Supporting Education in USA
Regional Educational Advising Coordinator Ishrat Jahan talks about how EducationUSA helps Indian students pursue higher studies in the United States.
EducationUSA is a U.S. Department of State network of over 400 international student advising centers in more than 170 countries. It promotes U.S. higher education to students by offering accurate, comprehensive and current information about opportunities to study in the United States.
Excerpts from an interview with Ishrat Jahan, regional educational advising coordinator for EducationUSA in India and Central Asia.
Please tell us briefly about yourself and how you became involved in the field of education.
I was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, grew up in Kuwait and immigrated to New Jersey with my family when I was 10 years old. After my father completed his master’s degree, my mother went back to school to complete her education. I completed my bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University in New Jersey around the same time my mother completed her master’s. Education was an important element in our family, combined with community service. From an early age, I was teaching and mentoring younger children both in school and through cultural programs.
As an adult, my career began in investment banking, but I traveled, studied in India and explored different interests before settling into a career in media and communications. While working in New York, I was also teaching dance and working with youth in the community. Around 2010, I moved to Bangladesh to learn about my family and culture. While helping family members with their interest in studying in the U.S. and teaching at a local school, I discovered EducationUSA. Soon after, I was working as an EducationUSA outreach coordinator with the U.S. Embassy in Bangladesh. The program was a great fit, combining both my interests in sharing knowledge and helping youth, and my teaching skills. After a few years of service in Bangladesh, I accepted my current position as the regional educational advising coordinator for EducationUSA in India and Central Asia.
Can you give a brief overview of your role as the regional educational advising coordinator for India?
The regional educational advising coordinator (REAC) represents the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ (ECA) EducationUSA office in different regions around the world. The network has over 400 international student advising centers in more than 170 countries promoting U.S. higher education by offering accurate, comprehensive and current information about opportunities to study at accredited postsecondary institutions in the United States. There are 14 REACs globally; I oversee EducationUSA in India and Central Asia.
As a REAC, I provide professional leadership, training and expertise in educational advising issues to the EducationUSA network of advising centers and the U.S. Embassies in my region of seven countries. I also provide data and analysis of international student mobility trends to help U.S. higher education institutions develop effective recruitment strategies.
How does EducationUSA help Indian students who are interested in pursuing higher education in the United States? What kind of guidance and services does it offer?
EducationUSA is your official source on U.S. higher education. The EducationUSA centers in India are hosted with three different implementing partners with seven centers across the country—in Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Mumbai. Thirty trained staff and advisers help Indian students receive accurate, comprehensive and current information for bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees. They also offer a wide range of in-person and virtual services to students and their families based on “Your 5 Steps to U.S. Study,” a guide to navigating the U.S. higher education application process.
Advisers provide information on a host of topics, including:
• The admissions process and standardized testing requirements;
• How to finance a U.S. education;
• The student visa process;
• Preparing for departure to the United States.
EducationUSA represents accreditated U.S. higher education institutions and is committed to promoting the diversity of U.S. higher education to help international students find their “best fit.”
EducationUSA centers in India offer guidance through free information sessions on how to apply to U.S. institutions the correct way. EducationUSA offers free webinars every Friday at 4:00 p.m. at http://bit.ly/1u5QUDX. Visit the “EducationUSA India” YouTube page to get a glimpse of the information the advisers offer.
Are these advising services available only at the EducationUSA centers or do you travel to other locations too? Are the services subscription-based or available free of cost?
EducationUSA is committed to providing guidance and information to all Indian students. And that means reaching them where they are. The advisers travel to schools, colleges, universities, community centers, education fairs and any number of places to speak to parents and interested Indian students. This is provided as a free service. EducationUSA advisers often accept invitations from parents, students and local institutions to conduct free information sessions on a range of topics.
Recently, the Hyderabad center met with parents and students at their local community center to discuss the admissions process. The center in Delhi met students in Kashmir virtually, to provide free information about U.S. higher studies. Advisers from the Chennai center traveled to institutions in Ooty and Coimbatore to provide free information.
Most of the services EducationUSA offers are free of cost. The centers also provide paid membership services for those interested in more in-depth support.
Do you organize special sessions for parents to address their questions and concerns about sending their children to study in a foreign country?
EducationUSA centers host a special session, “Parents Meet Parents,” where parents of future students interact with parents of students in the U.S. Contact an EducationUSA center near you to find out about the schedule of events.
What does a typical day in the life of an EducationUSA adviser look like?
An EducationUSA adviser’s day varies from day to day depending on the time of the year, the city where they are located and the U.S. admissions cycle. The ultimate goal is to provide guidance and support to Indian students about the correct path to U.S. institutions. For this reason, answering students’ inquiries is always a priority. Some activities that the advisers engage in include:
• Researching, collating and creating resources for students;
• Reviewing and staying updated on the newest policies or changes related to the admissions process and identifying ways to bring that information to students;
• Communicating with accredited U.S. institutions to gather information, to arrange sessions on different topics that connect the institutions to students, and to help U.S. institutions with questions they may have concerning Indian students and Indian academic credentials;
• Planning outreach to meet students in different cities and arranging special free sessions for the public;
• Answering emails and phone calls from students. EducationUSA has a toll-free line that students from around India can call in for information.
The toll-free helpdesk number 1-800-103-1231 is open from Monday to Friday between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. Call in to speak to a trained EducationUSA adviser.
Why do you think more Indian students should pursue higher studies in the United States? What benefits does the United States offer Indian students that they might not find in other countries?
Over 900,000 international students studied in U.S. campuses in the last academic year. This provided them a profound learning experience beyond classrooms; it opened doors to global networking opportunities. Of all the study abroad destinations, the United States remains, by far, the most popular among Indian students. Over 130,000 Indian students are currently studying in the U.S., making Indians the second largest group of international students here.
The incredible range of U.S. institutions offering a multitude of study options and majors in a variety of settings makes it challenging for prospective students to find the right fit. Poor choices are made if based solely on a ranked list or hearsay. EducationUSA is committed to helping international students find the best fit—“Don’t try to match yourself to a university; rather, try to pick a university that matches you.” Best fit implies that students are seeking options that fit their academic goals, financial situation and future career plans. The U.S. may not always be the best fit and EducationUSA advisers often encourage students to explore all options, both locally and abroad, though they can only provide guidance on the U.S. admissions process.
Can you give us a brief overview of the “5 Steps to U.S. Study?”
STEP 1: Research your options
12 to 18 months prior to intended date of enrollment
The best college or university for you is the one that meets your requirements—academic, financial and personal. Begin by defining your priorities by answering questions such as: What type of institution is best, based on your academic record? How will you manage financing? Why do you want to study in the U.S.? And what are your interests and long-term goals? Then, begin your research.
STEP 2: Finance your studies
Tuition can range from $20,000 (Rs. 13,39,000 approximately) to $70,000 (Rs. 46,88,000 approximately) depending on the program, location and type of institution, i.e. public versus private. It is important to start financial planning as early as possible. Each year, international students receive significant amounts of financial assistance toward their studies, but these are limited and intensely competitive. Financial assistance is typically provided through scholarships, grants, fellowships, assistantships, internships and on-campus employment. Applications for financial aid accompany the applications for admission.
STEP 3: Complete your application
6 to 12 months prior to intended date of enrollment
Application packages require time, preparation and planning. Students will benefit greatly by starting the process early. The majority of U.S. schools evaluate applications holistically, which means decisions are based on several criteria and the strength of the complete application package. Key elements include academic records, standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities and application essays and/or work experience.
STEP 4: Apply for a visa
3 to 5 months prior to intended date of enrollment
Students will first need to receive an admission letter and an I-20 from a U.S. institution before they can begin the visa application process. All students are required to appear for an interview in person at the Consular Office that serves their region. Consular websites provide detailed information on the process and requirements. EducationUSA advisers work in cooperation with Consular officers to inform and educate prospective students as well. Students are encouraged to take advantage of information sessions that are frequently offered.
STEP 5: Prepare for departure
2 to 4 months prior to intended date of enrollment
Pre-departure orientations are offered by EducationUSA advising centers. Advisers and alumni provide information and resources that help prepare students for new experiences. Topics discussed include cultural differences, classroom expectations, housing, coping in a new cultural setting and what to pack for their trip.
What are the most common mistakes students make while applying to U.S. universities and how can they avoid them?
A few of the common mistakes students make are:
Dependence on rankings: Rankings are very subjective. While it may be a place to start, it shouldn’t be the only reference point. Students need to conduct extensive, in-depth research to find the “best fit” institution. EducationUSA advisers guide students on the criteria to consider when researching and how to look beyond the rankings.
Brand name institutions: There are over 3,000 accredited institutions in the U.S. Parents and students should consider if the students’ academic profile, financial standing and long-term goals match the institutions being selected. Students should apply to six to eight institutions in a range of dream schools, matching schools and safety schools. Dream schools should be one or two—institutions that the student dreams of attending and are a good fit. Matching schools should be three to four—institutions that match the students’ finances and where their academic record may qualify for scholarships. Safety schools should be about two to three—institutions where the student and family are confident of acceptance and can manage financially.
Being undiscerning: EducationUSA often sees students who have depended on advice from one source or a family member or a friend. EducationUSA is the official source for U.S. higher studies. Parents and students should verify, attend or connect with an EducationUSA adviser before investing in the U.S. application process. There are no guaranteed admissions at accredited U.S. institutions and no one can guarantee a student visa. The best path is to be involved in the application process, know the institutions you are applying to, understand why you selected those institutions and always be honest throughout the application process.
Is it more advisable for Indian students to focus on graduate studies in the United States as opposed to undergraduate studies? Does one offer significant benefits in terms of financial aid that the other doesn’t?
For the 2014-15 academic year, there was a 30 percent increase in the number of Indian students pursuing an undergraduate degree. The large portion of Indian students, 64 percent, continues to be those pursuing graduate degrees. The decision to pursue an undergraduate or graduate degree rests on the long-term plans of students and families.
While scholarships are competitive for undergraduate studies, Indian families are able to afford the range of tuition at U.S. institutions. Indian high school students who prepare strong application packages and apply to the best-fit institutions can be competitive applicants for financial aid and acceptance.
Graduate degrees are popular because of the multiple sources of funding available beyond scholarships. STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, which often have funded research prospects at U.S. institutions, can offer more varied funding opportunities. Graduate students can also avail of teaching opportunities, which can supplement scholarships and other financial aid.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
On March 2016, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced its final rule to strengthen and enhance the optional practical training (OPT) program for F-1 international students in STEM fields. The STEM OPT 24-month extension is effective beginning May 10, 2016.