First-gen int’l students face unique challenges

Two students explain how cultural barriers affected their adjustment to college life.

Preeti Kattubadi, senior engineering technology major, sits in the Charles Library on Monday. She is a first-generation student. | CLAUDIA SALVATO / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Senior public health major Hoa Vo vividly remembers his first visit to Temple when he came for orientation. 

“When I came off the subway and I saw Conwell Hall, I thought, ‘Oh wow, it’s beautiful here, I’m really going to study at this university,’” said Vo, who is from Vietnam.

Vo is one of 3,000 international students currently at Temple, according to the 2019-20 Temple University Factbook. That same year, nearly 52,000 international students enrolled in Pennsylvania universities, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.  

That year, 14 percent of incoming students had neither parent attend college, according to the university’s factbook.

“I didn’t think I could come here, but my mom suggested I should try and apply [to Temple] anyway,” Vo said. “One of my relatives has a daughter who studied ESL at Temple, and they thought it would be nice for me to study at the same school.”

Preeti Kattubadi, a senior engineering technology major, spent several years in India but decided to move back to the United States for college.

“There’s more personal freedom here in the U.S. compared to India,” Kattubadi said. “I wanted my freedom back.” 

Bu returning to the U.S. for college meant learning about the country’s college system. 

“Learning about the college credit and GPA systems was a challenge for me because it’s so different in India,” Kattubadi said. “My family couldn’t help since they didn’t know how it worked, either.”

“I didn’t think about the opportunities and difficulties that came with college,” Vo said. “I didn’t have any mentors or connections, unlike other college students that had family members attend college.” 

For Kattubadi, this included learning how to manage the workload and expectations for college. “I wasn’t used to the educational system in America,” she said. “It took me a while to learn how to use that to my advantage.” 

The College Raptor reported that these challenges of adjusting to college life and lack of preparedness are common for first-generation students, but these weren’t the only obstacles these students faced. The two seniors also had to build new social lives.

Vo was looking forward to exploring Philadelphia when he first arrived in the city, but the language barrier made him nervous about socializing. 

“I was nervous about communicating with other people in a new country,” Vo said. “In ESL classes, I was struggling to learn nonverbal communication due to cultural differences.” 

Kattubadi was also afraid that communicating would be an issue. 

“I was honestly really scared, and I didn’t know anyone here,” Kattubadi said. “I didn’t know how people would react to my accent since I lived in India during high school.”

To cope, Kattubadi remained connected to her friends and family in India. But since moving back to the U.S., Kattubadi said communicating with friends and family became difficult.

“When I decided to go to Temple, my parents moved with me, so that was nice, but it sucks not seeing my extended family and friends back in India,” she said. “I haven’t been back to India since I left for school.”

Like many international students, Kattubadi occasionally suffers homesickness. According to U.S. News Global Education, this is typical for international students.

For Vo, staying in contact with friends from home was a struggle at first.

“It was hard to communicate with friends due to the time difference in Vietnam, but with the use of technology it made it much easier to talk to friends and family,” Vo said.

Despite the difficulties he’s faced, Vo feels it’s important for him to finish his degree — not just for himself, but for others.

“Being a first-generation international student means a lot to me [because] the next generation needs me to give them guidance,” Vo said. “Going through the process of college by myself was difficult, and I don’t want others to do it alone.”

Kattubadi also sees finishing her degree as a way for her to be a role model. 

“For me, it means breaking boundaries in your family and setting a good example for your family,” she added.

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