As a high school student in Egypt, Omar Bishr applied to a few U.S. universities but didn’t get in. So he pursued plan B: apply to a community college in the U.S. and then transfer to a four-year institution.
Today, Bishr, 19, is a second-year business and economics student at Santa Monica College, a community college in California. He holds leadership positions on campus, such as water polo team captain, and is on the path to transfer – he hopes to attend the University of California—Berkeley.
“SMC is literally my home away from home,” Bishr says.
In 2014-15, a total of 91,648 international students – 9.4 percent of all international students in the U.S. that year – studied at community colleges, according to data from the Institute of International Education.
Some community colleges with large international student bodies have developed services to address some of the biggest hurdles this population faces, including acclimating to a new education system, finding housing and getting involved on campus.
One of the initial challenges international students face is learning how to navigate a new education system, experts say.
“I think, probably, community college is the least well understood of all because it is a uniquely American type of an institution,” says Heidi Russell-Kalkofen, an international student coordinator at Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland.
For instance, Zia Dar, a second-year Montgomery College business technology administration student from Pakistan, says one difference he’s experienced is how tests are structured. Dar, 22, says exams he’s taken in the U.S. tend to cover four or five chapters worth of material, while tests he took in Pakistan would typically cover an entire 12-chapter book at once.
Montgomery College’s mandatory international student orientation for students who are on F-1 visas is led largely by returning or recently graduated international students and includes activities such as a skit about how to greet Americans and a bingo game where students have to scour the school’s website for information, says Russell-Kalkofen.
Houston Community College offers multiple international student orientations each year. The school has boasted the largest international student population of any community college in the U.S. for the last decade, according to IIE data; in fall 2014, 5,441 international students attended HCC.
Some colleges, such as Green River Community College in Auburn, Washington, offer extended education on similar topics beyond the initial orientation.
New Green River international students participate in a required program called Foundation for Success. Students meet with peer mentors, most of whom are current international students, and attend weekly sessions that cover topics like study skills as well as personal health and safety.
They also participate in fun events such as a cooking class, says Wendy Stewart, vice president of international programs and extended learning at Green River.
Additionally, Green River students take a required prep course called International Student College Experience that focuses on U.S. classroom skills and expectations, such as learning how to read a syllabus and the importance of participating in class, says Stewart.
And because many international community college students with F-1 visas are interested in eventually transferring to a four-year institution, some community colleges – including SMC and Green River – pair students with international academic advisers who can help them get and stay on track to transfer.
Lots of four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. have student housing facilities, but this is not the case at many community colleges. So securing housing is another challenge international community college students face, some students say.
A number of two-year schools have built dorms and apartments to help address this need. Around a quarter of public community colleges offered on-campus housing in 2014, according to a recent report from the American Association of Community Colleges.
At Green River, both international and domestic students can apply for accommodations in the Campus Corner Apartments. Approximately 80 percent of the 340 students who live in the complex are international, says Stewart.
After they arrive, new international students receive a move-in kit from Green River that includes sheets, a towel, laundry detergent and other household items to help them get settled, Stewart says.
Finding a Community
“One of the biggest challenges is making friends because when you come as an international student you have nobody,” says Carlos Penuelas, a Santa Monica College business administration student from Mexico. “You don’t have family; you don’t have friends.”
Experts and students agree that getting involved on campus is one of the best ways to combat the loneliness that may hit international students after the initial excitement wears off.
Penuelas, 21, says he made a handful of friends in class during his first semester, but it was when he started attending meetings of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society – a student organization with more than 400 members, Penuelas says – that he really started to feel connected. Today, Penuelas is the president of SMC’s Phi Theta Kappa chapter.
Schonberg, of HCC, is quick to express to international students the importance of campus engagement.
During orientation, Schonberg says, “we’re really pushing for students to get involved.” She adds, “We don’t want our students just to go to class and go home.”