Ottman Tertuliano, SEAS '13, was born in the Republic of the Congo, but he split his time growing up between the West African nations of Benin and Gabon, moving around due to political conflict and family matters. He came to the United States at age eight.
While Tertuliano, who is studying mechanical engineering, has not become an active member of any campus cultural groups, he said that he has found a group of French-speaking friends and takes advantage of New York's culinary resources to prepare spicy curried rice and other dishes from back home.
“I can always find what I need in terms of ingredients, going up to Harlem or K-Town,” he said. “New York is very accommodating in that respect.”
Twenty-three percent of Columbia's student body is international, but many of those students, like Tertuliano, spent time in the United States before enrolling, rather than coming to Columbia directly from their home countries.
“There are third-culture kids who have created a different culture out of living in a two-culture household, or students who are recent immigrants,” said Kirin Liquori Terni, the first director of International Student Programs and Services for Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
A host of Columbia offices work with international students, helping them with issues ranging from visas, to funding, to adjusting to life in the United States. Meanwhile, many international students share their cultures with the rest of the student body through cultural groups and events.
And while most international students have had positive experiences with Columbia programs and groups, their needs and narratives are as varied as the 152 countries that they represent.
George Tsai, SEAS '14 and vice president of the Taiwanese American Students Association, was born in America, but then lived in Taiwan and Canada before coming to Columbia. Tsai joined TASA—one of dozens of cultural clubs at Columbia—to connect with Taiwanese students who share his background and bring their culture to the larger student body.
Recently, the group served tea at a traditional ceremony and hosted a mochi rice snack study break to explore Taiwanese heritage. Surrounding events like these, the group has struggled with whether they should simplify traditions in order to showcase more general Asian themes, or whether delving into traditions would be more meaningful.
“One of the big problems in Asian clubs is how to make events that are broadly appealing, but don't just homogenize everything,” Tsai said. “Because if you want to appeal to a lot of people, it's hard to focus on something specific that most people might not know about or are interested in.”
East Asian students currently comprise 41 percent of Columbia's international enrollment. But while Chinese students are 26.5 percent of Columbia's international enrollment, South Koreans are 9 percent and Taiwanese are 2.3 percent.
Tsai said that there is often an impulse on campus to conflate Asian heritages. While he thinks there should be greater dialogue between cultural clubs about working together, he also said that clubs should challenge the student body to notice cultural nuances, which are important to international students.
“Taiwanese culture is distinct from Chinese culture,” Tsai said. “There are many similarities, but if you were to visit Taiwan, you could see the differences.”
While TASA has worked to balance its focus, the Organization of Latin American Students has instead taken the approach of considering Latin American culture as a whole. Karla Sosa, CC '13 and OLAS president, was born in Mexico and raised in Peru. Interested in environmental biology, Sosa decided that “research is much better in the U.S. than in Latin America, as it doesn't get as much support” in Latin America.
Sosa found a community in OLAS and has served as president for over a year. During her time there, she said that the club has shifted its focus.
“It started out just as an organization to cater to Latin American students on campus, but we expanded it to be more about Latin American culture,” Sosa said.
In the past year, leaders of the organization have had backgrounds from a variety of Latin American and European countries. The Latin American student population remains low, at 8.2 percent of Columbia's international enrollment.
In 2010, Columbia held its first comprehensive orientation program for undergraduates who aren't U.S. citizens or who graduated from schools outside the United States. The International Student Orientation Program has since become a fixture, featuring optional tours, trips, and information sessions in the days leading up to orientation for all students.
Additionally, the International Students and Scholars Office—Columbia's foremost resource for international students—offers orientation sessions and workshops for all international students throughout the year. International students praised the office for helping them deal with issues ranging from filling out visa paperwork to finding campus jobs. Tertuliano said the office helped him go through the process of securing a green card.
“Everything has been straightforward and timely,” he said.
The ISSO also organizes cultural events, such as museum outings and trips to other northeastern cities. Samanta Gokova, GS '13—who moved to New York City from her native Turkmenistan in 2006—said these trips are a good supplement to international students' academic experiences.
“They're doing an excellent job there, in terms of integrating culture and touristic parts into our life,” Gokova said, referring to the ISSO.
Tsai said that he thinks ISSO could do more outreach prior to students' arrival, however, including pairing new international students with current students on campus, as most students currently just rely on social media sites. He also said that more efforts could be made to unify international and American students during the orientation period.
At Barnard, the Office of International Programs hosted its first celebration for International Education Week last month, putting on a week of events that included study abroad information sessions, discussion panels, and a sampling of foods from around the world. The college also has a Visiting International Students Program, which brings dozens of international students to Barnard each semester.
Student ambassadors help guide VISP participants through the city and through their academics, but their roles can vary significantly depending on their mentees. Alina Abazova, BC '13—who was born in Kyrgyzstan but lived in Malaysia and the United States before starting at Columbia—has been an ambassador since her freshman year.
“Some students like to be very independent, and they don't need any help,” Abazova said. “And sometimes you feel like you've been assigned to be a guide, and they're very independent, and they don't really want to meet with you.”
“You have to find ways to make activities fun, so that they would want to come to the lunch breaks or the dinners that everyone else is hosting together,” she said.
The same is true of international students who are here for the long haul—they're all looking for something different. Tertuliano, for instance, is not a U.S. citizen, and while he lived in the United States for nine years before coming to Columbia, getting a green card was the only thing with which he's needed help.
“Initially I was doing that, I was going to the international meetings and such, and a lot of it was logistics with papers, and helping you integrate into the American lifestyle,” he said. “And I had already done that.”
Meanwhile, some students said that not every office is as helpful as the ISSO. Sosa said that she once went to the Center for Career Education and was told that they couldn't help her find an on-campus job, as she's an international student. International students who don't have green cards can't get work-study jobs, although they can get casual campus employment.
“The international students' office is really helpful. Other offices are not as aware of the paperwork, so you have to explain it to them,” Sosa said. “It can be a hassle sometimes.”
Liquori Terni, who used to serve as an admissions officer, was named CC and SEAS' first international student programs and services director in June. Dean of Community Development and Multicultural Affairs Terry Martinez said that part of the reason her job was created was the diverse nature of the international student body.
“Right now, we're just trying to understand what the needs are, so that we can better identify them,” Martinez said. “That's what Kirin's doing—that's the first step to us.”
Liquori Terni has also spent a lot of time working with other Columbia offices, including ISSO and the Office of Global Programs, and helping CC and SEAS students connect with them. Part of her job, Liquori Terni said, is to “enhance all the other resources” that exist at Columbia.
One of those resources is academic advising. Figuring out what to study can be a challenge for all students, but it's especially tough for international students, because for many of them, the only way to stay in the United States after graduation is to get a work visa. And it's easier to get a work visa in some fields—like engineering, medicine, and finance—than it is in others.
Abazova said that while she wanted to major in political science or history, her dad—a professor—discouraged her, telling her that it would make it difficult to get a job and stay in the country.
“Being an international student definitely affects what you're going to end up choosing for your major,” she said. “More often I think international students end up choosing more quantitative majors.”
Another option for F-1 international students beyond obtaining a work visa is to receive Optional Practical Training, which allows students to work in their field temporarily after they graduate.
“This year, I've been trying to find a job to do this OPT ... You do have to be aware of what the limitations are, what the words are, with regards to the visa,” Sosa said.
Dean of Student Affairs Kevin Shollenberger said that administrators need to be particularly careful when it comes to academic advising for international students, taking into account both their job prospects and Columbia's academic character.
“When students are thinking about majors, we want to be really careful, since we're a liberal arts institution, that we're not tracking people into specific careers,” he said.
For some international students, though, pursuing their desired course of study goes hand in hand with their post-college plans. Tertuliano is currently applying to mechanical engineering graduate programs, and he hopes to do work that will have a positive impact on West Africa.
“I don't really remember grappling with that. I just came in thinking I liked math and physics, and mechanical engineering seemed right,” he said. “And I haven't really doubted that.”