. She said learning how to speak English socially was one the biggest challenges for her.
“It’s a challenge to meet a different culture and talk the language, since Norwegian is my first language,” Oedegaard said. “So it’s more about learning how to socially talk, not so much academically, because I’ve taken English as a second language in Norway since I was in first grade, so my English wasn’t really bad. It’s all about the social talk.”
Oedegaard also said transportation was a major issue for her in Richmond.
“When I first came here, I stayed with my friend and his family, so I soon realized that it’s really hard to get around in Richmond and I lived in the West End, so there were no buses and no public transportation to get to J. Sargeant Reynolds,” Oedegaard said.
As a result, Oedegaard said she ended up buying a scooter to get around the city.
“So with a scooter I got around everywhere and that’s how I got to know Richmond really well because I love to explore,” Oedegaard said.
Oedegaard said she also participated in a leadership program, which helped her meet people and make friends.
“It’s a good thing to join clubs and organizations because it’s a really good way to get to know people,” Oedegaard said. “You meet people who have the same hobbies or interests as you, so it’s easier to get involved and meet friends.”
VCU’s Global Education Office has an entire department devoted to student engagement. Hill said they offer monthly social events, trips and various programs, like the Conversation Partner Program, which pairs international students with English speakers, and the Friendship Families and Cultural Exchange program, which matches international students up with local families, whom they live with for the year. Between 50 and 70 students participate in this program each year, Hill said. Local families host around 200 international students for Thanksgiving dinner every year, she said.
“I think we’re doing all the right things to attract students and to make them happy here and make them successful,” Hill said.
For Oedegaard, the adjustment to the life in U.S. has been manageable.
“I’d say it’s been easy, but that might be because of how I was brought up, because I’ve traveled a lot before,” Oedegaard said. “So I’ve (seen) to a lot of cultures and I’ve met a lot of people, so I’m used to always changing and adjusting myself. I’ve had ups and downs of course, but I think everybody in every country does,” she said.