Attending college in a new country can be challenging, but Palomar offers various support for international students’ success.

In an increasingly interconnected world, seeking education transcends geographical boundaries. International students embark every year on their journey to the U.S. with aspirations as diverse as their backgrounds. In the 2022-2023 school year, the number of international students in the United States had an 11.5%  increase compared to the previous year, according to the Statista website.

However, despite their investment and initial enthusiasm, a significant number failed to complete the semester. 

Palomar College reported in spring 2023, 103 international students were enrolled, but only 24 finished their majors. Similarly, in the fall semester, the disparity is evident — 117 students enrolled, and 4 completed their majors. 

What factors are key to international students’ success at Palomar College?

International students report issues like homesickness, mental health, and a lack of transportation and other support, leading to a high dropout rate. 

“This usually happens because they’re far away from home, they don’t have their families, friends, different cultures, or food,” said Judy Gervasio, Admissions and Financial Aid Specialist of the International Student Office.

Having a supportive family is an important factor for many international students, which can be shown through financial and emotional support.

Sota Kurosaki, 20, traveled from Japan to Palomar to obtain his degree in global studies. With his family’s support, he is able to focus exclusively on school. And to show his gratitude drives him to succeed.

“I need to do something good for them…I cost a lot,” said Kurosaki.

A simple breakdown of the cost per semester reveals how expensive it truly is. 

According to Leverage Edu, the average monthly rent for a private room is between $800 and $1,200. Students also have expenses like utilities, transportation, and basic essentials, which significantly contribute to their cost of living. And students have additional costs, such as tuition fees and expensive textbooks.

Even after overcoming these financial challenges, students often encounter other challenges. The most common is the language barrier, which can affect communication, academic performance, and social interaction.

Judy Gervasio has worked at Palomar for almost 16 years. She understands the unique challenges and difficulties international students face because she had the same experience when she studied Spanish at San Diego State University.

“If you don’t have the vocabulary, it is very hard to learn the subject. The language barrier, their understanding, the context, especially in classes like history, or geography. Learning Spanish literature took extra work,” Gervasio said.

At Palomar’s International Students Office, the staff works to ensure each student feels confident and strong during their journey from home. In the office, students can receive support services like counseling and cultural programs.

Support and guidance for these students are complex, and their adaptation requires empathy and understanding. Gervasio has helped thousands of international students from different countries. Her continued support is reflected in special gifts of appreciation from students around the globe.  The diverse collection of souvenirs adorns her office walls,  memories from students’ gratitude and progress at Palomar College.

“We have had over 36 different countries represented,” Gervasio said. 

During the fall semester, the report from the Director of Marketing, Communication, and Public Affairs reflects this diversity, with African Americans comprising 3.4%, Asians making up 69.2%, Hispanic or Latinos 2.6%, and white, non-Hispanic students representing 24.8%. 

When asked about the most common concerns of international students, Gervasio said that, beyond the language barrier, a different schooling system can cause more stress, especially in the first semester.

“All countries have their own educational system….and you’re responsible for everything. Compared to here, when [professors] want you to take part in a group discussion,” Gervasio said. 

The formality sometimes requires a little more time for the adaptation. To help in this process, Gervasio said,  “How multicultural the professor is, or how multilingual, can benefit international students,” especially in the first semester when everything is new. New system, new language, new friends.

Palomar student Aaeysha Vergara pouring creamer for student Sota Kurosaki. Photo Charles Rambo

Sota Kurosaki explained that the most significant barrier international students face is often their English proficiency, which directly impacts their performance. 

“English native speakers speak really fast compared to my English. They use a lot of slang, difficult words… It’s better to learn as much as possible before coming here,” Kurosaki said. 

Mehdi Kacem, 24, from Tunisia, studies electrical engineering drafting and design technology. Kacem explained that coming to the U.S. fluent in English gave him more confidence. “If you come with your English well, the adaptation can be easier,” he said.

Another important factor that contributed to his adaptation was to have a supportive professor who promoted incentive and socialization in Kacem’s journey.

“The professor takes good care of me, gives me some books to read,” Kacem said, adding students are invited to go to In-N-Out Burger to eat.

When a professor’s care transcends the classroom by offering books to read and promoting meetings with other students, it can be key to their success in a foreign country. Furthermore, as Kacem said, “Knowing more people extends my network.”

For international students, maintaining connections with loved ones is crucial for emotional support and alleviating the distance students can have the strength to pursue their goals. 

“Every day, twice a day, I talk especially with my mother. I miss her a lot, and my sister,” Kacem said. 

With the advent of the internet, maintaining constant communication via messages, video calls, and social media, students can feel closer to their loved ones with just one click. “My mom always said, our generation is so lucky to have this kind of technology that makes communication easier between two places that are so far away,” said Kurosaki.

Kurosaki also said that without communication with their family and friends it can be overwhelming.

Different students have different personalities, and for some, the adaptation requires extra attention. Judy Gervasio mentioned that it is very common for international students to have different levels of depression. The transition to a new educational system and social environment can be challenging.

To avoid isolation, Gervasio emphasizes that it’s so important to introduce international students to different activities. “It’s difficult for international students to make friends with American students because life is so fast and sometimes they’re very shy,” she said.

Cultural symbols and items on the wall inside of the Palomar International Student Center Admissions. Photo by Charles Rambo.

“There is an international student association, where they do activities that promote socialization. It Is easier to make friends,” Gervasio said. She encourages the students to get involved in a club or something they like.

Palomar’s student government also accepts international students. “I had many students who got involved and – boom – they made friends, they went places, they learned outside of school,” Gervasio said. “Statistics say that the more you’re involved in the school, the better you will do, cause you feel part of that school.” 

Part of the orientation in the international student office is to make sure that students know about the services they can get at Palomar, including medical and mental health services. 

“The ones who actually used it really appreciated it,” Gervasio said. 

One of the requirements when international students enroll is to have GeoBlue International Health Insurance for Higher Education. 

Another resource students may not know how to use is related to scholarships and G.P.A. established at Palomar. Gervasio explains that this information is always available on the Palomar website, but if international students have some kind of difficulty, the office is open to provide assistance. The website also has job opportunities on campus or Optional Practical Training (OPT).

“Palomar has transferring agreements to all the UC schools and all the Cal States (CSUs),” Gervasio said. 

Last spring, there were 109 transfer students from 27 different countries.

The biggest group to transfer was from Japan.

After finishing the program, Gervasio said they are still in contact 20 years later, keeping in touch or using resources such as the Palomar library.

Along the way, international students face many challenges, including adapting to a different language, fitting in socially, and feeling mentally healthy. Everyone’s experience is different, but certain steps can contribute significantly to their success. Especially maintaining mental well-being.

To help students succeed, there are resources available on the Palomar website where students can find the steps to enroll in their journey to the U.S. However, to pursue the educational goal, it is important to have a clear idea about the investment and ensure that it is financially feasible for each semester of study. This includes not only tuition fees, but also living expenses such as accommodation and other necessities. 

In locations like San Diego, where the cost of living is considered one of the most expensive in the U.S.,
the requirements can be particularly demanding. However, carefully planning the budget for this journey promises not only an enriching educational experience but also significant personal growth opportunities. 

By well managing the financial and emotional challenges, students can fully immerse themselves in all that San Diego has to offer and write a transformative chapter in their lives.

“I want students to love their school, I want them to do well,” Gervasio said.