EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is part of a new ongoing series about international student life at colleges and universities across the U.S. Please join us over the next several weeks as we bring you stories about these amazing individuals and the American higher education system as a whole.
Ruofei Chen’s family is from China and she grew up in Lima, Peru. She knew those parts of the world and studied for her undergraduate degree in Asia and Latin America.
When Ruofei Chen chose to start a master’s degree program in 2015, she says she wanted something really different.
Ruofei Chen chose a new field of study called development practice. This field tries to explain how economic development can help solve poverty and other issues around the world.
As this field is so new, only a few universities around the world offer a degree program for it. For Roufei Chen, it has also meant new challenges.
Ruofei Chen's favorite study place is the Matheson Reading Room in the Robert W. Woodruff Library.
Because the U.S. is involved in development around world, Ruofei Chen wanted to study at a U.S. university. She chose Emory University, a private research university just outside of Atlanta, Georgia.
Founded by the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1836, the school is now home to over 14,700 students. The founders of the Coca-Cola Company helped build the current campus in 1914.
Emory University's main library is named for former Coca-Cola Company president Robert W. Woodruff.
When Ruofei Chen arrived at Emory, she had no idea what to expect. This caused some problems for her right away.
"Grad school in (the) U.S. can be really busy -- like, really busy, depending on how much elective classes you are enrolled in."
Ruofei Chen studies in the hours between her classes, at night and on the weekends. She also has to make connections with people and work on group projects.
She is also planning a trip to Nicaragua in the summer of 2016 to help prevent diseases that affect people in poverty. This is part of an Emory Global Health Institute project.
All of this happens in English, which is not her native language.
But Ruofei Chen has found that Emory wants her to succeed. For over 20 years, Emory’s Laney Graduate School English Language Support Program has offered special English lessons.
Emory University offers personalized English classes to international graduate students.
Once a week Ruofei Chen meets one-on-one with Peggy Wagner, a teacher with the program. Together, they work on more than just English grammar or vocabulary. Wagner helps Ruofei Chen examine how her voice sounds and how to use the language in different ways.
"What’s really fun for me is how to find ways to engage in discussions in a more professional way so that they can let their intellect shine and really express the intent that they want."
Sharon Chen found similar support when she began her undergraduate studies at Emory in 2014.
From Wuhan, China, Sharon Chen says she did not know what she wanted to study when she started looking for schools. She only knew she wanted to study at a U.S. university.
Sharon Chen began her research by looking at the U.S. News and World Report. The U.S. News and World Report is a media company that creates a list of what it calls “America’s Best Colleges.”
She saw Emory high on this list and chose to study business at the university.
But Sharon Chen was not fully prepared for her U.S. college experience either. She says high school classes in China are not interactive. When her professors at Emory first asked her to speak in class she felt lost.
Some of her classes had as many as 36 students in them, but others were as small as six students. These classes required her to engage with native English speakers in unfamiliar ways.
An undergraduate business class at Emory University's Goizueta Business School.
Luckily, Natalie Cruz, the director of international student life, was there to support Sharon Chen.
Cruz says it is a continuing problem for international students to communicate or make friends with students from the U.S.
Cruz began working in the Office of International Student Life at Emory in 2013. She says right away she began looking to solve this problem.
"So I was able to come in and really work with students to find out what their needs were, how could we really best serve students at Emory?"
Cruz organizes programs that build relationships between foreign and domestic students. The Conversation Partners program is one example. International students and students from the U.S. join this program and agree to meet once a week to talk.
The Office of International Student Life often holds events that celebrate the food and culture of different countries.
For her efforts, Cruz was the winner of Emory’s Advisor of the Year award for the 2015 school year. Sharon Chen speaks very highly of the help Cruz has given her.
"Natalie is my mentor and my friend. She taught me a lot and we organize events together. So I enjoy working with her a lot."
Emory University campus
Ruofei Chen has no regrets about her decision to come to Emory. She loves how personal her learning experience has been. But she does have some advice for international students considering a U.S. education.
She says that U.S. universities provide lots of support for their students. But students must be willing to look for that support themselves.
She also says students should learn as much as they can about a school before choosing to attend it.
"Get to know the place before you come. It will help you to minimize the gap between your expectations and what you will actually find here."
I’m Pete Musto.
Pete Musto reported and wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Adam Brock produced the video. Hai Do was the editor.
Now it’s your turn. What kinds of supports do universities in your country of their students? What do you think is most challenging about life as an international student? Let us know in the comments section or on our Facebook page.
Words in This Story
undergraduate degree – n. a degree that is given to a student by a college or university usually after four years of study
master’s degree – n. a degree that is given to a student by a college or university usually after one or two years of additional study following a bachelor's degree
challenge(s) – n. a difficult task or problem
campus – n. the area and buildings around a university, college or school
grad(uate) school – n. one or two years of additional study following completion of an undergraduate degree
elective – adj. not required in a particular course of study
class(es) – n. a series of meetings in which students are taught a particular subject or activity
enroll(ed) – v. to enter someone as a member of or participant in something
one-on-one – adv. involving two people who are dealing with or competing against each other directly
engage in – p.v. to do something
intellect – n. the ability to think in a logical way
intent – n. the thing that you plan to do or achieve
interactive – adj. requiring people to talk with each other or do things together
advisor – n. an employee of a school who gives opinions or suggestions to students about what should be done
minimize – v. to make something bad or not wanted as small as possible
gap – n. a difference between two people, groups, or things