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Penn State’s New International Students: Theirs Is a Story of Determination

by on August 24, 2020 12:44 PM

It’s never been especially easy for an international student to get to a university like Penn State.  Even in a normal year, an overseas student must withstand the endless paperwork, the financial struggles, the cultural adjustments and maybe some language barriers. 

But, as you may have noticed, this year hasn’t been normal and it has brought even bigger challenges to new students from other nations. They’ve conquered health fears from COVID-19, visa delays from the closure of embassies, and a foreboding feeling—especially for Chinese—that they weren’t as welcome in America as in the past.   

Wow. That means if you are talking to a newly-arrived international student, you’re talking to someone with a special commitment. He or she paid a price of persistence to get to State College.


I knew that I wanted to meet some of these new blue-and-white heroes, but I didn’t realize how hard that would be. For obvious reasons, the population of new international students is much lower this fall. And those who have made their way to Happy Valley have been asked to self-quarantine for seven days.

Despite the difficult situation, a little networking allowed me to do personal interviews with six new Penn Staters from six nations: Mexico, Spain, Mongolia, China, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.  The first two, Maria Jose from Mexico and Sara from Spain, were still in their home countries when I spoke with each by Zoom. The other four, meanwhile, spoke with me in person after finishing their quarantine periods. All six students told stories that raised my eyebrows; Frank’s narrative nearly broke my heart.


Mexico’s Maria Jose is by no means a fearful person. She’s done her share of mountain climbing, she spent a year in Spain as an exchange student and she’s recently served as a journalist for Lado B, an online publication that is frequently critical of the government.  

But Maria Jose (her nickname is “Majo”) also describes herself an organized person who cares about the details of scheduling and finance. No wonder the unpredictable process of entering Penn State was so stressful for her.  

“I was afraid of a lot of things,” she says. “I didn’t know the city (State College) because I was unable to visit before I arrived. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be there because of the pandemic. Then the embassies were closed and then they were saying (to students who planned to go to America), ‘We are not going to give you the visa.’ It was awful, really awful.”

As the weeks went by with no progress toward her visa, Majo started worrying about her finances.  “I had quit my job,” she says, “so I was thinking I had to start looking for a job. Also, I had signed a lease contract (in State College). I thought that maybe I was going to have to cancel the contract, but I didn’t know if that was possible.”

The native of Puebla, Mexico didn’t know what to do except to follow the tweets of America’s ambassador to Mexico, Christopher Landau. “I was basically a stalker,” she says in describing the intensity of her focus on Landau’s Twitter account.

Maria Jose was rewarded with good news on July 30 when Ambassador Landau tweeted that students who were bound for America could receive visas. She had her interview on Aug. 7, got her visa on Aug. 10 and arrived in State College last Wednesday. 

And yes, she is now thrilled to be settling into her studies of Spanish literature at Penn State.

“When I went to Madrid,” she says, “I was not that excited. But all these months of waiting have made me excited about it (her PSU doctoral program). It gives me motivation to make it worth it—all those worries for all those months.” 

Maria Jose (second from left) gathered recently with her mother (black hat), three sisters and niece for a good-bye moment at the Mexico City airport.  Photo provided


Though they’ve never met in-person, Maria Jose and her new roommate, Sara, have probably experienced an instant rapport. Both know what it’s like to wait interminably for a visa to the States. But Sara’s problem began even before COVID-19 was a known threat. For reasons unclear to me, she took an out-of-date English proficiency exam in December, and that delayed her admissions process with Penn State. By the time her situation was clarified, the office that could have administered the proper exam was, you guessed it, closed because of the virus.  

Finally, Sara was allowed to take the English exam online in early July, and of course, she passed it. But by then, the American embassy in Spain was, you guessed it, closed because of the virus. So, she could not take her visa interview until Aug. 12; she received the visa on Aug.14 and flew to America on Saturday—just two days before the beginning of class. With an additional seven days of quarantine, she won’t see much of State College until the end of August.

Like Maria Jose, she talks of worries and stresses, but she praises the Spanish department at Penn State for helping her to stay focused on her goal.  

“It was so difficult; I had many problems,” she says. “The Spanish department is wonderful…it’s different. I felt support from them. It was so hard all the time, but they wrote to me all the time to ask, ‘How are you? What do you need? What is going on?” I felt that I am not just a number. The problem here in Spain is that we are numbers with our teachers. I felt that the Spanish department is different; they are a small family.”

Even with that support, Sara might have given up. But she was determined to pursue a doctorate in Spanish literature. “In my mind, I really want to go there, I really want my Ph.D. I didn’t stop fighting. I have to focus on what I want in the next part of my life.”

Sara poses for a photo with her parents and her brother. Photo provided


A new Penn State Law student named Tushig came a long way from Mongolia to pursue a master’s degree. He downplays his struggles, noting that he’s “the lucky one” who faced no problems with his immigration status. And why was that? Knowing he needed to improve his English to succeed in the vocabulary-rich environment of American law, Tushig came early to this country for intensive language study. His January arrival at a school in northern Virginia yielded more than just language growth; it also spared him from the immigration headaches faced by students who applied for visas after the coronavirus got in the way.

It’s not like Tushig has been exempt from sacrifice while entering Penn State, however. He’s already been apart from his wife, 4-year old daughter and 10-month old son for seven months. It’s obvious he misses them a lot, and it’s likely he will not see them for another nine months.  

Ironically, family factors played the key role in leading the attorney from Ulaanbaatar to move temporarily from his home. His father, a journalist, has long stressed the value of overseas education, saying to his five children, “It will open your eyes.” Tushig is now the fourth to heed his dad’s counsel, and he believes his time in America will lead to increased income that will help him educate his own children.  

Apart from his long walk to the grocery store (“In Mongolia, there’s always a mini market close to home”), Tushig is content with his new life in State College. Not only does he share a basement apartment with a fellow Mongolian, but he appreciates the friendliness of the locals.

“In Mongolian culture,” he says, “if two people don’t know each other they don’t need to give a greeting. But here people greet you; it doesn’t matter that they don’t know who you are. I think it’s a good culture.”

Tushig is enjoying his law studies at Penn State, but he misses his wife and children in Mongolia. Photo by Bill Horlacher


A new arrival from China who I’ll call “Wang” got a State College welcome that was as horrendous as Tushig’s has been heart-warming. Wang’s first six months in America were spent elsewhere in studying English, but when he arrived in State College earlier this summer, he experienced a huge shock. 

“Last month,” says the incoming undergraduate student, “when I first came to State College, I got scammed. I got scammed by some person online, and he scammed me for $2,000. I rented this house online, but I never met him in person. I paid him and when I came to State College, I could never find him. So I had to stay at the Super 8 for 10 days, and then I found another home.”

Wang, however, was able to endure his loss through faith in God.  A new believer in Christ, he says, “I should thank God. He gave me a lot of help in America. Every time I felt lonely or lost, He helped me.”

Despite his rude introduction to State College, Wang has made a quick and happy adjustment to life here. “I love State College very much,” he says. “It has many parks and many farms. I love the environment. I love to go fishing and hiking. This is a really good place. For me, it’s Happy Valley.”  


Like Tushig and Wang, Saudi Arabia’s Nada did some intensive English study before coming to Penn State. Like them, she was spared from visa headaches because of her early arrival in America, but she still faced many uncertainties before arriving in State College.

“Everything was easy until the COVID-19 virus started,“ says the King Saud University graduate who is now pursuing a master’s degree at Penn State Law. “Then things started to be stressful.” 

Referring to herself and her brother, a student at another American university, she mentions a long list of variables. “Nothing was certain—if we’re going back to Saudi; if we’re going to stay here. Airports were closed, they’re still closed, in Saudi. How can we go back? When do we go back if we’re going to go back? And if we stay here, are we going to study online or in person Are we going to study at all?”

Such a bewildering list of questions almost brought Nada to the point of giving up on law school. “But if I quit,” she thought to herself, “would I be satisfied with the result? I didn’t complete my goals. I came here for a reason and didn’t achieve it. But maybe I couldn’t even go back. This is what I was facing; I was so stressed.”

Eventually, however, “everything started to get clearer and clearer.” And so the fan of American movies (“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” from 1961 is her favorite) completed her language studies in Albany, New York and came to State College about two weeks ago.  

“I feel happy,” she says. “I feel ready. After five months of application and other things, I feel prepared to put all the effort I can into succeeding at the university.”

Nada battled many uncertainties stemming from the pandemic, but she is now focused on succeeding in her studies. Photo by Bill Horlacher


Many of the students at Penn State Law are envisioning ways to help folks behind bars. Not many of them have lived behind those bars, but there is one student, a man I’ll call “Frank,” who has. His story is one of deliverance from political distress to professional promise.

As we sit together on the terrace outside Katz Building, Frank’s low-key demeanor gives no clue to the dramatic story he’s about to tell. It begins as he explains that he had earned a bachelor’s degree in law and nearly finished an internship, so he was approaching certification as an attorney.

But then, in late 2017, he was arrested by police, berated and beaten, and eventually charged with being a member of the Gulen Movement, a progressive Islamic movement that is hated by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

According to Frank, the charges against him were introduced with no evidence, and he was held for more than a year with no conviction. Finally released by a judge, but still under threat of further incarceration, the would-be lawyer fled the country. He waded, swam and thrashed his way across the Maritsa River, surviving gunfire from Turkish soldiers and safely reaching Greek soil.

Next, he made his way to America and filed for asylum. Lacking the language skills to serve as a paralegal, he took the best job he could find—working in a butcher shop. But after diligent effort to improve his English, Frank was hired as a paralegal. Before long, an attorney in his firm urged him to attend law school in this country.

Contact was made with Penn State Law, and if this were a play, it would be time for Dr. Stephen Barnes, the school’s associate dean, to take the stage. As he does with so many international students, Dr. Barnes encouraged Frank and helped him to pass his language requirements and to secure scholarship funding. Says Frank, “He pulled away all the obstacles from my path.”

And so Frank arrived recently in State College, and it seems he is still struggling to comprehend his current situation. Asked how he feels about his current life, Frank says, “I can’t describe it.  Sometimes I’m thinking that 18 months ago, I was in prison and had lost everything. But now I’m in the university, the Penn State law school. I’m trying to get my master’s degree and I believe if I can work hard enough, I can go to the J.D. program as well.

“I’m thinking that Penn State is going to be my second home. Being an immigrant is a difficult thing; when you start to speak, people understand that you’re not a native. And sometimes you can see from their eyes that they’re judging you. But people here are used to seeing people from different countries come to get their degrees. So they always treat us like we are one of them.

“Sometimes when I’m in a bad mood, I’m thinking, “You went to prison, man. There’s nothing you cannot achieve.’ I don’t see anything more difficult than being in prison. So I’m not afraid of COVID because I went to prison and I survived.” 


Given the multi-faceted challenges that are faced by all international students, I have always believed that they are deserving of this community’s respect. And I’m gratified to hear Frank say that he senses such respect. But if anything, the incoming group that arrived this fall is even more deserving of our support and affirmation. 

As our new Spanish friend, Sara, puts it, “All of us have had to fight against a lot of things. And all of us have put ourselves at risk with the coronavirus and everything. But I believe that when I finish my Ph.D,, I will really appreciate the process. I believe we are stronger for going through this entire period.” 

Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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