In 1983, Marivi Walker graduated from a high school in Panama and attended Boston College. She was a rarity. “There were very few international students at the time and international recruitment was very different,” says Walker. Today, she is Florida Institute of Technology’s Director of Graduate and International Admissions and is “shocked” by the push to increase the number of international students in the US.
After a decrease during the pandemic, the number of international students studying at US colleges and universities increased by 12 percent in 2022-23, according to the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors report. In the 2022-2023 academic year, 81,945 students from Latin America and the Caribbean studied in the United States, an increase of 5.1 percent from the year prior, according to the same Open Doors report. Slightly over 16 percent of Latin American students who study abroad choose US institutions.
No matter their country of origin, Hispanic international students, and international students in general, face cultural, immigration, and academic challenges while bringing several benefits to their institution of choice and to the American students with whom they study.
Recognizing a Global Leader, Dealing with Challenges
Students from around the world continue to recognize the United States’ global leadership in higher education, making it the top destination of choice for international study; this builds and strengthens relations between future US leaders and Latin American countries, says a US Department of State spokesperson.
Yessenia Nahl, Undergraduate Admission Counselor at Florida Tech, says international students who earn a degree from one of the 4,000 higher education institutions in the US have broader options in their home countries. “Getting a degree from a school in the United States holds value internationally. The US is still one of the best places for international students. The prestige. The history,” says Nahl. Because international students are ineligible for federal financial aid, they pay full freight, making them desirable to US institutions.
Merida Gasbarro, Senior Director of Admissions for Liberal Studies, Social Research, and Professional Studies at The New School in New York City, says that prestigious faculty at many US institutions attract international students. “They may be renowned individuals,” says Gasbarro. It’s not unusual for prospective students to visit The New School’s website and get excited about the caliber of the faculty they’ll be studying with, she says.
While all college students face challenges, that list expands for international students. They are away from home; they’re lonely and possibly homesick. They’re experiencing a new lifestyle while navigating an unfamiliar education system. They’ve left their culture behind and, although most learned to speak English in an academic environment, they now must adjust to the nuances of the language in non-academic settings.
For most international students, the biggest challenge is financial. Although they can’t tap into financial aid, there are ways to defray costs. For example, Florida Tech awards scholarships to admitted international students based on merit at the time of admission, regardless of their citizenship. “Requirements may vary, but all are eligible. The average undergraduate international merit scholarship awarded at Florida Tech is $12,500 per year,” says Walker. At the New School, says Gasbarro, international students have concerns about whether their scholarship will last throughout their studies in the US.
To add to their financial woes, F1 visa regulations dictate that international students can only work on campus while in the US, and they’re restricted to only 20 hours per week, often at minimum wage. They can seek approval to work off campus through a Curricular Practical Training (CPT) program, but that privilege is usually reserved for graduate students. “Many of our international students have been able to obtain resident assistant jobs within university housing, where they are reimbursed for the full cost of housing and meal plans,” says Walker.
To help students from Latin America find the best fit for them, the State Department’s EducationUSA advising centers, located throughout Latin America and worldwide, offer guidance. For example, community colleges expand access for students from diverse economic backgrounds and allow them to transfer to a four-year institution at a lower overall cost.
US colleges and universities offer a range of scholarship options for international students, like the Global Undergraduate Exchange Program (Global UGRAD), The Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA) Program, and the Fulbright Amazonia.
Of interest to Hispanic students is a partnership between the US State Department and HACU. Forged in 2001 and renewed in 2022, this partnership is designed to increase awareness among students, faculty, and staff at HACU member institutions regarding programs, activities, careers, and employment opportunities at the Department of State. Likewise, it increases awareness at the Department of State about issues of importance to the Hispanic community and opportunities to participate in HACU activities. Its recent renewal reinforces the Department’s commitment to increasing diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility, and engagement with and support for traditionally underserved communities in the United States, says the US Department of State spokesperson.
Realizing Benefits on Both Sides
Walker finds that most international students in the US intend to return home with that highly coveted degree from a US institution of higher learning. “They really like their home and want to return to their country and utilize their skills to improve either an industry or their country,” says Walker.
But for those wishing to stay in the US, immigration laws work against them unless they earn a STEM degree. Graduates with non-STEM degrees are welcome to remain in the US for one year while they receive practical training in their chosen field. STEM graduates can stay an additional year.
For years, those in education and business have operated under the philosophy that diversity improves outcomes in research and product development. International students bring an array of perspectives that they share with American students and professors. “There has been a big push towards cross-cultural competency and internationalization of university campuses in the past decades or so. In my opinion, Latin American students, like any other international students, come to the United States to learn about the American way of life, doing business, our culture, what has made this country what it is,” says Walker.
Universities are incubators for innovative thinking, says Gasbarro, and all institutions share the goal of bringing individuals together with different lived experiences. Nahl says a diverse student body makes all students think differently, and they learn first-hand what it’s like to know someone from a foreign land. “I think when you start doing that, people start looking in-depth at that country and they want to know more and their perspective changes,” says Nahl.
For more than 75 years, educational and cultural exchange programs have offered US students the opportunity to study, teach, share experiences, build networks, and develop new skills with individuals from other countries with a positive, lifelong impact on exchange participants and their communities and societies, says the US Department of State spokesperson. International exchanges build connections and expand networks, allowing individuals and institutions from many countries, diverse backgrounds, and different sectors to work together to solve global challenges. International students on US campuses offer new perspectives and diversify and enrich the experience of American students at educational institutions, says the spokesperson. •