The emphasis on punctuality and the abundance of two-door cars surprised Harika Gopireddy.
A graduate student from India, Gopireddy arrived in the United States just three months ago to study computer science at Indiana State University (ISU), in Terre Haute, Ind. She and fellow international student Vijaya Durga Asam both said the United States was their first preference for international study. They represent a growing number of international students who travel across oceans to pursue what they describe as a "world class education" in America.
The Institute of International Education's Open Doors survey counted 690,000 international students studying in America in the 2009-10 academic year. Just one year later, the same study determined that the number of internationals grew to 723,000, a 5 percent increase. The United States has the largest international student population of any country.
Zachariah Mathew, associate director of the ISU Office of International Programs and Services, described the push and pull factors that attract students to the United States. Push factors, such as the lack of access to quality education or simply the desire to have a new cultural experience, motivate students to leave their home country. Pull factors draw students to a particular country and institution, Mathew said.
Compared to other countries, the United States is home to many quality universities and technological resources, which motivated Gopireddy and Asam to study internationally, they said. Asam also noted that she could receive an education in India but would not have any opportunities for international exposure.
The World Education Service's Trends in International Student Mobility report concluded that China sends the most international students to the States, followed by India and South Korea. However, the reality of these statistics varies across college campuses. At ISU, 40 percent of international students hail from Saudi Arabia, Mathew said.
Faith-based schools, in particular, appeal to international students because they are committed to a specific moral ethic, said Melanie Smith, the international student relations coordinator at Baylor University.
"When international students see our website they tell me that it makes them feel like they can be comfortable in their faith at Baylor, even if it is not necessarily protestant," Smith said.
International students experience a whirlwind of change once they enter the United States, as they adapt to the language, as well as other changes like weather, transportation and navigation.
In order to make this transition smoother, Baylor initiated a program called "Welcoming Our World," which coordinates volunteers to pick the students up at the airport, provide campus tours and introduce them to the Welcome Week activities. The organized activities allow them to "start their intersecting with U.S. students as soon as possible," Smith said. The school also coordinates an International Education Week to inform students and faculty about how they can help meet the needs of international students.
But not all of the cultural changes are unpleasant. Students' friendliness and helpful nature on campus surprised Gopireddy. In India, it is not customary to frequently greet people, she said.
When international students come to the United States, they eventually become ambassadors for America all over the world. This plays a role in globalization and connectivity of the world's countries, Mathew said.
The Institute of International Education uses the term "brain circulation" to describe international student mobility, said Sharon Witherell, director of public affairs for the IIE.
"Students who go to one country to study might end up moving several times in their studies and their careers between their home and host countries and other locations as they build their skills and international networks," she said.
At Baylor, cross-cultural experience is woven into the strategic plan.
"[It states] the importance of a student body that is global, for the cross-cultural education of each student, U.S. or international, because that is parallel to the world in which they will both work and live," Smith said.
Both Gopireddy and Asam are confident that they will have little trouble getting a job once they return to India. Other countries respect the quality of education in America, Gopireddy said.
Despite language barriers and numerous cultural adjustments, Gopireddy and Asam described their experience in the States as completely worthwhile: "Two hundred percent," Gopireddy said.
"I would say we are lucky," Asam said. "The only word for it is lucky."