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International Students in San Diego: Living in Paradise

by Lucas Eaves, published

Summer has ended and the return to school has begun, marking that peculiar moment when students feel a mixture of excitement and anxiety.  International students in San Diego will know this all too well, as they embark on a life in a new school, new town, new country.

As travel becomes easier, cheaper, and ever more normal, studying abroad has became an adventure pursued by more and more students. Over the last 22 years, the number of students enrolled in school outside of their country of citizenship has grown from 1.7 to 3.7 million.  Studying abroad is a booming business, bringing 20 billion dollars to the US economy, with 2.8 billion dollars for California alone.

A hailed paradise, San Diego has been attracting a growing share of the international student market over the past few years. Boasting three large, well-regarded universities, the city welcomed a collective 5,000 international students in Fall 2011.  This marked an 18% increase in numbers since 2007.

The international students in San Diego represent nearly 100 countries. Asian countries have been the main exporters of students to United States in recent years, with China, India and South-Korea making up to 46% of all the foreign students in the US in 2011. As such, students from Asian countries make up a large portion of the San Diego international student body. University of California San Diego (UCSD) attracts many South Korean and Chinese students, who represented 25% and 17%, respectively, of the institution's international students in 2011. At San Diego State University (SDSU), India represented 30% of foreign students, followed by China and Japan.

The number of Middle Eastern students, especially from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, has exponentially increased over the past few years. This is mainly the result of national policies, such as the King Abdullah Scholarship Program in Saudi Arabia, through which students can receive a full scholarship to study abroad. In 2011105,000 Saudis were studying abroad, half of them in the United States. The University of San Diego (USD) saw Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, or both, being included in the top three countries from which they received study abroad students, every year for the last four years.

The proximity of San Diego and Mexico make the latter an important provider of students, mainly to USD and SDSU.  Some students arrive here to flee the ongoing violence in Mexico. However, Stefania, President of the USD International Student Association, told IVN that USD has received fewer applications from Mexican students this year than in previous years due to tapering violence in that country.

San Diego also attracts Mexican professionals interested in doing business on both sides of the border. For example, Mexican lawyers can pursue an accelerated law degree, the LLM in comparative law, at any of the three San Diegan law schools. This presents them with the opportunity to take the California bar exam and opens the door to practice law in both the U.S and Mexico.

While many students from the aforementioned countries are generally degree-seeking and remain in the U.S. for the duration of their education, European nationals often participate in shorter, semester-long, exchange programs.  Most European universities offer study abroad programs that exempt their students from paying tuition, and the United States is a favoured destination for these more temporary adventures.

San Diego attracts people for three reasons: beach, surf, and sun. California has, partly thanks to Hollywood, been sold to the world as a sweet mix of beach, palm trees, and beautiful girls.  The tantalizing image of a life in paradise brings tourists, students, and new residents alike. In the words of Vahap, a German student who studied at SDSU, “I was always fascinated by California and it was always a dream to go there.” Well, there are many cities in California to choose from, so which locale represents this idealistic picture? Is it the foggy, cold San Francisco? Is it the polluted, traffic-jammed Los Angeles? Or, is it the lively, sunny San Diego?

Most of the international students that were interviewed by IVN said that their primary reason for choosing San Diego over other cities was the weather. Sun all year long is as close as you can get to paradise when you come from Austria or Norway. Also, from the number of foreign students who decide to live in Pacific Beach or Mission Beach, being closer to the beach is definitely another popular factor. Spanish exchange students from USD, however, have mentioned to IVN that they were very surprised by the temperature of the water, and had expected something a bit more tropical.

Surfing comes in as the third most popular reason that international students arrive in San Diego, and many quickly look to Craigslist to buy a surfboard and a wetsuit. “I do kite surfing back home and I wanted to try the San Diego waves as soon as I could,” said Florian, from Germany, who could barely wait three days to try out the swell once he landed.

Studying abroad is a unique opportunity to discover other cultures and to share your culture.  Beyond the fiscal benefits of having international students in San Diego, the cross-cultural exchanges that result from such experiences are priceless and important. Sometimes the gap between cultures seems insurmountable, for example when witnessing protests in the Arab world over the anti-Muslim, American-made movie, "Innocence of Muslims." These kinds of events remind us of the wide gap that exists between nations and cultures. However, this is not the first time in history that we have had to face such relational challenges, and history reminds us that they can be transcended.

In the aftermath of the World War I, following the Inter-War Pacifist Movement, a city for international students was created on the outskirts of Paris. The community was founded with the ideal of creating “a school of human relations to promote peace." It aimed at fostering harmony across national and cultural boundaries by promoting friendship between students, researchers, and artists from all over the world.

By coming to San Diego, foreign students are gaining this sense of internationality and community. The friendships they build with Americans allow them to deconstruct the stereotypes they may have about the U.S, whilst teaching Americans about their home countries. When international students return home, they can spread their experiences about the U.S to their peers, family, and co-workers.

Abdullah, a USD student, came to San Diego with some anxiety regarding the possibility of American ignorance about his culture. He comes from Kuwait, where he practices Islam and speaks Arabic, two cultural aspects Americans often know little about. He told IVN:

However, I was surprised to find out that was not necessarily the case, as even those who did not know much about me or my culture were eager to learn and find out why I did certain things or didn't do certain things.”

In another instance, Ati, a German student with an Iranian heritage who studied at SDSU, returned from her time in San Diego with a much better opinion of Americans than she had arrived with. American TV shows gave her the idea that Americans were superficial, unintelligent, and had bad habits. During her exchange program, she discovered that Americans were, in fact, very friendly, helpful, kind and know how to maintain balance in their lives. Of course many differences remain, but she is already planning to come back to San Diego as soon as she can.

It is expected that the number of international students in San Diego will keep increasing in the future and this great news for the city, as well as the U.S as a whole, and hopefully can help promote "peace" and understanding throughout the world.

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