Navigating an International Education

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How one organization is making a U.S. education a reality for more foreign students

If Gustavo Torres da Silva were to apply to college in his native Brazil, he would have to take a national exam and, based on his results, he would be placed at a university, where he would receive a complimentary education.

Gustavo Torres da Silva, an EducationUSA student
Gustavo Torres da Silva, an EducationUSA student

But Torres doesn’t want to study in Brazil. He wants to study in the United States, making the process far more complicated. As he began to consider this option, he found himself faced with so many unknowns: How does a foreign student apply to a university in the U.S.? How do universities choose candidates? What tests are required, and where do you take them? How do you write a college application essay? How much does an education in the U.S. cost, and how do you pay for it?

To answer these questions, Torres turned to EducationUSA, a network of more than 400 international student advising centers located in more than 170 countries.

“It’s completely different in Brazil, so [their assistance] was really helpful,” Torres says.

Part of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, EducationUSA helps foreign students navigate what can seem, at first, like an odd and disjointed system of higher education, with a decentralized system of accreditation, massive disparities in costs, and a dizzying array of institutions — public and private, secular and religious, regional and national. By making the process manageable, the program aims to encourage more international students to study in the U.S.

“International students enrich classrooms and communities,” says Meghann Curtis, deputy assistant secretary of state for academic programs at the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, who oversees all academic exchange programs for the State Department. “Being able to work across cultures, languages, and borders is essential to leadership in the 21st century, where the greatest challenges we face are global in nature and thus need global solutions. … International students make up less than 4 percent of all students studying in the United States, and thus there is still much room for expansion.”

There’s also an economic benefit to having international students on U.S. campuses. In the 2013-2014 academic year, the 886,000 international students who studied in the U.S. contributed more than $27 billion to the U.S. economy, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

Meghann Curtis, U.S. deputy assistant  secretary of state for academic programs
Meghann Curtis, U.S. deputy assistant
secretary of state for academic programs

EducationUSA helps simplify the task of applying to study in the U.S. by outlining five basic steps on its website: 1) research options, 2) finance studies, 3) complete application, 4) apply for student visa, and 5) prepare for departure. Along with these, students will also find resources online for each step of the process. And advisers are available to reach out to students either in person or by virtual means.

Because of his location, Torres was able to use in-person advisers, who were an hour-and-a-half bus ride from his home in the Capão Redondo slum of São Paulo. They offered him help with studying for the SAT and the TOEFL, an English language test, and taught him how to write a college application essay. Torres even received a scholarship from the EducationUSA Opportunity Funds program, which helps those students who are likely to be offered full scholarships at U.S. institutions defray the cost of applying for college by covering exam and application fees.

Torres was fortunate in that an advising center was relatively close to his home, but for many students, virtual contact is their only way of communicating.

EducationUSA advising centers are generally located at U.S. embassies and consulates, universities, Fulbright commissions, or non-governmental organizations, but the number of centers and advisers varies widely by country.

Brazil has 30 advisers. China, however, has only nine, all of whom are concentrated in Beijing. Meanwhile, China sends more students to the U.S. than any other country, according to the Institute of International Education’s 2014 Open Doors Report, a study of international students and scholars that is funded by the U.S. Department of State. In 2013-2014, China sent 274,000 students to the U.S. — almost one-third of all international students that year, a number that’s difficult to manage with only nine advisers.

While EducationUSA plans to increase the number of advisers in China to 13 by the end of 2015, and spread out those additional four among the four U.S. consulates and embassies in the country, Curtis realizes there is still room for improvement.

“We recognize that it is impossible to meet the demand of international students with in-person services alone,” Curtis says. “By utilizing virtual platforms such as NewRow, Wechat, Weibo, our new EducationUSA website, and many others, we constantly strive to provide services to more prospective students online.”

In addition to launching a new website — which is embedded with Google Translate — EducationUSA recently launched its “Five Steps to U.S. Study” in Chinese on its mobile app, an effort the agency may replicate in other countries and other languages if proven successful. Also in China, EducationUSA recently presented a new kiosk that offers the “Five Steps” in a virtual and moveable platform.

These efforts appear to be having an effect. In 2014, EducationUSA reached more than 3.5 million people in-person and 9.4 million virtually, for a total of almost 13 million people worldwide.

One of those reached was Torres, who plans to study engineering beginning this fall at one of the schools where he has been accepted: MIT, Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, and Duke. For him, EducationUSA was essential in providing help with the logistics of studying in the U.S., but the emotional aspect of studying far from home is something he’ll have to navigate on his own.

As a 17-year-old only child, his decision to attend school in the U.S. has been bittersweet for his parents, even though they have always encouraged him to study hard and do well.

“My parents have never been abroad. They don’t speak English,” Torres says. “This is a lot of news for them, and they are kind of afraid, kind of sad, but I think their happiness outweighs it.”●

Nina Rao is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. To learn more about EducationUSA, visit educationusa.state.gov.