Helga Sierra decided which college to attend in much the same way as many ACU students. She started researching schools during the November of her senior year, and she spoke with a representative from ACU who visited her high school. By January, she had narrowed her search down to two universities: ACU and Houghton College in western New York.
But Sierra’s road to ACU from her home in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, was far longer – literally and figuratively – than that of most students. But to Sierra and others, it was worth it.
“It’s valuable for any international student, who has the opportunity, to leave their home country. It opens your eyes to a bigger world. It forces you to come out of a box,” Sierra said. “In uncomfortable situations, there is growth.”
Sierra is among nearly 200 international students at ACU who have chosen to leave their home countries and come to America for an education.
In May, Sierra, junior management sciences major from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, decided she wanted to attend ACU, and a long process of interviews and paperwork began. Sierra said she ultimately decided to attend ACU because it had shown an interest in her and a willingness to help her through the process of coming to the United States.
“One of the biggest reasons I choose ACU was because it was beyond just a relationship,” Sierra said. “They were interested in me; that was different compared to the other schools.”
The first step Sierra and all international students must take before coming to the United States starts at the federal level. They must apply for admission like any student and prove they can pay for a year of college. The colleges they apply to then send them an I-20 form they take to their visa application process. The form shows the student’s potential major, cost of tuition and expected length of stay.
Sue Ann Gibson, ACU immigration specialist, said most of the problems international students experience are a result of proving they can pay for school. Most international students are not eligible for government loans, so the process of proving they can pay for college can be difficult.
Sierra applied for her form in June of her senior year. In July, she scheduled an interview with a consulate at the U.S. embassy in Honduras.
“It was complicated,” Sierra said. “The level of many papers you have to fill out is just like any process. Bureaucratic stuff gets stressful sometimes.”
Sierra said her interview went well, and she was approved quickly, but for others, the process can be tedious.
For Chika Tadokoro, freshman marketing major from Ibaraki, Japan, the process to come to America was easier, thanks to a relationship between her high school and ACU.
“My high school has a connection with ACU. We are like sister schools,” she said. “So it was pretty easy. My English teacher showed me how to do it.”
Tadokoro said he recognized competition was fierce to come to America.
“I came to ACU my second year in high school and saw there was competition from other countries,” Tadokoro said.
Gibson said some countries present more difficulties than others for students trying to come to the United States.
“Some countries are more difficult,” Gibson said. “Most students are approved, but it depends on the consulate and the country.”
Most students avoid problems during the I-20 and interview process by staying informed and asking questions, Gibson said.
“There are a lot of e-mails back and forth,” she said. “We encourage them to keep asking questions. It makes our job easier if they have expectations of what is to come.”
After international students have been approved and they arrive in the United States, the bureaucracy continues. Students are required to go to Gibson’s office to check in and ensure all paperwork is in order.
Laura Blake, assistant director of international student services at ACU, said international students have numerous guidelines and regulations they must follow in order to stay in compliance with their visas. She said the best way for students to avoid issues is to ask questions if they have any concerns.
“The most important thing is that they pay attention,” Blake said. “That will keep them out of trouble.”
Blake said most of the regulations involve work and classes. All full-time undergraduate international students are required to take at least 12 semester hours of classes to maintain their visa. Additionally, most students’ visas do not allow them to work at off-campus locations. But Blake said most students who come to the United States for school only want an education, so egregious violations are rare.
“A lot of the time, we get really great students that value their education because they worked so hard to get it,” Blake said. “We are glad to have them here.”
For students like Sierra, the work of individuals like Blake and Gibson is invaluable in what can be a confusing process.
Sierra says she is comfortable in Abilene. She speaks fluent English, which she said has helped her find her spot in the ACU community.
“I feel at home. I found a church home my freshman year, and from that point on, it just felt like home,” Sierra said.
For other students, the assimilation process can be more difficult. George Pendergrass, director of multicultural enrichment at ACU, said the road international students face after arriving at ACU can be difficult.
“Can you imagine being a minority in a majority population? Even further, imagine you are a foreigner, and on top of that, you don’t speak English,” Pendergrass said.
Pendergrass said the ACU community does a good job of making students feel at home in an otherwise foreign environment.
“I’ve seen an inordinate number of students come to know the Lord as a result of being in this community,” Pendergrass said. “This community helps them to understand that culture is important, but it’s more important to see the heart of Christ.”
Sierra said she believes the ACU community has enriched her. But at the same time, she believes international students enrich the community as well.
“We, as international students, bring a different perspective because we see the world differently,” she said.
The process may have been tedious, but Sierra said it was well worth it.