Tram Cao, vivacious and determined, leans forward at a table in the E.H. Hereford University Center as she talks about her many activities and plans. The Vietnam native heads the organization, a position she never imagined she would even want. But Cao’s UT Arlington experience has been transformative—and much of the shift occurred outside the classroom.
She was one of the University’s 3,061 on-campus international students last fall, a population that grew by 7.1 percent over fall 2012—surpassing the national growth rate of 6.6 percent during the same period. Nationally, a record 724,725 international students enrolled at U.S. colleges in 2012-13, according to the Institute of International Education. UTA’s on-campus international enrollment jumped to 3,214 this spring.
Strong programs in engineering, nursing, business, and science draw the largest numbers of international students to UT Arlington. Electrical engineering tops the list of majors, followed by computer science engineering and mechanical engineering.
“Many international students, especially those at the graduate level, choose UT Arlington for the opportunity to work closely with world-class researchers and scholars,” says Ronald Elsenbaumer, provost and vice president for academic affairs. “Together they explore solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems.”
Cao, one of about 1,000 undergraduate international students, says she was attracted by the University’s diversity. She wanted to meet and work with people from different ethnicities.
Souvik Dubey, an electrical engineering Ph.D. candidate, is among the two-thirds of UT Arlington’s international students pursuing graduate degrees. He’s developing a chip that can be implanted in the stomach to treat gastroparesis, a disorder that slows or stops food from entering the small intestine. He works alongside renowned researcher J.-C. Chiao in the Electrical Engineering Department.
“I was looking for interaction with large numbers of people, to come over here and learn the culture,” Dubey says. “I was also closely following Dr. Chiao’s research in medical electronics. The infrastructure that UTA has to perform high-quality research is commendable.”
UT Arlington students hail from nearly 120 countries. Dubey is one of 1,289 students from India, which sends more scholars here than any other nation. China is next at 262. Nepalese student Sunil Sahi, who’s pursuing a doctorate in experimental physics, says he was attracted by both the academic possibilities and the generous financial assistance. Sahi knew all along he wanted to do graduate work in the United States.
“The education here is one of the best in the world,” he says.
He works with physics Professor Wei Chen to create reasonably priced radiation detection materials for use in border security and other areas. The materials available now are almost prohibitively expensive, he says.
Finding Their Way
Sahi had never been to the United States before arriving in 2010. “It was totally different—the infrastructure, the university culture,” he says. “Back in Nepal, we don’t have freeways.” Nepalese students from the Physics Department met him at the airport and found him a place to live.
Dubey’s biggest surprise was the weather.
“I didn’t expect Texas to be that hot,” he says, adding that the climate is actually similar to India’s. Two of his friends were UT Arlington students, and they helped him adjust.
Cao already was accustomed to life in America when she came to campus in 2010. She left Ho Chi Minh City at age 15 and moved in with her aunt in Houston to attend a small private high school. The transition to UT Arlington and its 38,000 students was challenging.
“I was totally by myself, staying in a room with someone I had never met before,” she says.
She decided to get involved in campus life, first participating in residence hall activities, which helped her meet people. She became good friends with a resident assistant who encouraged her to stay active.
In addition to her responsibilities as International Student Organization president, she helps teach a diversity and social justice workshop. The lesson plans cover gender and religion differences, as well as practical matters like hand gestures that may be interpreted differently between cultures.
Cao credits UT Arlington’s activities, coupled with her willingness to join in, with transforming her college experience. She says she went from being shy and quiet to finding her niche as a public relations and advertising major. She wants to be an events coordinator after she graduates in December.
“It really changed me, my experience at UTA,” she says.
Jay Horn, executive director of the University’s Office of International Education, says international students typically have a three-month “honeymoon phase” before the reality of how to succeed in another country sets in. His office paves the way by providing information on obtaining visas, getting immunizations, what to bring, and how to find housing.
UT Arlington also offers workshops on employment regulations, visas, résumé building, interviewing, and American business etiquette, among other topics. International students have had a separate orientation, but that changed last fall.
“We integrated international student orientation into New Maverick Orientation,” Horn says. “We hope it will continue to improve connections between international and domestic students.”