ATU International Student Story

International Flags

PHOTO | Tanner Gill

Arkansas Tech University is home to thousands of students, most of whom come from towns within the state of Arkansas. With over 90 percent of Tech’s students being Arkansans, you’d be forgiven for not knowing much about Tech’s program for international students. Tech’s department of International Student Services aims to help students from abroad with life on campus, organizing events and finding a sense of community.

International Student Services doesn’t just provide aid in helping students from abroad get set up at Tech. The program aims to help these students find solidarity with their peers. Students from abroad are encouraged to come to their office for help in organizing events, celebrating holidays and finding somewhere they don’t feel out of place.

Sabrina Anwar, an International Student Services Specialist, provided insight into her office’s various responsibilities and the help they provide to foreign students at Tech.

“As students come in, we try to help as much as possible. So a student usually needs help with various things, to maintain their status with a student visa. They have to maintain all those, so we make sure that they do that. Like as they need help, we just help them,” Anwar said.

Another area that the department seeks to aid students with is the complicated paperwork that accompanies the international student process.

“There are a lot of immigration rules that they have to maintain, so we keep track. Like if the student changes their address, that needs to be updated within ten days. They can’t drop below full time and we have to make sure they aren’t working off campus. We constantly keep checking on those and let students know that ‘you need to maintain this,’” Anwar said.

The department doesn’t just help international students with maintaining their requirements to remain on campus, it also provides aid in helping students organize cultural events to spread awareness about their home countries.

Among the different events that the International Student Services organizes are Light the Night, which is scheduled for April 6, and International Education Week, which is on the third week of November each year. The program also organizes an event for the Lunar New Year,  which is commonly attended by students from Korea, China and Japan.

“When we have some holidays that we celebrate, we ask a student if they want to showcase their holiday. They are most welcome to,” Anwar said, adding the department seeks to encourage international students to embrace their cultural identity by organizing such events.

Though Tech only has 162 international students ranging from 45 different countries and regions, only a few countries have more than a handful of students that call them home. Most countries involved in the international student program only have one to three students that originate from them, with one such country being Georgia.

Zurab Sabakhtarishvili is the only international student at Tech that hails from Georgia, a country just south of Russia and a former part of the Soviet Union. Although the Soviet Union dissolved in December of 1991, Sabakhtarishvili said there’s still a degree of Russian influence in Georgia’s current political landscape.

“Yes, right now as we are speaking there are huge protests in Georgia. The Georgian government tried to push a ‘foreign agents’ law. They pushed it as if it was a copy of an American law, a western thing, but it’s a total copy of Russian law that they used to push on non-government organizations and media.”

The law in question would require any organization that receives more than 20 percent of its funding from abroad to register as an “agent of foreign influence” with the Georgian Justice Ministry.

The “foreign agent law” was met with widespread protests in the thousands and eventually scrapped by Georgian officials on March 9. Though the law didn’t make it into policy, it’s indicative of how much influence Russia currently has on Georgia’s political climate. Another area in which Russia seems to be affecting Georgians’ daily lives is with the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Although tensions have risen in Georgia and its surrounding region following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent mass immigration of Ukrainians to Georgia, Sabakhtarishvili and other Georgians like him provide efforts in helping refugees affected by the conflict.

“We decided, me and my friend, to set up a portal for Ukrainian refugees. We had it set up within two weeks, and we set it up so volunteers could offer help. It was a website to offer up three kinds of help, you know, accommodation, transportation or any kind of supplies needed,” Sabakhtarishvili said.

Sabakhtarishvili’s experience with developing websites and programming is also a key part of his education, as he’s currently in his junior year at Tech pursuing a bachelor’s degree in computer science.

Despite the fact that Sabakhtarishvili has been at Tech for years, he does miss his home country, and food is what he misses the most. However, Sabakhtarishvili said he’s come to know Arkansas as a “second home.”

“I’ve gone back home like more than a couple of times, and every time I go back home I miss it. And I come back here and I miss home. It’s like I have two homes, really, at this point,” Sabakhtarishvili said.

Though the United States has become another home for Sabakhtarishvili and other international students like him, their future in the country is uncertain. Due to certain rules and stipulations regarding their visas, international students aren’t allowed to plan on remaining in the country for too long after they finish their education.

In some cases like students pursuing a STEM education, a visa can be extended by up to “17 months,” according to Anwar. Unfortunately for most students, such an extension isn’t as attainable. Without employment or an extension, most international students have to return back to their home country upon completing their degree.

“That very much depends on the employment opportunities I’m presented with, and also legally my visa constrains me from determining to stay here,” Sabakhtarishvili said, when asked if he planned to remain in Arkansas after he finishes his degree.

Despite the challenges that International Student Services and the students it seeks to help face, there’s still a positive outlook of the program from students like Sabakhtarishvili. Despite the uncertainty of his future in the country, Sabakhtarishvili had only positive things to say about the International Students Services program.

“They’re extremely helpful and good at their job. The day I came here, they were very helpful in providing all the resources I need, other than that they’re extremely supportive. They’re a really good addition, and they make the campus much brighter.”