Ngan Le arrived in the United States from Vietnam three weeks ago. She wants to improve her English so she enrolled in a special language program at Santa Ana College before starting on her regular college classes.
Even though the teachers and international students program officials are helping her during this transition, the culture shock is real.
“I am very homesick, so I talk every day with my family through social media, but I know I need to overcome it for my better future,” Ngan said. “I tried the Mexican food truck on campus. I ordered an expensive dish with a fancy name, and it ended up to be just a corn on the stick.”
Ngan is one of about 350 international students studying at SAC this year. They come from more than 30 countries and have to overcome language barriers, financial stress and increasingly tough visa applications to enroll in classes across dozens of disciplines, from business to engineering to health care fields.
The program is unique among Orange County colleges. In addition to offering the chance to learn English while working towards a 4-year degree, SAC provides opportunities for leadership training, discounts for participation in off campus trips and activities that promote cross-cultural exchange.
“Student life at SAC is very strong,” said Junko Ishikawa, the International Student Association advisor and SAC’s designated school official. “The ISA helps new students to get used to the American culture and make their adaptation process easier.”
Because Little Saigon is near campus, the majority of international students come here from Vietnam. Ishikawa says that the adaptation is much easier for those who can live with relatives or have some family support.
“I picked this school because my grandmother lives close,” Vyen Le, a Vietnamese student and accounting major, said. “I also like that I have an easy access to Vietnamese food and culture. It would be not so easy in other states.”
A large number of the district’s international students also come from Japan, China and Korea. They found SAC’s recruiting efforts and the friendly environment very attractive. Alumni also frequently recommend SAC’s international student program to their relatives.
“My uncle referred this school to me because his wife was teaching English here,” said Abdallah Elshobokshy, an international student from Egypt. “I came here because I wanted to have a better education and more chances to find a job after my engineering program.”
Before earning credits, some students choose to enter the English Language Academy first. International students with a low English level can start their college education after six months of intense English program. For many, this is a chance to increase their English proficiency before enrolling in college classes.
“We have very professional and helpful teachers in the program. I feel like during one year of studying here I will learn more than during 10 years in my country,” Ngan Le said. “Even though studying here costs me over $4,300 per semester together with insurance, the time I cherish in my class has no cost for me.”
Money is one of the biggest struggles for foreigners since U.S. currency is higher than their native currency. Some international students can work only about 20 hours per week on the campus. Under certain circumstances, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services may grant permission to accept off-campus employment after one year of study.
To be admitted, students or their sponsors need to prove that they can afford $22,785. It is for one year to live in United States, studying in SAC, and compensate for their personal living expenses. The 16-week English Language Academy tacks on an additional $8,000.
But not everyone likes the life they experience in the new country.
“I always thought that United States is a good place for studying, but in fact is not,” international student Nho Nguyen said. “I think that life here is terrible. I don’t like this social life, language barrier and the differences between the cultures.”
Since Trump’s election, colleges across the U.S. have seen a drop in international enrollment. Ishikawa estimates that SAC received about 50 percent fewer international student applications over the last year. She thinks it is because other countries like Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Japan opening up services for international students.
“Even though the big drop started this year, Santa Ana College is still doing OK,” Ishikawa said. “It is also hard to get a student visa or change of status because immigration [services] is looking at the cases more closely to make sure that the country is safe.”