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International students flock to Rochester's colleges and universities

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By the time you graduated from high school, you'd probably been sitting next to the same classmates since freshman year, middle school, or even elementary school. By now, you're ready to get out of that bubble and meet new people.

That is one of the most exciting things about college. You get to meet people who have had totally different life experiences than you. Prepare to be exposed to more new foods, music, and books than you know what to do with.

Rochester-area colleges are ideally suited for expanding the types of people you'll meet in college, because they attract a farther-reaching group of academics than you might think. Students from hundreds of different countries come to study in Rochester each year. Out of every top university in the country, the University of Rochester ranks 18th in the number of international students in attendance, according to a recent U.S. News report. Of the school's more than 10,000 students, more than 2,000 of them are international undergraduate and graduate students from 113 countries. At the Rochester Institute of Technology, international students come from 101 countries and make up 8 percent of the student body. Nazareth College is home to more than 200 international students, and nearly as many attend SUNY Geneseo.

So how do teenagers from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East end up in Rochester, of all places?

Many colleges use recruiters. Schools like the University of Rochester employ a staff of people who travel to different countries and spread the word about their merits. They visit college fairs and boarding schools abroad, and speak with students about different academic programs.

Meanwhile, many of the University of Rochester's programs speak for themselves. The Eastman School of Music, for example, has no need to employ recruiters given its impressive reputation. International students make up a full 25 percent of students at ESM. Rochester colleges have many world-renowned programs that are sought out by students in other countries.

Harshita Sood is from Kolkata, India, and is a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology. She chose to study there because of specific programs offered by the school.

"I found out about RIT when I started applying for colleges that offered a degree in environmental science," says Sood. "I did extensive research, and I chose RIT because of the great program, research opportunities, diverse student population, and the fact that it's a closed campus not too far from the city."

Nazareth College doesn't employ recruiters, says Dr. George Eisen, executive director of Nazareth's Center for International Education.

"We have a vibrant American language program that attracts a lot of international students," says Eisen. "We also have many joint-degree programs with colleges in China and Europe."

In places like Finland and Hungary, Nazareth College is one of the only American institutions to offer joint-degree programs. Some of these programs are like long-term study-abroad programs, where international students can spend up to a year at Nazareth while pursuing their degrees back home. Others are sponsored by governments in other countries, and allow international students to spend all four years in the United States.

For other global students, location is important. That was the case with Devin Embil, who came from Turkey to study at the University of Rochester.

"I wanted to apply to schools along the U.S. East Coast, it being an area that I'm more familiar with," Embil says. "The University of Rochester was one of the first schools I visited, and the visit really made it one of my preferred choices. I loved the open curriculum, allowing me to study what I love, or give me the freedom to find my passion, which I did by switching majors and concentrating in film and business."

Once international students choose to study in Rochester, they begin the long and stressful process of moving and adjusting to life in the United States. It's not always easy.

Getting the hang of things your freshman year can be hard enough for the average student. Now imagine that you have no idea who the Kardashians are, what your fellow students do for fun, and you may not even speak the primary language of your new surroundings. All of the scariness of college is compounded by cultural and language differences.

"I did have a bit of a culture shock when I first came to college," says Turkish student Embil. "It was less of a culture shock, but more of a, 'I didn't grow up with that TV show or music or joke.' Or the realization that Walmart, which I quite dislike, has everything from toothpaste to industrial lawnmowers for sale."

The number of international students at local colleges has grown in recent years, according to Cary Jensen, the director of the International Services Office at the University of Rochester.

"There has been a dramatic growth in the number of [international] students as well as the fields they are studying in," Jensen says. UR will see its largest number of incoming international students this fall.

Schools are responding with new and better ways to help international students succeed. These resources can be anything from in-depth orientations to blogs and pop-culture classes.

After working with international-student programs for more than 15 years, Jensen is keenly aware of the challenges these students face.

"The No. 1 challenge is making friends and meaningful connections here," Jensen says. "It's a recurring challenge. We have a natural tendency to cluster with our own, and there are barriers to break through."

To help students connect with one another, UR offers culture classes and mentor programs for international students. New students are paired with older international students who can relate to these challenges and help them along the way.

Nazareth College also has a mentoring program, but it works differently. The program matches incoming international students with American students. There is also a requirement that international students live with American students during their first year.

In order to make move-in day easier, SUNY Geneseo has a program where upperclassmen meet international students at the airport and take them to campus. The International Student Services section of SUNY Brockport's website has blogs where current international students write about their experiences (you can check them out at brockport.edu/international/experiences).

Local colleges are also home to many student groups created to support students from other countries. Sood is the president of RIT's Global Union student group.

"We provide a bridge between international students and various departments on campus, such as housing operations and dining services," Sood says. "We put up several events and activities throughout the year, starting with an airport pick-up service for new international students. We do a welcome event during orientation and an annual Halloween party to introduce international students to American culture."

All of these resources aim to help international students adjust to life in this country and connect with American students.

Other challenges for international students are less apparent. For example, UR'S Cary Jensen points out that one of the most difficult adjustments has to do with transportation in Rochester.

"We are definitely a car culture here in the U.S.," he says. "So many students are coming from huge cities where public transportation is the only way to get around. There is just no way to get around here without a car."

Students from other countries have a hard time obtaining drivers' licenses. If they do get one, it may mean giving up a license in their home country. Rochester's public transportation can also be both limited and confusing.

"When you're new in a place and can't even get to the store, it's an issue," Jensen says.

To help with this problem, many colleges have their own bus and shuttle systems. SUNY Brockport, UR, SUNY Geneseo, and RIT all have buses that take students to places around campus and the city. Bus routes and information can be found on each college's website, in the parking and transportation section. UR and RIT's shuttle bus systems even have downloadable apps that you can use to track routes. If your college does not offer this service, information about Rochester's public bus system can be found at rgrta.com.

International students also deal with problems that everyone in Rochester faces, such as the weather. For a lot of students, their first winter in Rochester can be a shock. The Brockport and Geneseo websites have detailed descriptions of Rochester's climate, especially the winter temperatures. They provide lists of what to pack for the winter, as well as advice from older international students.

Sood says that Rochester's winter was one of the most difficult things to get used to when she came to school here. In her home city of Kolkata, the annual mean temperature is about 80 degrees Fahrenheit. For her, Rochester's freezing winter climate was quite a change.

But hey, dealing with the snow and rain can be one more thing all Rochester college students have in common. No matter where you're from, it's easier to relate to someone when you're both trudging to class in the snow. And nothing brings people together like complaining about the weather.

For more information on resources for international students, check out the website of each local college.

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