Graduating halfway around the world

Hussam Mustafa has not returned home to Saudi Arabia in five and a half years. He is an international student who has spent the last nine years at GW, first earning a master’s degree and just recently completing a doctorate in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

“After 9/11, getting a return visa has been very hard,” Mustafa said. “So I just stayed here without going back to Saudi, and during that time my brothers got mad, my father had a stroke, but I stayed here. It was tough.”

Like nearly 400 other international students at GW, Mustafa graduated this weekend. Many will stay in the United States and work, but Mustafa will be returning home with an American degree to find work in Saudi Arabia’s job market.

GW currently enrolls 1,863 international students in undergraduate and graduate schools, according to the International Services Office. Of those graduates, 1,340 are enrolled in graduate schools, while 468 are undergraduate students. Although international enrollment has dropped about 10 percent since 2001, GW received a boost of 30 overseas students between 2005 and 2006.

The national average of international students studying in the United States has declined by 4.2 percent since 2003, according to the Institute of International Education.More than 560,000 students from overseas enrolled in American colleges and universities during the 2005-2006 school year, accounting for 3.9 percent of the total secondary-education student population in the United States, according to IIE statistics.

“This is what makes America great: the amount of money spent on academic research drives international students to come study here,” Mustafa said.

Compared with other American schools, GW was ranked 66 by IIE, ahead of Georgetown University at 76. The University has the largest international student population of any school in D.C., according to IIE data. The University of Southern California in Los Angeles ranks first with 6,881 international students.

Of the countries sending the most students to GW, five of the top six are in Asia. This year, the Republic of Korea sent the most international students to GW with 229. Following closely behind the Republic of Korea is China with 204 students enrolled at GW. India, Taiwan, Turkey, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan also rank among the top ten contributing nations to GW.

One of only five students from her home country, Diana Pinzescu graduated from the Law School and will return home to Chisinau, Moldova after working for a year in the District. After graduating, international students may choose to participate in the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program for a year. Pinzescu will take a year for OPT before going back to Moldova to practice international law.

Though Pinzescu has not completely settled her plans yet, she said she does know that she wants to take the juris doctorate she earned at GW back to Moldova to make a difference.

“I’m planning to go back home and change the world,” she said.

Pinzescu saw the professor-student relationship as the starkest contrast between American and European education. She said she found American professors to be more approachable outside the lecture hall.

“I really like that in the U.S. the professor generally gives you a syllabus so you know exactly what you’re going to study and what is expected. We don’t have that in Moldova,” Pinzescu said.

Being a Moldovan student in an American law school, Pinzescu said that it was initially hard to adjust to the common law system based on precedence when she was more accustomed to learning and researching about the civil law system based on statutes used in her home country.

“It was difficult to adjust – back home we just read the laws, but here you have to research all of the case laws and decisions,” she said.

Pinzescu was amazed by the number of clubs and opportunities to get involved, even though she said that she also felt the law school was relatively isolated from the rest of campus.

But GW was not her first experience in an American school – she was an exchange student at the University of Wisconsin during the 1990s, and has had experienced leaving her family and life thousands of miles behind her before.

“I think I miss home now, but the school year was so intense that I didn’t really have time to miss home,” Pinzescu said.

Sameeo Sheesha came to GW from Bangladesh to continue his studies on education. Enrolled in the School of Education and Human Development, he will graduate this August with a master’s degree in international education.

After graduating, he plans to return to Bangladesh to work at the BRAC University Institute of Educational Development, where he will help prepare and test academic material for the primary education group.

Like Pinzescu, he noticed substantial differences between his classroom experience at GW and in Bangladesh.

“Back home, the lectures are focused on the professor and he follows the textbook, but here there is discussion among students and with the professor about the material,” he said.

Sheesha said that he enjoyed his experience at GW and in Washington, but found his biggest challenge to be navigating the city.

Mustafa, however, said transitioning to life in the United States was not a problem. He said he did everything he possibly could to adjust and spent his time outside of class exploring the city and traveling. Mustafa will return to Saudi Arabia with a Ph.D in engineering.

“I don’t have a job yet, but I’m applying already. There are a lot of students with Ph.D’s in engineering in Saudi Arabia – the competition is fierce over there,” he said. “Getting a job will be hard, but not impossible.”

“In Saudi Arabia, it is a dream to come to graduate school in the U.S. Research is better here, you learn more, get more experience, and there is more diversity,” Mustafa said.

Even though he has not returned home in five and a half years, he said, “I would do it all over again.”

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