Iowa State international students shared their concerns at international town hall meeting


Courtesy of Andrew Butler on Unsplash

International students shared concerns at an international town hall meeting. 

Cherry Tran

International students at Iowa State expressed feeling isolated from the community at the international town hall.

On March 28, Iowa State’s International Students and Scholars Office (ISSO) and the International Student Council (ISC) held an international town hall to discuss international students’ concerns. The town hall featured a panel of staff from ISSO and ISC.

The night surrounded around topics of making friends or job searching as an international student. The most discussed topic of the night was transportation with many international students expressing concern over the lack of transportation needs around Ames, and between the Des Moines International Airport.

Most international students rely on CyRide to get around Ames. However, it’s not available all year round.

“It leaves the people who don’t have that accessibility to either money or a car without any options, especially over spring break, a lot of the buses stop working over regular hours,” Gabriela Aponte, a sophomore in hospitality management, said. “For those of us who stay here, moving around and trying to get by is really hard.”

CyRide reduces their running schedule during spring and winter break, with some bus routes not operating. On holidays such as Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day or Memorial Day, CyRide does not run.

“Part of our tuition is going to pay for service and I think we would highly appreciate if they kept working,” Aponte said. “People are stuck at home when they want to do more activities but they can’t find a transportation way.”

Aditya Kumar, a sophomore in computer science at Iowa State, said traveling from Ames to the airport in Des Moines is difficult if you don’t have a car or a friend to drive you. 

“You’re alone and you don’t have no contact, nobody to help you,” said Kumar.

This past winter break Student Government tested out a pilot program where they funded 50 shuttle bus tickets that provided students rides to and back from the airport in Des Moines.Jidong Sun, a senior in computer engineering and director of the International Student Experience, said that this initiative will be explored further.

“We are working on making this a bigger scale one, with a lot more funding and capacity. It’s still in the works and hopefully, funding will be passed in mid to late April,” Sun said.

This was the university’s first international town hall and it was inspired by Student Government’s multicultural town hall, said Joyce Lai, a senior in electrical engineering and ISC’s director of the Student Advocacy Committee.

“I noticed that the multicultural town hall last semester we invited all people of color to come ,but multicultural students have a totally separate experience and totally different issues they want to talk about,” said Lai. “It’s so important that international students have their own time and space and a different set of panel members to be listening to them and their needs.”

The international town hall was advertised as a safe space for international students to express their concerns on campus and with the goal of better understanding their needs.

Miza Ridzuan, a senior majoring in accounting and ISC’s president, said international students often feel isolated because their difficulties are not recognized.

“There are a lot of resources to students, but often time when it’s general, people don’t feel as inclined to use them, and then when you have something specifically for international students, I feel like it gives international students more of an opportunity to come talk about themselves and their experience especially when they’re not often recognized,” she said.

The panelists at the town hall also expressed the importance of giving international students a voice to advocate their needs and show that they matter as a part of the community.

Navya Mannengi, the director of International Student Success Collaborative (ISSC) and an ISC adviser, said town halls aren’t just important for staff members to realize student needs but it’s also a space for international students to feel like they matter.

“It really does provide a sense of community and to kind of hear what about your peers that are in a similar identity group as yourself, you know, things you can relate to,” Mannengi said. “Some of them brought up the issue of transportation around Ames and getting to the airport and back. We did not realize that was a barrier or issue that a lot of international students are facing.”

Brendan O’Brien, the director of ISSO, said the town hall lets staff receive feedback from international students to evaluate how to make the students’ adjustment at Iowa State go smoothly alongside welcoming them into the community.

“I’m very impressed with the students and their commitment to each other and to try and help make Iowa State a better place for everybody. I thought they did a great job of considering various issues,” said O’Brien.

Another topic discussed during the night was tuition. Many international students questioned where their tuition money went and how it benefited them. Observers also brought up reallocating certain funds to better match their needs.

Mannengi said that although the university is for students, it’s also a business with a complex financial system. Funds sometimes come from specific donors and must be used for specific purposes like cultural awareness education programs. Even tuition money is divided for certain tasks.

“International students, you guys pay a higher tuition than domestic students. A part of that higher tuition is just goes towards programming, and that can only be used for building community and social connection on campus for international students,” Mannengi said.

Compared to domestic in-state students who pay a tuition of $4,162 during the fall 2021 and spring 2022 semesters, international students pay over double that amount at $12,916, according to Iowa State’s Office of the Registrar.

“This is where the student voice can be really, really powerful. This is your money and to be as a customer in a way and to be like, where is my money going is powerful when it comes from the students themselves,” Mannengi said. “International students do pay a higher tuition. Where is that tuition money going?”

Despite a higher tuition, the university offers a variety of resources specifically for international students, including career services, since many international students worry about career searching due to their visa status.

“Something I’ve noticed is, especially for engineering [majors], is how a lot of companies don’t offer jobs once they find out that they are, that students are on an F-1 visa,” Aponte said.

O’Brien said he thinks it’s great for the American workplace if more of international students are integrating various companies and bringing their skills and their talents.

“The first step is the laws of the U.S.,” said O’Brien. “We do whatever we can to influence those regulations so that international students are legally able to work.”

ISSO also works with the university’s Career Services to let employers know regulations on hiring international students, their eligibility and the steps to get them hired, especially during career fairs. The office also has resources online like tips on job searching, specifically for international students, or an F-1 employment authorization guide for employers.

“It is difficult, it’s up to the employers to make their decisions on who they want to hire but we want to make sure they make those decisions with the full knowledge that international students can work, and that they can bring a lot to the workplace,” O’Brien said.

ISSO hosts immigration presentations every fall and spring semester to help international students navigate getting work visas after graduation, according to their website.

Beyond career services, another thing ISSO could do is help international students through the naturalization process, said Lai.

“Some students, especially in aerospace engineering, it’s kind of hard for them to get a job because a lot of it is involved with the government and you need to be a citizen to be able to work long term in those industries,” she said.

With the various concerns students brought up during the town hall, ISC and ISSO said they want to continuously receive feedback and address the needs of international students.

“Hopefully, this will be a thing that continues once every semester at least,” Lai said. “We do want to listen but at the same time, we want to act on whatever they’re saying too.”

For future international town halls, Mannengi encouraged international students to pay attention to the gaps in needs between them and domestic students.

“I really want to know, are you paying attention to the gaps in need or are you paying attention to the opportunities that you don’t think you have,” Mannengi said.