(Courtesy of ODU Special Collections and University Archives.)
(Courtesy of ODU Special Collections and University Archives.)

Challenges and Triumphs: The Realities of Being an International Student at ODU

Elham Alijanpour decided to apply to a Kinesiology project hosted by ODU after seeing a post made by her current supervisor announcing an open position. She received her conditional admission offer pending on the results of her English Proficiency exam.


Once her admission was confirmed, the process of visa application began. Since the U.S. doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Iran, she had to travel to the Pakistani U.S. embassy for her interview. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, all the flights were canceled, so she had to travel 14 hours by land to reach the U.S. Consulate, only for the interview to be canceled 5 days beforehand. On her return back to Iran, she and her husband ended up getting infected by COVID-19. On her second attempt at the visa interview, there weren’t any dates available until September, so she had to defer her admission by a semester.


On Dec. 18, 2021, Alijanpour arrived in the U.S. and right away was overwhelmed with the numerous processes she had to go through to start her life here. Even though she had rented out a place in Norfolk while in Iran, it wasn’t ready for her to move in. For 27 days, she stayed with a friend she made on an online forum. During that time, she had to set up her phone, create a bank account, learn new policies, and begin her classes and her assistantship. She also had to set up the place on her own with limited resources, as her husband was still struggling with receiving his visa to join her here.


Currently, ODU has 792 international students and out of those, 612 students are on an F-1 visa. 483 students are enrolled in science-related programs and 105 students attend Strome College of Business. ODU has various departments to help these students transition to living in the U.S. and navigating campus, providing them with resources and assistance whenever needed to make the process as smooth as possible. 


The first interaction any international student has with any department is with International Admissions, who provides them with an I-20 document that is required to be submitted with a visa application. Once the student arrives in the U.S., they are required to check in with the Office of Visa and Immigration Service Advising. Here, they submit physical copies of their documents and sign papers of employment, as well as receive a new I-20 document with a physical signature in order to apply for a Social Security number. 


(Courtesy of ODU Special Collections and University Archives.)

“Our interaction with the international students only begins once they are here. Before that, their interaction is limited with International Admissions only. Due to which we can’t help them in obtaining a visa,” Alaisa Core, who works at the VISA and Immigration Office explained.


Besides this, they conduct workshops to help students apply for the Curricular Practical Training (CPT) visa and Optional Practical Training (OPT) visa, and assist in receiving tax and travel signatures. In collaboration with International Admissions, they also plan orientation for international students through the Monarch International Newcomer Transition program (MINT). MINT teaches students the policies of ODU and facilitates socialization with fellow peers. However, due to delays in obtaining visas, many of the international students are unable to attend the program.


“I arrived in December because I had a delay with my visa and since orientation was in August, I had no clue about ODU policies. It was later through conversations with friends I learnt a lot about the different policies and departments I can reach out to for help.” Alijanpour remarked.


Zlatka Rebolledo Sanchez, who is from Venezuela, faced similar difficulties in acquiring a visa, which delayed her arrival on campus and caused her to miss orientation. 


“After arriving in the States and going through the mandated quarantine, we (my husband and I) tried to look for a place around campus but since we arrived late, the affordable places in our budgets were occupied and the only one we could find was in Chesapeake. What we underestimated was the distance, as we were used to the metric system, and how hard the traveling will be. Thankfully, I had a colleague who lived nearby and was there to give me a ride,” she explained.


To promote diversity, inclusion and equality, ODU has established various initiatives with the help of the Office on Intercultural Relations (OIR).  These include Black Initiatives, Latinx Initiatives, Asian American & Pacific Islands Initiatives, Native American Initiatives, and Interfaith Initiatives. Each initiative plans events centered on celebrations such as Diwali, New Lunar Year, Cinco De Mayo and various other occasions.


Under the banner of OIR, an International Student Advisory Board (ISAB) has been formed where international students are the members of the board. Their personal experience helps them empathize with incoming students and help them set up a new life in the U.S. After her experience, Rebolledo Sanchez joined the board in 2022 as Housing and Public Safety Chair.


(Courtesy of ODU Special Collections and University Archives. )

“In my time as the Chair, the common issues we receive are housing issues, especially requirements in what you would need to apply, public safety, and scams. Sometimes they receive no guidance in what to do and what not to do. They are usually worried about income, health insurance, cultural integrations, scholarships and grants restrictions, which leads to exclusions from discussions with the domestic students. More often than not, they have little information about their own rights and how to report if it’s being violated, ” Rebolledo Sanchez shared when asked about her time in ISAB.


“The assistantship during summer pays 3000 dollars, which is 2000 dollars less than the regular semester, even though the summer semester is for four months, from May to August.  Our (my husband and I) rent was still the same, so the stipend only covered that, leaving little to no money for food. It was then I found out about ODU pantry and we were able to survive through the summer. During the same time, some other international students of our community started to bully us. I wasn’t aware about the policy and the right to report them until later and until then, this was taking a mental toll on both of us,” Alijanpour recalled of her first summer in ODU.


The ODU shuttle bus shuts down during the summer and with many international students having no cars or having resources to purchase one, they are left to find different means to get groceries.


Over the years, policies have improved a bit to help students find this transition easier than the last. Jonas Bensah and Augustine Ofeh, who both joined ODU this year, mentioned that with the help of other international students who were working with International Admissions and other departments, they were able to find resources quickly and learn about the ODU policies.


Leaving your family and friends for an education is a terrifying commitment, but having the right resources to help makes all the difference. 

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About the Contributor
Ifrah Yousuf
Ifrah Yousuf, Assistant News Editor
Ifrah is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing and is in her second year at ODU. She is also a screenwriter and has written a web series called, Chai Chats. Currently, she is working on a coming-of-age fiction novel surrounding three university girls exploring feminism and exploitation of women’s rights and the social injustice in Pakistan which led to Aurat March (Women’s March) in 2018.

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