International Student Experience: The American Dream?
Up until the age of 12, I lived in the Philippines and attended a private, all-girl Catholic school called St. Paul. Unarguably dogmatic, St. Paul instilled virtues like uniformity and compliance. Additionally, having spent 7 years of my life with the same group of students, the comfort in that familiarity seemed unparalleled at that time. However, in 2003, we relocated to Singapore—a country that prides itself on the diversity of its people. Coupled with the culture shock, I also had to adjust to a different education system where the foundation of learning was critical-thinking. Though I initially felt overwhelmed and unequipped, not only did I eventually adapt but I also excelled.
After graduation, I decided to pursue my undergraduate degree in California. Truthfully, the decision to leave Asia was motivated by my youthful attachment to my friends. All my best friendships started in Singapore. All my favorite memories happened on that island. Everyone I knew applied to college all over the U.S. and what was I going to do? Move back to the Philippines? To my 18-year-old self, it was out of the question. In retrospect, it was one of the dumbest decisions I’ve ever made and not because I regret my 4 years in America but because I planned my entire future around people. What’s worse was that I didn’t consider the financial strain it would put on my parents. They only told me last year because they didn’t want the guilt to be a burden but my parents spent every single penny of their retirement money to give me what I wanted, what I selfishly thought I was entitled to.
Moving to California brought on its own set of unprecedented challenges and life-altering surprises. As a compromise, I agreed to attend a community college first so I can finish my general class requirements for cheaper. “Cheaper” still meant paying at least 10x what residents paid per unit. For example, I was charged $500 per unit while some of my classmates didn’t even spend that much per semester. I wanted to help my parents out so I tried applying for financial aid or FAFSA but was told I was ineligible because of my student visa. The only other option was to apply for on-campus jobs. International students are not allowed to apply for work off-campus and are only allowed to work on-campus for a total of 20 hours per week. This means more competition, less money, fewer opportunities and zero flexibility. Still, I wasn't deterred. In my 2 years at community college, I worked as a writing lab assistant at the language department, as a student assistant for disabled students, and as an English tutor.
My community college didn’t have any dorm rooms so I rented a studio apartment with another international student. We learned how to pay the bills and taught ourselves how to cook and do the laundry. We didn’t have extra money so we never got any furniture and didn’t bother installing a landline or cable TV. We used flip phones, bought $100 mattresses, and rationed our food. We also didn't know how to drive and were prohibited from getting a driver’s license so we relied on buses. The nearest mall was 5-7 minutes away by bus but that ride was $2 each way so some weekends, we walked 40 minutes just to see a movie (and then another 40 to get home). I know a lot of people make fun of those who choose to go to community college but those two years instilled the importance of hard work, resilience, and independence. Even today, I still miss those 40-minute walks.
Having graduated from Santa Rosa Junior College with a 3.85, a few UCs accepted me but only Santa Cruz offered a scholarship so I took it. Those who I told dismissed it as a “low-ranking party school in the middle of nowhere”. I didn’t have the resources to visit all the campuses beforehand so I didn’t know what I was getting myself into and as a result, I let the negative reactions get to me. That is until it was time to move in. My initial reaction was: EVERYBODY LIED. This place is GORGEOUS. The 2000-acre university is perched on top of a hill, in the middle of a forest, 10 minutes from the beach. How can anybody want to study anywhere else?!
It was like experiencing college backwards. I lived in the dorms. I didn’t have to cook. The only bill I had to take care of was the one I got from AT&T every month. People were conveniently living right next to me so I actually had a social life. Classes were a bit of a struggle because I had to readjust once again since UCs operate under the quarter system. Despite this, I finally felt I was moving towards the right direction because I was learning about things that matter to me like social issues, globalization, and education. It was the best! You know, if you don’t count the part where my expenses tripled. If you go to any American university website and find the section specifically dedicated to international students, there will be a chart. It will be a breakdown of predicted expenses – by semester/quarter and by year. At the bottom of this chart, in teeny tiny font, one can find a variation of this truth bomb: *An additional XX,XXX will be added… Yup, 5 digits. I wanted to print this dollar amount and hang it around my neck for every time someone found out I was an international student and immediately assumed I was a princess from a foreign land (it happened).
Even so, I still consider California to be one of my homes. Though my temporary American dream didn't mirror the Hollywood movies I grew up with, I learned more about myself than I ever thought possible. I survived Christmases away from home. I participated in rallies and controversial discussions about things that matter. I paid taxes all on my own. I took jobs that went against my introverted tendencies and worked outside of my comfort zone. I failed. I struggled. And I’m a stronger person because of it.
By Ysabella Singson