If people outside Maine can barely pronounce Bowdoin, often calling it "BOW-doyn," then how do students from as far away as Kenya and Vietnam find out about the College? Why do international students choose to attend a school that most people outside the United States have never heard of?
International students, meaning students who do not have United States or dual citizenship, make up about 4.6 percent of Bowdoin's student body. By contrast, international students constitute nearly 9 percent of the student body at Middlebury and 8 percent of the student population at Williams.
Because Bowdoin's international student population is so small, students say that they often go unnoticed on campus.
"I've actually found the international population to be quite invisible," said Marta Misiulaityte '14, who is from Lithuania.
Although the College provides resources for international students, such as the English for Multilingual Students (EMS) consultant and the international student orientation, it doesn't "try to facilitate a conversation between people who would otherwise never talk or who would never have an opportunity to talk to one another," said Misiulaityte.
"We're just kind of a group that's out there," added Jonathan Song '13, who is from Hong Kong. "Because we're in small numbers, we're kind of forced to seek our way through and find our own resources and use what's there for our own benefit."
Although most domestic students reach Bowdoin by a few conventional routes—college guide books, alumni, guidance counselors or recruitment efforts—international students arrive on campus in a variety of ways. Among international students, the roads to Bowdoin are incredibly diverse.
The road to Bowdoin
How do international students hear about Bowdoin, particularly since most liberal arts colleges are not well known abroad?
Although the Office of Admissions annually travels to Asia and Europe to recruit students, there does not appear to be a pattern by which international students find out about Bowdoin.
"My family was a little hesitant about [my] coming to Bowdoin," said Song. "They understood the importance of coming from a reputable university. Usually back home, reputable universities are Harvard, Princeton...the Ivies."
Song was encouraged to apply to liberal arts colleges in the United States by his high school guidance counselor, who attended Wheaton College. Song read about Bowdoin in "The Fiske Guide to Colleges" and visited the College in the April after he was accepted.
He said that his parents "talked to a few of their friends to gain a better understanding of what Bowdoin is. It seems like a lot of Americans actually knew about Bowdoin, [but] the word hadn't spread to the local population...Within the American population in Hong Kong, everyone knew about it."
While Song does not receive financial aid from the College—he jokingly said that he had to "bankrupt" his parents to attend Bowdoin—other international students are fully subsidized by their home country's government.
Tippapha Pisithkul '13, for example, arrived at Bowdoin through the Royal Thai Scholars program administrated by the Thai government. The Thai Scholars agree to repay the Thai government with two years of work for every year of support they receive while studying abroad. Pisithkul, who is majoring in biochemistry, will teach biology at a university when she returns to Thailand.
Pisithkul studied at a boarding school in the United States for a year before applying to college. She learned about Bowdoin through her guidance counselor, who is a Bowdoin alumnus. Although Pisithkul looked at larger universities, she said that she decided to attend Bowdoin because of its small community.
"You don't have to adjust to anything," she said. "The professor takes care of you like you're a high school kid."
Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Laura Lee, who is the international student adviser, noted the diversity of study abroad experiences among international students. Some students had never studied outside their home country before traveling to the United States. Others are "very sophisticated, cultivated, well-traveled students," said Lee.
Vietnam native Viet Nguyen '14, for instance, studied in Hong Kong, South Africa and Wales before arriving in the United States. He found out about Bowdoin from one of his Vietnamese friends who happened to be studying at Bowdoin. At the time he was applying to colleges, Nguyen was attending boarding school in Wales on a scholarship. Since his international student status prevented him from receiving financial aid from universities in the United Kingdom, Nguyen decided to attend a school in the United States.
Although Nguyen was ultimately accepted to Brown and Bowdoin, he, like Pisithkul, chose Bowdoin because he wanted a smaller community with few international students. In South Africa and Wales, Nguyen said that he spent a lot of time with other international students. He observed that foreign students tended to congregate with one another, which prevented them from becoming immersed in their new environment.
"I didn't really enjoy that, which is ironic because I am an international student myself," he said.
International students also said that Bowdoin's liberal arts education offers them greater intellectual freedom than they might otherwise receive in Europe or Asia. Unlike the United States undergraduate system, educational systems in Europe and Asia require students to choose a field of study by the end of their sophomore year of high school.
Julian Leung '11, who is from Hong Kong, was required by his school to choose between concentrating in the sciences or humanities by the 11th grade. Leung ultimately chose the science track, though he said he is only "mildly interested in biology" and "I pretty much suck at math." He learned about Bowdoin from his high school guidance counselor, whose son is a Bowdoin graduate. Leung became interested in studying at a liberal arts college in the United States.
Reflecting on his high school experience in Hong Kong, Leung said, "Having gone through this 'factory-like' setting, I know full well how important and precious it is to have the tailor-made flexibility of the curriculum and the individual attention that liberal arts schools offer."
Leung currently works as an administrative and management assistant at an international school in Hong Kong.
Tawanda Pasirayi '12, who is from Zimbabwe, completed the science track in high school and was accepted to medical school in Zimbabwe. However, he was not interested in becoming a doctor and instead joined an accounting firm, where he discovered that he was passionate about economics.
Pasirayi learned about Bowdoin while reading college guide books provided by a United States advising center in Zimbabwe. The advising center is run by the United States embassy.
Pasirayi, who is majoring in economics, said he chose to come to the United States because it is "the pinnacle of the market economy."
"You might as well learn from the best," he said.
Pasirayi spent last summer working in finance. He will work as a junior analyst at an investment firm in New York City after graduation.
Even after learning about and applying to Bowdoin, international students face a grueling admissions process. This process is made more difficult by the fact that Bowdoin is not need-blind for international students.
International students who do not need financial aid are treated similarly to domestic students by the Office of Admissions. For international students who need financial aid, however, the odds of being accepted decrease dramatically. According to the Office of Student Aid, Bowdoin can afford to accept five fully-funded international students per year.
Of the 717 international students who applied to Bowdoin last year, 419 indicated that they would like to be considered for financial aid. While the Office of Admissions abstained from providing the exact number of international students from the Class of 2015 who receive financial aid, Associate Dean of Admissions John Thurston indicated that it is in the single digits.
Thurston said that the group of international students who need financial aid constitutes Bowdoin's "most competitive applicant pool." These applicants are vetted by admissions with that consideration specifically in mind.
"We'll be reading the international student's [application] who needs financial aid thinking: do I think this person is going to be competitive in that ultra competitive pool? And if so, we keep moving them into the process," said Thurston.
"It's always in the back of your mind—the knowledge that we're not going to be able to afford all these really compelling international students," he added.
Marta Misiulaityte from Lithuania, is one of the lucky international students who received financial aid.
Misiulaityte said that financial aid was "my biggest thing" in deciding which college to attend.
"I didn't even look at colleges that didn't give me enough," she said.
Viet Nguyen also received financial aid from Bowdoin. He said that when he applied to Bowdoin, he was unaware of how difficult it is for international students to receive financial aid from the College.
"If I had known, I wouldn't have applied to Bowdoin," said Nguyen, "but Bowdoin ended up giving me everything I wanted."
Arriving at Bowdoin
International students said they were drawn to Bowdoin by the individualized attention it offers students. Unlike Middlebury and Columbia, however, Bowdoin does not provide a comprehensive international students program to help students from abroad adjust to campus life.
Middlebury, for instance, assists foreign students through its International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS), which, according to the Middlebury website, "provides advising, programs, services, and support to our international students, staff, and faculty." Likewise, Columbia supports international students through its International Students and Scholars Office (ISSO), which includes an advisory staff, immigration and document services, and workshops on international taxation.
While Bowdoin does not have these programs, it does offer academic and personal support through the Office of Multicultural Student Programs and English for Multiligual Students tutors.
Tippapha Pisithkul, the student from Thailand, said that the academic support system at Bowdoin is "beyond my expectations." Pisithkul spent the past two summers conducting research in the biology department.
"I think every professor, even science professors, they do understand where you are coming from and what problems you might encounter," she said.
Pisithkul also said that she regularly uses the EMS tutors for assistance with her essays. Lisa Flanagan, the program's adviser, helps international students adjust to the rhetorical strategies for writing in American colleges. She also helps international students correct their grammar and identify the "nuances of language."
"The big thing is being able to retrieve what they know and make it active," she explained, adding that international students frequently "know what a word means, but to use it is often the challenge."
Jonathan Song, the junior from Hong Kong, said that he struggled in his freshman seminar because he completed the science track in high school. "I didn't really have the opportunity to write," said Song of his high school education.
Song said that he did not expect to "have a lot of trouble" writing essays in college, "but after I got my first paper back...I knew something was wrong and I looked into resources on campus."
In addition to using the EMS center, Song also turned to the deans, faculty members and his friends for help adjusting to academic life on campus.
Among the deans available to international students is International Student Adviser Laura Lee, whose job is to assist international students in applying for their student visas, organize the international student orientation and address any questions or concerns students from abroad might have.
Faith Biegon, a sophomore from Kenya, said that in general, the support system for international students at Bowdoin is strong.
"After the orientation, the deans did not leave me alone," she said. "They kept sending me emails, asking me how I was doing, if I had stuff that I need."
However, she suggested that Bowdoin should move the orientation it holds for international students to before pre-orientation to help ease foreign students' transition to the United States.
Lee said that it would be difficult to move the international student orientation to before pre-orientation because many foreign students don't want to cut their summer short. She added that the current international student orientation already presents logistical problems because many students have conflicts with sports teams and other commitments.
Many international students, however, said that even in the face of logistical issues posed by Lee, they would benefit from both an earlier and a longer orientation.
Viet Nguyen, from Vietnam, criticized the international student orientation for being too short to allow foreign students to get situated on campus. The orientation is about half a day on the Saturday after the regular first year orientation.
"The international student orientation is just a joke for me," he said.
In contrast to Bowdoin, other liberal arts colleges hold slightly longer programs to help international students adjust to life in the United States. Middlebury, for instance, holds Early Arrival, a 3-day program for new students traveling from abroad. The program begins a few days prior to the start of Middlebury's regular student orientation and includes exchange students, first year students on a student visa, and students with United States citizenship who completed most of their education abroad.
"The idea is to allow extra time for students to recover from traveling...get settled...learn about their visa status or identity as a United States student from abroad, and start to learn about life at Middlebury from older students who act as peer mentors during the few days," said Middlebury International Student and Scholar Adviser Kaye-Lani Laughna.
Marta Misiulaityte said that the discussions held at the international student orientation tended to focus more on the adjustment to college life and less on practical issues such as buying bedding and winter clothes. Misiulaityte studied at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., for two years before attending Bowdoin. She said that Andover's international student orientation lasted for about four days.
"The best part was really just hanging out with international students for four days before everybody else got there because it created a network of support," said Misiulaityte.
Misiulaityte said she was glad that she had lived in the United States before coming to Bowdoin. She said that if she had been new to America when arriving on campus, "I don't know what I would have done."
"It would have been very hard to have one day at an orientation where people actually understood what you're going through," added Misiulaityte.
While Bowdoin's international student population is small, many foreign students consider that a plus. They explained that at large universities, foreign students tend to congregate with one another and rarely form friendships with American students.
"There's one thing about big universities that I noticed...the international kids...only hang out with one another," said Jonathan Song. "I really liked the idea of being integrated with the general population and that's what small liberal arts colleges brought to the table."
Other international students are invigorated by the challenge of attending a school with a small international student population. For example, Tawanda Pasirayi from Zimbabwe said that he looked for a small school because he "figured it would be an interesting challenge" to attend a college where few students are from his home country. Pasirayi is the only student from Zimbabwe at Bowdoin.
Pasirayi said that he was drawn to Bowdoin not only because of its small international student population, but also because of the opportunity to engage with his peers.
Unlike his education in Zimbabwe, Pasirayi said that Bowdoin has shown him that "life is not just about being a bookworm...You could be smart, but you don't know how to communicate."
Echoing many other students, Pasirayi said it was the central selling point of a liberal arts education—being able to think outside the box—that drew him to Brunswick.
"You're learning how to approach a problem you've never seen before," he said "You're learning how to tackle new challenges. That is not something that was emphasized back home."