‘It was a learning experience’: International students on navigating four years of academics, challenges and growth

While international students have faced a variety of different challenges, many have shared experiences throughout their undergraduate time at Dartmouth.

by Daniel Modesto | 6/12/22 5:20am

Source: Courtesy of Brandon Zhou

This article is featured in the 2022 Commencement & Reunions special issue. 

When Alex Bramsen ’22 stepped foot on campus four years ago, she had a lot to learn as an Zimbabwean student from Tanzania. While she eventually set up a bank account with help from the international student pre-orientation program and learned to file taxes through a session hosted by the Office of Visa and Immigration Services, Bramsen admitted there was something they didn’t teach her: where the dining halls were.

“I actually didn’t know where Foco was, so I struggled to find food because no one had told me where anything was,” Bramsen recalled. “So I just ended up going to Lou’s, because all that would pop up on Google Maps [were] the restaurants in town.” 

While many students might get a laugh from that story — Bramsen herself chuckled during our interview — it points to the added nuances that international students face from the moment that they first arrive on campus. Oftentimes, international students bear the brunt of issues such as housing and class selection as a result of their residency status and shaping their D-plans to ensure they take three in-person classes, according to Bramsen. Imagine filing taxes for two countries, or having to change phone numbers every time you cross an international border — for many students, this is reality.

At the same time, however, international students noted positive experiences during their time at Dartmouth, offering reflections on college, academic interests and personal growth.

International students: A profile

According to the Office of Admissions, international students comprised 11% of accepted students from the Class of 2022, with Brazil, Canada, China, India and the United Kingdom among the countries with the most ’22s at Dartmouth. They represent anywhere from 11 to 15% of accepted students in any given class year, and the College offers an international student pre-orientation program through the Office of Pluralism and Leadership.

Another group that provides a space for international students is the International Students Association. Outgoing ISA president Brandon Zhou ’22 said that, as a student group on campus, the ISA offers both advocacy and social support for international students. Zhou, who hails from Canada, noted the diversity within the international student community on campus, emphasizing that they are not a “monolithic” group — and all have different involvements and interests.

“I think we’re just such a diverse group of students on campus, and it’s been so cool to have that opportunity and privilege to interact with people who come from different backgrounds, people who are first generation low-income, people who represent different religions [and] ethnicities,” Zhou said.

Zhou remembered he was “a bit stressful” his first time traveling to campus, especially having to do it alone. Zhou explained that the ISA aims to make the College more accessible to international students. The ISA advocated for controlled storage on behalf of international students during the pandemic, while on the social side, the ISA offers a “snack and taxes” event for students to fill out their tax forms together.

Gregor Mattedi Sarmento ’22, an international student from Brazil, recalled that his decision to attend Dartmouth was based on several factors, including the ability to undergo his gender transition. However, upon arriving on campus for the first time, Sarmento described facing many culture shocks initially — from using English in academic settings, to absorbing American customs, to realizing that “Americans are not the most open people in the world.” 

Sarmento admitted that he chose not to completely adopt American culture.

“I wasn’t willing to forget a part of my culture to fit in here, which I guess is the expectation of Americans that you will cut [a part of] yourself out so you can fit better,” Sarmento said. “I was never available to do that and I was never willing to do that. So I never did it.”

The effects of the pandemic

During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many international students scrambled to receive interim housing; some students who applied for interim housing were denied initially and then later accepted, adding to the confusion and uncertainty of their status. Bramsen recalled the stress of securing housing during the spring of 2020, in addition to being told by the administration that if she didn’t take classes during the summer, she wouldn’t be allowed to stay on campus. She said she eventually stayed with friends.

“I feel very privileged to have friends that I could go to and stay with, so I made plans for that,” Bramsen said. “But a lot of my other friends didn't have that [option].” 

Zhou recalled that during the early stages of the pandemic, the ISA helped international students stay connected as a group “that feels the impacts of [COVID-19] maybe a little bit differently or intensely than other groups,” adding that the organization also advocated to make sure international students had basic necessities like food, housing and transportation.

In June 2020, the ISA sent a petition to the College “to extend concrete, impactful and rapid assistance” for unenrolled international students who were scheduled to leave their residence halls on June 10. Later that month, the College allowed some unenrolled students — mostly international students — to stay on campus during the summer based on “individual circumstances,” such as a student’s inability to return home due to closed borders. 

According to Sarmento, once the College decided to move classes online in March 2020, he returned to Brazil and stayed there until spring 2021. Since the United States had closed its borders to Brazilian nationals, he had to travel to Paraguay and then continue his trip to the U.S.

For international students, class selection further complicated their visa amid the pandemic. Bramsen said that under her F-1 visa, she is a full-time student, meaning that her classes had to be in person. When Dartmouth announced that the College would switch to an online format in March 2020, many international students were unsure if their F-1 visa would be terminated. The following April, the Department of Homeland Security announced that international students who took online classes in the spring would retain their F-1 visa even if they were taking classes remotely outside of the U.S. 

However, in early July, the Trump administration introduced an order that would have jeopardized international students’ visas if they took online classes in the fall. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology swiftly sued, with Dartmouth filing an amicus brief in support of the federal lawsuit. Less than two weeks after the Trump administration issued the order, they reversed their decision.

Due to a lack of reliable internet in Brazil, Sarmento said that remote learning during the pandemic had a significant effect on his participation and grades. As a result, he took time off during the 2021winter term and had to pause his I-20 visa. In addition, he said he had to “beg residential life to give [him] housing,” since members of the Class of 2022 did not receive priority for housing during spring of 2021.

For Bramsen, the pandemic rendered her unable to see her family for over two  years — though she said she is “excited” to finally see them soon. 

“My parents are coming up, and they’re flying in … for graduation. They’ll be here until Commencement,” she said.

Looking back after four years

Despite the whirlwind experience of these last four years, both Bramsen and Sarmento shared some highlights of their time at Dartmouth. Bramsen recounted her desire to pursue a liberal arts education at the College, which resulted in her becoming a geography major modified with environmental studies, in addition to two minors in chemistry and theater. Bramsen also directed a Studio Lab production during the winter of 2022, titled “Rivka’s Reading Rainbow.”

Sarmento appreciated the ability to learn Mandarin as part of the Chinese language study abroad program in Beijing, in addition to learning other languages such as Russian during his time at Dartmouth. Furthermore, he appreciated the sense of community which he has gained at Dartmouth — such as among Novack Cafe workers and other international students, specifically the thirty or more Brazilian students on campus.

Sarmento said that he underwent many changes during his time at Dartmouth, expressing that he’s “changed for the better.”

“I’m less shy, more outgoing now, which I guess is definitely related to college because I had to speak a lot in class, which is something I never did in high school,” Sarmento said. “Just having to talk to people from another culture in another country, another language all the time just made me get out of my shell.”

Bramsen reflected on her four-year journey as an international student.

“Looking back, I think I think it’s been interesting. I do wish some things had gone smoother. But I think every time that it didn’t, it was a learning experience,” she said. “It definitely brought me closer to a lot of people and taught me a lot.”