Through Foreign Eyes: International Students Share Their Ship Experience

Manal Ibrahim knew that her chances of getting the scholarship were slim, but went through the rigorous process anyway. Phase one included multiple exams. Phase two dealt with coding. The final phase involved critical thinking. When the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Education announced the list of students accepted to study overseas, her name wasn’t on it.

Ibrahim was disappointed. Having earned her bachelor’s degree in computer science in 2008, she knew she was older than students who were typically accepted to continue their education abroad. But she wanted the chance to study in the United States. 

Then, by “prayer or something, my name was on the list,” she said. “I think my name came onto it because of God.”

Today, Ibrahim is completing her master’s degree in computer science with a concentration in software engineering at Ship. She’s one of 100 international students from twenty-three different countries currently earning a degree on campus, according to Mary Burnett, director of International Programs. Although their paths to Ship vary, their goals follow the same theme—a better life, a challenge, an improvement, a new experience.

But with well over 5,000 colleges and universities in the United States, how do they land in south-central Pennsylvania?

During International Students Week, Ship displayed flags on the quad to represent the different countries of our international students, faculty, and staff.

During International Students Week, Ship displayed flags on the quad to represent the different countries of our international students, faculty, and staff.

Coming here is a challenge to them. This is an added level of prestige.
— Mary Burnett, director of International Studies

“Our location is very attractive to international students,” Burnett said. “We’re close to several major cities, we are reasonably priced compared to other schools, and students see our distinctions and accreditations. The cost of living also is more attractive.”

The International Program has grown significantly in the past four years, she said. Ship is an approved school in Saudi Arabia for students like Ibrahim who want to study in the United States. Saudi Arabian students account for 40 percent of SU’s international students. In India, where the second largest group of students hail from at 17 percent, computer science is huge, and students have expressed to Burnett that Ship’s program is well known. Several students from Poland got their first introduction to Ship through Bill Minsker ’68-’73M, an alum who teaches at the University of Economics in Poland and often recruits students for the John L. Grove College of Business.

Computer science has the highest international enrollment at 29 percent, followed closely by business administration and management at 25 percent. There are slightly more graduate than undergraduate students, and Burnett said the majority of international students have at least one degree before they enroll at Ship.

Students overcome language barriers, cultural differences, transportation issues, homesickness, mysterious food options, and unusual weather to earn a degree in the United States.
“Coming here is a challenge to them,” she said. “This is an added level of prestige.”

During the fall semester, six international students who are enrolled at Ship shared their experiences with SU Magazine.


Manal Ibrahim

Manal Ibrahim

Saudi Arabia

Studying overseas was a new adventure for Ibrahim. She wasn’t sure what to expect of the United States, “but from what I see, I like it,” she said. 

The small class sizes are ideal for one-on-one with professors. “It’s better. If you’re looking
for improvement, the teacher must know you.”

In Saudi Arabia, a certain formality and respect prevent students from interacting with faculty. If a professor asks a question, students write it on paper. “We also won’t correct them. It’s impolite,” Ibrahim said. “If they say, ‘A bird swims, is that true?’ We say, ‘You are the professor, you have the knowledge.’”

Ibrahim spent a year studying English in the US before she came to Shippensburg, where she had her first interaction with American students.

“I felt put in a barrier at the beginning,” she said. “Through the semester, through the program, I got to know people, and students became more accepting.”

The transition was hard at times, and Ibrahim considered returning home, but her parents encouraged her to continue. Her father accompanied her to the United States, which is typical of tight-knit Saudi Arabian families. Before her mother passed away, she lived with Ibrahim’s sister, one of her five siblings, who was pursuing a master’s degree in New Jersey.

“They are very supportive,” she said.

The International Students Organization and Saudi Cultural Club at Ship also have helped Ibrahim build a support system. “We create a type of family. … It helps with homesickness.”

Although she’s nearly done with her studies, Ibrahim admits she is still adapting. The cooler weather is an improvement, but she’s not quite used to snow. The peace of the countryside is appealing, but she can’t quite warm up to American food.

Ibrahim will graduate in May. She hopes to obtain a scholarship for a PhD program, but otherwise plans to return home. “From the beginning, when I was accepted to this program, I planned to return home to work,” she said. “It’s not required, but I want to return the favor.” 


Krzysztof Idzikowski calls Wroclaw, Poland, home.

Krzysztof Idzikowski calls Wroclaw, Poland, home.

Krzysztof Idzikowski

Poland

Krzysztof Idzikowski has a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, is completing his dissertation for a PhD, and has eight years of experience in business—yet getting accepted to Ship in the MBA program was like “winning the lottery. It’s very nice.”

“In Poland, an MBA is bigger than an MA,” he said. “It’s not just about business, but also about English.”

Idzikowski first learned English when he was twelve, but said he got rusty after high school. For part of his career, he sold IT services to businesses in Germany, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. Working internationally required improved English skills, as he held several meetings in English.

Idzikowski started the MBA program in August 2014, marking his first time in the United States. Fortunately, the culture in the United States is very similar to home. “After one month, I knew how it worked. It was a smooth transition.”

The fast-paced American lifestyle often proves challenging for foreigners, but Idzikowski said he’s used to it. Just like in the US, people in Poland get internships or work part time during college, hold multiple jobs, eat lunch at their desk, and take work calls late or on weekends. 

What varies is the structure of higher education. Both have advantages and disadvantages, he said. “At home, we have more discussion. Here, the professor keeps you on track.”

In Idzikowski’s experience, the professors at Ship are well prepared and the program adjusts to the needs of the students. Classes include a mix of theory and application. There also are countless services to help students.

“Here, the professor’s attitude is to help you,” he said. “In Poland, you’re more on your own. It’s up to you if you go to class and if you’re prepared. You need to be self motivated.”

Idzikowski encourages American students to consider traveling more. In Europe, he enjoyed hopping on a train for weekend adventures. “I want to see the US—how things look and the culture here,” he said. “I’m planning a long trip when I graduate.” 


A view from Kun Ma’s hometown, Ulanqab.

A view from Kun Ma’s hometown, Ulanqab.

Kun Ma

China

Kun Ma’s enthusiasm is infectious. She was so eager to get to the United States, she said that there wasn’t time for culture shock. “I was so excited—I wanted to polish my English language skills and meet new people.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in business in China, Ma attended the State University of New York, Geneseo campus, for a bachelor’s degree in biology. She briefly returned home, then enrolled as a grad student in biology at Ship.

“After coming here (to the US), I decided I liked biology much better than business. I always wanted to study biology, but my parents didn’t support that,” she said. “My longtime goal is to be an ecologist.” 

Ma expected the US to be a place “where you can be who you are, and be who you want to be. That was true, and still is.” 

She has excelled in the American-style higher education system and its focus on critical thinking. “It’s more intellectually challenging,” she said. She also appreciates that faculty treat graduate students as colleagues. That approach has helped her to grow academically and professionally.

After experiencing life in New York, then moving to Shippensburg, she also discovered the joys of “small-town USA.” Ma’s hometown is small “by Chinese standards,” she said. Ulanqab, in the province of Inner Mongolia, has about 200,000 people, while Shippensburg has fewer than 6,000. But Ma insists that you can travel about thirty minutes without seeing another town.

“I got a car, and since then, I’ve been more of an outdoor person. I hike and backpack,” she said. “I spend a lot of time in the mountains. It’s not the first thing I considered when choosing schools, but it’s so beautiful.” The freedom of the open road also has led her to Nevada, the Appalachian Trail, the Jersey Shore, and up and down the California coast.

Ma plans to get her PhD and stay in the US, preferably along the coast. “I’m just having a really good time. I’m getting to know people and having fun.” Classmates ask her a lot of questions, and she says, “Keep it coming! I would be bothered if you didn’t ask about me!” 


Gabby Gomani (right) with family at their lake in Malawi.

Gabby Gomani (right) with family at their lake in Malawi.

IMG_0671.JPG

Gabby Gomani   

Malawi

Gabby Gomani is amused by the reaction she gets when people discover she isn’t American—her
accent is all but gone, she loves French fries and pizza, and she knows her way around an American classroom.

Gomani attended an American high school when her family lived abroad in Tunisia. In Malawi, it’s the norm for students to travel abroad for college. She planned on joining her four sisters in the United Kingdom, but was told that it would be less complicated to continue within the American education system.

Her college search started in cities like New York and Los Angeles, but Gomani quickly ruled out those pricey locations. Looking for an affordable, accredited university eventually led her to Ship. She is now a senior finance major with a French minor.

“I didn’t expect to be in a small town,” she said. “But I love it. I like the community here. People are helpful, and it’s the perfect size to better yourself.”

That feeling was evident from the moment she got to campus. Gomani’s father dropped her off but couldn’t stay. She immediately got help moving into her room, and, within a week of meeting people, she received an invite to someone’s home for Thanksgiving. “It’s been the best experience. People are so friendly.”

As a way to give back, Gomani got involved in student life. She became a member of Orientation Team, has been treasurer of the International Students Organization, served as president of the French Club, and is a resident assistant. 

Her long-term goal is to return home and work in international relations. “I’d like to work for an organization that helps African countries to a better economic stance.” 


Miguel Lugo

Venezuela

Ship was not originally on Miguel Lugo’s radar. He spent his senior year of high school as an exchange student at a Christian school in Milton, Pennsylvania, and intended on applying to Penn State University to become an industrial engineer. But he also wanted to play soccer.

“I wanted to play soccer and do school. I was in a good semi-pro soccer league at home,” he said. “But it was impossible to do engineering and a sport.”

A friend from high school recommended that Lugo check out SU’s John L. Grove College of Business. Now a senior, he’ll earn his BSBA in international management with a minor in French this December. Not only did he play on SU’s varsity soccer team for three years, he’s been involved in the International Management Club, the International Students Organization, Phi Beta Lambda—Future Business Leaders of America, Phi Sigma Pi National Honor Fraternity, Pi Delta Phi French National Honor Society, and DECA (Distributive Education Clubs of America). He’s also traveled to France through the study-abroad program and is completing a yearlong internship with Volvo CE in its human resources department.

“I really wanted to build my resume. I wanted to take leadership roles.”

In Venezuela, Lugo’s family is in farming. His grandfather was the Minister of Health. His hope is to spend some time working in the US, potentially earn his master’s degree, then return home to the family business. Eventually, he’d like to take it international.

Lugo likes that American universities stress real-world experience. At home, “everyone studies enough to pass. Here, you study to get a good grade. I try to do well in class, because I know the sacrifice my family made for me.”

Although Lugo is eager to return home, he’s grateful for the experience and the opportunity to travel. The world is shrinking, he said, and people need to keep up. 

“Globalization is a thing. There’s going to be a moment with technology where, if you don’t understand other cultures, you won’t go anywhere.” 


Safiya Abubakar

Nigeria

When Safiya Abubakar considered attending college in the United States, she consulted her relatives in California for advice. They told her that Americans were friendly. Upon arriving to Shippensburg—her first time in the US—Abubakar thought her relatives were mistaken.

“When I came here, I thought, unfortunately, not everyone is so nice. In my country, we are one people. We see a visitor or foreigner and embrace.” But as Abubakar got to know people and witnessed how they interact, she realized it was just a cultural difference. “Honestly, now I am in love with the Shippensburg community. I feel like I should stay back in the town after I’m done with my program.”

Abubakar describes herself as an animal lover, “as long as you don’t give me snakes.”

She earned her bachelor’s degree in zoology in Nigeria, and is now pursuing her master’s degree in biology at Ship, focusing on herpetology. Abubakar has worked closely with Dr. Pablo Delis, professor of biology, researching the demographics, ecology, and salinity tolerance of Eastern mud turtles at Wallops Island in Virginia. They are bolstering what little research and documentation exists on the species that lives on barrier islands.

This one-on-one interaction with faculty is less common at home, where professors regularly have classes with more than 100 students. 

“We have large class sizes. How do you assess them?” she said. “I want you to put me to the task. Test me. I love to explore and try new things.”

Abubakar laughs when she thinks about one of her first impressions of American students. “The students were half running, half walking on campus. I thought, ‘Where are they running to?’ I didn’t know it would be my turn someday! Now, I walk faster than everyone.”