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International students reflect on their experience at UNC


UNC students come from a multitude of backgrounds. While the majority are from North Carolina and other states, a small percentage of students come from different countries. 

In fall 2021, 2,501 international students from over 100 countries were enrolled at the University. 

There are many decisions that led them to choose UNC, with the United States' education system being one of the main factors. 

Bella Pawita Sunthornpong, a senior double majoring in economics and psychology, explored multiple learning opportunities around the world before deciding to pursue a college career in the U.S.

“Growing up, my family really valued education. We pretty much explored different education systems,” she said. 

She spent 15 years in Thailand before spending a few years in Australia, England and Hong Kong before moving to New York, and finally, to North Carolina. 

Pawita said she has noticed differences in access to student resources in the U.S. compared to her home country — Thailand. 

“There’s a lot of resources for mental health, accessibility, physical health, campus health — so those little resources are as important as your academics,” she said. “In Thailand, we only have a small nurse room, and we don't even have a space for mental health.”

Since coming to UNC, Pawita found an importance in improving educational systems and hopes to focus on consulting in the future with a focus on environmental sustainability. 

Some international students have also expressed how they wish there was more of a global community at UNC, such as more international student-interest organizations. 

Ricardo Scheufen Tieghi, a sophomore biology major, said there have been challenges with international travel documents and other adjustments that he had to overcome as a student from Brazil.

“I feel like in the beginning, I’ve had awkward conversations; when people use jargon, it's sometimes a language barrier,” Scheufen Tieghi said. 

He realized his academic experience was different from his education in Brazil. At UNC, he has the opportunity to pursue a multitude of interests such as studying, working and conducting research simultaneously. 

“In Brazil, it takes longer,” he said. “Here, you can delve deeper into the things you like faster.” 

As he reflected on his experiences at UNC, Scheufen Tieghi said he would love to join a club he identified with. He said that he knows multiple international students who would also be interested in joining clubs that connect to their home country. 

Other students like Amber Shuang, a sophomore double majoring in economics and statistics, enrolled at UNC after transferring from a small liberal arts college in Illinois. 

Shuang is originally from Beijing and moved to the U.S. to begin her college career. 

“I really love sports, and UNC is a big sports school— so I wanted to go somewhere with a strong sports atmosphere,” Shuang said. “I like the rigor of the academics, and I think I can gain a lot of knowledge. I generally like the bigger campus and the larger involvement on campus.” 

Many students engage in on-campus involvement and define it as a hallmark of their college experience. Shuang joined HOX, an east Asian professional business fraternity, where many of the members are also international students.

Other students such as junior Leon Xie, an international student from South Africa, took initiative to recreate traditions from his home country. 

Xie said he wishes there was a South African club on campus, but feels that the community is not large enough to successfully form such a group. 

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“Other clubs I have joined is UNC Ascend. I remember growing up in South Africa, I was one of the few Asians that were at my school, so there wasn’t a lot of joint identity in my background there,” he said. 

He said joining the Asian identity-based organization for business professionals was different from any experience he had had before, and he was happy to be a part of a community like that. 

At UNC, the International Student and Scholar Services serves to provide resources for international students and scholars primarily focused on immigration and University-sponsored benefits. 

Ioana Costant, the director of ISSS, oversees daily operations of providing resources to international students.

In the case that immigration issues do jeopardize a student’s standing at UNC, Costant said ISSS can provide advice on how to maintain immigration statuses, and students can work with the American Immigration Lawyers Association on further issues.

“In terms of challenges, the immigration system is complex and antiquated. Reform in certain aspects would be helpful to international students and scholars to align with the world we live in,” she said. “For example, for certain categories, the government still only accepts paper petitions, and our students and scholars have to keep original paper documents, which can be challenging given our digital world.”

Costant said it is particularly challenging for international students to adjust to a new culture, and that she is proud of the multitude of programs that UNC offers international students. 

“All of our students are just bright, I just love interacting with an international community. They are such a core part of our Carolina community,” she said.