Shahwar Ali said that although she was born in Islamabad, Pakistan, she doesn’t identify with one city because she has lived in so many different places within her nation.
Ali, a graduate student in higher education and student affairs, said she began considering studying in the United States during high school when her cousin left home to pursue an undergraduate degree in the U.S.
“She paved the way. She was the first woman. No one in my family had ever gone abroad before her,” Ali said. “It felt like I could do that too.”
According to an Ohio State report, there are currently 2,496 international students enrolled in graduate school at the university — 23 percent of the total population, compared with only 8 percent in the undergraduate population.
Each person has a different story about their motivation to pursue a graduate degree in America.
Following her cousin’s footsteps, Ali decided to come to the U.S. in order to pursue her undergraduate degree in communications at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. When it came time for graduate school, Ali knew she wanted to stay in the U.S. due to its more holistic approach to education.
“You focus on studies, but you also focus on co-curricular activities and being more involved,” Ali said.
Ali said there are fewer choices in majors in Pakistani universities, and financial resources are very limited with rare opportunities for scholarships or availability of student loans.
“When I started graduate school here, there was no program in this field back home,” Ali said. “The first school of education just started in 2017, but they are not offering specifically higher education.”
She said she never thought about the political climate when she first came to the U.S.
Ali witnessed both the re-election of former President Barack Obama and the election of President Donald Trump while attending Berea College in Kentucky. She said America seemed very welcoming because Obama was the first multiracial president elected.
Ali said the night of the 2016 presidential election, she was shocked by the results because she was not expecting Trump to win.
“It just sent a very different message to the world,” Ali said.
Ali said the American political climate factored into her decision-making process regarding graduate school, but when weighing the decision at the end of 2017, she ultimately chose to apply in the U.S.
She said this caused some confusion for her in January 2017 when Trump signed an executive order suspending travel from seven Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East.
“I am a Muslim and I come from a Muslim-majority country and I thought, ‘What if my country gets put on the travel ban list? Does that mean that I will have to face a lot of problems as I live here? Or if I were to go back home just to visit, does that mean I will be able to come back?’” Ali said. “I felt in that point in time that I wasn’t really welcomed here because of my religious identity.”
Ali said she began to wear a hijab for the first time in her senior year as an undergraduate in 2016 and gained an interesting perspective on how someone is treated differently once they start wearing a hijab.
Ali said in the early days of Trump’s presidency, she feared for her safety and had to be more aware of her surroundings and the political opinions she shared with others.
“I felt like, ‘What if somebody yells something at me or tries to attack me?’ because I somehow felt that Trump had, by saying and by doing what he was saying and doing, he was giving other people that power to do so to other people and their community,” Ali said. “I felt that I could be harmed.”
Ali said there were some days she decided not to wear her hijab, but a supervisor encouraged her to rethink her decision, and she started wearing it again.
When she came back to the U.S. to start graduate school, Ali said she decided not to wear her hijab anymore after wearing it for two years.
“I just thought it would be easier for me not to wear it because [of] going through airports and security and being checked and being asked to do a second rechecking for no reason,” Ali said.
She said she wants to work in higher education to understand the issues students face in a college setting and provide them with support and resources.
Mark Hubbe, associate professor in anthropology, was able to go straight into a doctorate program after completing his undergraduate degree in biology at the University of Sao Paulo — ranked the second-best university in Latin America by World University Rankings.
“In my experience, it seems like a B.A. or a B.S. coming from the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil is the equivalent to any master’s here in the U.S. that I’ve seen,” said Hubbe, who came to work for Ohio State in 2012.
Hubbe said undergraduate degrees in Brazil are rigorous and prepare students to go straight into their profession after graduation whether that is dentistry, engineering, law, etc.
“I go there my first semester, and my teaching was really poorly received because it was too hard, and I was expecting too much,” he said. “It took me a while to figure out that it’s not that I was expecting too much, but the students have less background.”
Hubbe said U.S. graduate schools have a reputation for having renowned programs for students in Brazil and throughout South America.
“The U.S. has a long tradition in research and grad school. It built up this body of knowledge that South American countries are still lacking,” Hubbe said. “Research is essential. Research is vital for us, ultimately because research is what allows us to understand the world we live in or the universe we live in.”
One cultural difference Hubbe noticed was the relationship between universities and their sports teams because Brazilian universities do not have athletic departments, he said.
“This brings a strong allegiance to the school. This [saying] ‘Go Bucks’ that is very strong here or very strong at any other university, this is something that doesn’t happen in Brazil,” he said. “It’s interesting that here the university is the identity of people.”
Ali and Hubbe are only two perspectives from the many international students enrolled in Ohio State’s graduate school from over 40 countries.
Ali said coming to Ohio State and seeing the many Muslim women wearing their hijabs made her feel that Muslims are welcomed on campus.
“Living in Kentucky, in a city which was not diverse is different, but when I came here and I saw there was so many Muslims, especially black female students who not only wear the hijab but also they wear the long dress. I felt so different like they’re welcomed here.”