SFSU Magazine Fall 2006 International Students

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An International EducationStudent John Farag smiles next to the flag of his home country, Egypt, inside the Office of International Student Programs.

After graduating from Cairo's Helwan University, John Farag was eager to continue his studies in industrial design, but with only one such program in Egypt, the options were limited. He had yet to leave Africa when his online research led him to San Francisco State. The strength of the University's Design and Industry program and its location in a beautiful city inspired him to move more than 7,000 miles from home to pursue his master's degree.

Farag is one of nearly 2,000 international students at SF State. Together, they represent 90 countries from across the globe. "These students bring the world to us. We have a little United Nations," says Yenbo Wu, director of the University's Office of International Programs (OIP). He adds that students exposed to new perspectives, languages and cultures graduate fully prepared for careers in a rapidly shrinking global society.

Internationalization has long been a priority at SF State but became a major initiative after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. During the days that followed, the staff at OIP made nearly 300 personal phone calls to SF State students from Muslim countries.

"President Corrigan wrote personal letters to all of our international students," Wu says. "He expressed his support and let students know that this is their home away from home, and that the University values their presence."

This type of support, coupled with strong academic offerings may explain why SF State draws more international students than any other master's degree-granting institution in the U.S., according to the Institute of International Education -- and why the University's international student population has ranked among the top ten for nearly a decade.

Farag received support from SF State long before he stepped on campus. His frequent calls to OIP helped him decipher applications for admission and secure a visa, tuition and housing. "I had about 1,080 questions," he says with a smile. "I was the most nagging person."

Today he is on the other end of the phone at OIP, helping international students navigate the requirements for admission. OIP Assistant Director Patrice Mulholland says Farag has been "a great asset to our international students who come from vastly different cultures and educational systems." He has used his design skills to create a flow chart with step-by-step instructions for international students on how to apply, register for classes and prepare to move overseas. Farag knows well the adjustments they will face in the U.S., where there are new ways of teaching and testing, cultural and language differences, and the pangs of homesickness that come when one is far from friends and family.

When Farag arrived in the U.S., his experience with English was limited to short conversational exercises in English classes. After a few months at SF State, he felt fairly comfortable speaking a second language, but "reading academic materials in the U.S. is still not a piece of cake for me," he says, pointing out that reading from left to right, instead of right to left as he does with Arabic, has been another major adjustment.

Like Farag, undergraduate journalism major Poh Si Teng was attracted to the strength of one particular academic program at SF State as well as to opportunities that were not widely available close to home. In her native Malaysia many laws prohibit assembly, but Teng now enjoys the freedom of both speech and press in America. As a student reporter she has covered many demonstrations in the city. "It's been good to witness it, cover it, just to be in the midst of it," she says.

During the past four years Teng has returned to Malaysia only once. Separation from loved ones is especially tough during special holidays like Lunar New Year, but "it's worth it to be here," she says. After graduation, Teng is headed to an internship at a newspaper in Virginia and may very well stay in America. "Being a reporter in the United States, you enjoy lots of privileges and rights," she says. "It might be difficult to go back."

Teng has also appreciated the opportunity to mingle with a variety of people. "San Francisco State is a little world of its own. Being here you really feel like a global citizen," she says, adding that SF State was more appealing than a private school because of its mix of students from a diverse set of backgrounds.

Alumna Shibani Bathija, a former international student, smiles for the camera. She is dressed in a colorful red and gold shirt.Shibani Bathija (B.A., '99) was also struck by the wide range of experiences represented by her peers at SF State. Studying alongside people in their late 30s and 40s was a new experience for Bathija. "In India, everyone does all in one shot," she says, explaining that work and travel between undergraduate and graduate school is nearly unheard of in her home country. After earning a degree in the Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts (BECA) Department, Bathija returned to India, where she began writing scripts. Today she is a Bollywood screenwriting success.

"Fanaa," her first script to make it to screen, set box office records in Indian cinema earlier this year. "Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna," which she cowrote, was the gala opener at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, and induced a frenzy of fans rivaling that of a Hollywood blockbuster.

"I feel blessed," Bathija says. Her screenplay for "Fanaa" starred leading female actress Kajol, "sort of the Julia Roberts of India," Bathija explains. Leading male actor Aamir Khan signed on to play opposite her. "It was a double whammy," Bathija says. It's particularly rewarding to see people enjoy her work "in a country where 40 percent of the people live below the poverty level," she says. "They want an escape."

Bathija credits her BECA professors for her success. "I learned to write dialogue at SF State. Corless Smith's dramatic writing class -- that's really where it started," she says.

Smith points out that her former student is "incredibly brave. Like a lot of international students, Shibani deserves credit for taking chances, making sacrifices, leaving family to come to a place she's never been -- and do well."

Ricardo Kriebel will earn his master's degree this year and is already making impressive strides in his field. Two years ago, while working as a plant curator at the Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad in Costa Rica, Kriebel crossed paths with SF State Research Professor of Biology Frank Almeda, the senior curator of botany at California Academy of Sciences. The visiting American was impressed with Kriebel's passionate enthusiasm for plants and encouraged him to continue his studies in SF State's Biology Department. Kriebel enrolled at SF State through a University partnership with the Academy that supports the training of scientists from developing countries.

Leaving behind weekly rainforest expeditions was a shock to Kriebel's system, but at SF State he is deepening his understanding of botany. Now in his second year of graduate school, Kriebel has coauthored more than 10 scientific articles and continues to add to the global body of botanical research.

He has been working closely with Almeda to document and describe Costa Rica's princess flower family (Melastomataceae), and recently found a new species that he plans to name after his professor. Almeda and other influential faculty members, including biology Professor Robert Patterson, were crucial to Kriebel's latest publication: a field guide to Costa Rica's African violets. Almeda says it's a "very nice addition to the literature about flowering plants, not just for Ricardo's fellow scientists but for ecotourists as well."

Student Ricardo Kriebel pauses to examine a group of yellow flowers inside Golden Gate ParkKriebel smiles as he points out a few of the species he has photographed and described inside. There's the Capanea grandiflora that hangs upside down to invite pollination by bats, and the Napeanthus costaricensis, especially tricky to photograph as its blooms often last just a few hours. "There's so much to tell you," he says. "Google 'orchid bees' sometime -- they're fascinating."

He has already carried that enthusiasm back to Costa Rica, where he has taught botany classes. Eventually he would like to help build a network of plant collectors there and bring new employment opportunities to the rural countryside. Almeda would like to see Kriebel earn his Ph.D., and return to provide leadership in Costa Rica. "It's important to have people in developing countries to serve as role models," he says, "so that the research other scientists are conducting there can move forward."

International students serve as diplomats in more ways than one. They often inspire their American peers to pursue academic studies in other countries, Wu says, pointing out that an increasing number of SF State students study abroad each year.

"The paradigm of global thinking is impacted by our international students' experiences in the U.S.," Wu says. "In the long run, these students will be leaders in government, commerce, law, education. They will return to do business with us and look to us for collaboration. Through these exchanges, we can look forward to better understanding and fewer misunderstandings."

-- Adrianne Bee