The Faces of International Education
It is no secret that international education is big business. NAFSA’s Economic Value Tool estimates that international students contributed $39 billion to the U.S. economy and supported more than 455,000 jobs during the 2017–18 academic year.
But beyond the numbers, every one of the more than 1 million international students and scholars in the United States has his or her own story to tell. These individuals enrich campuses, bring fresh perspectives to classrooms, offer new insights in the arts, start businesses, and make untold contributions to scientific research. In some cases, they have overcome significant challenges to come to the United States.
Here are profiles of six exceptional international students and scholars who, building on their educational experiences in the United States, have gone on to make significant contributions to both the United States and their home country.
For every personal story shared in this article, there are thousands more like it—a testament to the work that international educators do every day.
Home country: Chile
Education: Management and Business Track, Entrepreneurship & Project Management, International Diploma Program (2017), the University of California-Berkeley Extension
Current position: Cofounder and Chief Operations Officer, Wheel the World
During a solo trip to Patagonia, Camilo Navarro, 33, realized he wanted to help his friend Alvaro Silberstein, who was in a wheelchair, have the same experience. They crowdfunded a special trekking wheelchair and shot a documentary about their exploration of Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chile. Their story went viral.
The documentary’s success paved the way for what would become Wheel the World, a company designed to help people with disabilities travel the world. For their business idea to become a reality, Navarro and Silberstein decided to pursue an international diploma in entrepreneurship and project management at University of California-Berkeley Extension (UC Berkeley).
“I was thrilled by the start-up ecosystem in the Bay Area, the amazing entrepreneurs, investors, and universities,” Navarro says. “[It] seemed to be the perfect combination to get inspired to start up my own business, and also to learn all of the skills I needed to achieve the objectives to become a successful entrepreneur.”
Taking what they learned and the connections they made, the two friends launched Wheel the World in 2017. The company is housed at Skydeck, a start-up incubator at UC Berkeley. Since its founding, the company has raised more than $750,000 and booked more than 700 travel experiences around the world.
“We connect travelers with disabilities [to] local travel services that can satisfy their specific needs,” Navarro says. “Our purpose is to empower people with disabilities to explore the world without limits, beyond what they thought possible.”
When he and Silberstein started talking about a travel company for people with disabilities, they encountered some resistance. But professors and classmates at UC Berkeley told them, “Guys, you have something.”
Navarro adds that studying in the United States allowed him to develop technical and leadership skills to start his own business. “[It] also allowed me to generate an incredible network of people who support what we want to achieve: to make a more inclusive and accessible world for everyone,” he says.
Home country: Canada
Education: Bachelor of Science in Astrophysics, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (2018)
Current position: PhD candidate in Astrophysics, Harvard University
As a child growing up in British Columbia, Canada, Jasmine Gill, 22, wanted to become an astronaut. After completing high school in the United States, she was initially set on attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to study space science, but she decided to apply to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona. “I was just blown away because they offered me hands-on research and a full-ride scholarship,” she says.
In addition to earning her degree from Embry-Riddle, Gill regularly visited Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and worked for 2 years at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) as a research scientist.
These experiences paved the way for Gill, at the age of 21, to be the youngest member of a global team of scientists who helped discover the existence of gravitational waves. In 2017, the team was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.
“It was amazing to be recognized as an actual scientist, not just a student, in the field,” she says.
Gill participates in a collaboration between the National Science Foundation’s Laser Interferometer Gravitational- Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the United States and the Virgo, a gravitational-wave detector based in Europe. The LIGO–Virgo collaboration brought together astronomers with gravitational wave researchers to create a new discipline: gravitational wave astronomy.
“Going to graduate school at Harvard was an amazing move as an international student. I honestly didn’t think I’d get this far, given that I was a first-generation college student.”
Now a research scientist at Columbia University and a PhD candidate at Harvard University, Gill is helping to establish a gravitational wave astronomy research group.
“For me, going to graduate school at Harvard was an amazing move as an international student,” she says. “I honestly didn’t think I’d get this far, given that I was a first-generation college student.”
Gill’s childhood dream may not be too far off. She plans to apply to NASA the next time it recruits a new class of astronauts. “The end goal was and still is to become an astronaut,” she says.
Home country: China
Education: Master of Fine Arts in Dance (2016), New York University Tisch School of the Arts
Current position: Freelance artist, Xiang Xu Dance Theater
After beginning his dance career at the Beijing Dance Academy, Xiang Xu decided to pursue a master’s of fine arts in one of the world’s cultural capitals: New York City.
“America has had...many legendary modern dance pioneers who dedicated their whole lives to the modern and contemporary dance world,” Xu says.
Although his background is in traditional Chinese dance, Xu focused on contemporary dance at New York University (NYU)’s Tisch School of the Arts.
“NYU has a very rigorous dance program, which not only challenges your physicality, but also it gives you a lot of time to deeply think about how dance art influences human society and individuality as a physical form,” he says.
Since coming to the United States, Xu has served as adjunct faculty and a guest artist at Syracuse University and Santa Monica College. He has received numerous awards for his performance and choreography, and, most recently, the Joffrey Academy of Dance selected him to premiere his latest work at its annual Winning Works Choreographic Competition.
“For me, the best thing [about] studying here was to enjoy the diverse cultures to make me grow up spiritually as an artist.”
Xu’s choreography, in particular, has been recognized for its innovative blend of traditional Asian dances and martial arts with contemporary dance.
“I pick these typical movement dynamics from Asian traditional dances and incorporate them with Western contemporary dance technique,” he says.
Studying dance in the United States gave him opportunities to collaborate with artists from around the world.
“This is the beauty of America for its arts education,” he says. “For me, the best thing [about] studying here was to enjoy the diverse cultures to make me grow up spiritually as an artist.”
Rashi Culati Menda
Home country: India
Education: Bachelor of Science in Economics and Business (2011), University of Minnesota-Twin Cities
Current position: Chief Executive Officer and Founder, Zapyle
Not having time to shop due to 14-hour workdays gave Rashi Gulati Menda, 29, the idea to start a business. And Menda’s business education at the University of Minnesota (UMN) gave her the skills she needed to put that idea into practice. The result is Zapyle, an online fashion platform for Indian women on the go.
Sourcing brands from Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, the start-up is an online womenswear platform that curates a selection of clothes for individual users. Menda experienced the ease of online shopping when she was an international student in the United States, but “when I moved to India,” she says, “I struggled to find a platform where I could just find a simple solution.”
“Working women do not have time, but they want to look fashionable, they want to look great, and they want to feel comfortable—so why not create a platform where they only see what they would really like to purchase?”
Since Menda founded the company in 2015, Zapyle has won numerous innovation awards in India and has raised more than $1.5 million in capital.
“We are growing in terms of options, in terms of brands, and we have been profitable for almost 6 months now,” Menda says.
Menda did not originally set out to found her own company, although she did create her first start-up while still an undergrad at UMN. She worked at Ernest & Young in the United States and India immediately following college, and then worked in investments. Looking back now, she sees how her UMN education helped pave the way to becoming an entrepreneur, partly due to her adviser’s suggestion to take accounting and entrepreneurship classes in case she ever wanted to start her own business.
“The reason I’m able to raise money today, keep up with my investors, and hire the right cofounders or team is because I have the gift of the education that I got,” Menda says.
Home country: Nigeria
Education: Bachelor of Science in Information Systems (2005), University of Wisconsin-La Crosse; MBA with an emphasis in Leadership (2019), Viterbo University
Current position: Head of the Project Management Office, Mayo Clinic Center for Regenerative Medicine
Wale Elegbede first encountered U.S.-style education at an international elementary school. After finishing his secondary education at a school run by the Nigerian navy, Elegbede traveled more than 6,000 miles to enroll at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (UWL), which he had learned about from a family friend.
The only drawback, he says, was the weather: “I heard it was cold, but honestly, if you have never been in negative temperatures, minus 30, minus 20, you really can’t comprehend it.”
Although Elegbede had learned about leadership and team building in high school, UWL was where everything came together for him.
“My experience at UWL was where I honed my technical, analytical, and critical thinking skills,” he says.
After he graduated in 2005, he continued to grow the business software company he founded while an undergraduate at UWL. In 2016, Elegbede joined the Mayo Clinic’s Center for Regenerative Medicine as a senior project manager.
He is now the head of the Center’s Office of Project Management, where he provides management oversight for all of Mayo Clinic’s regenerative medicine projects. “You can think of regenerative medicine as harnessing the body’s ability to heal itself,” he says.
One of the projects that Elegbede oversaw at the Mayo Clinic was the implementation of a new FDA-approved immunotherapy for adults with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma—one of the most promising emerging areas of cancer treatment.
During that time, he also cofounded the La Crosse Interfaith Shoulder to Shoulder Network, a community organization that empowers people of all faiths to work together to end anti-Muslim sentiment and promote tolerance.
“My experience at UWL was where I honed my technical, analytical, and critical thinking skills.”
“Even though our primary focus is Islamophobia, we also work to end anti-Semitism, xenophobia, or any hate,” says Elegbede, who is Muslim. “Community members like myself were concerned about the rising intolerance, hatred, [and] bigotry in society and how it was affecting our community, kids, and neighbors.”
Although he currently lives in Rochester, Minnesota, Elegbede maintains close ties with the La Crosse community since he graduated. He will complete his MBA in May 2019 at Viterbo University, also located in La Crosse, where he will give the commencement address.
Elegbede’s professional accomplishments and community contributions have recently been recognized with the 2019 Rada Distinguished Alumnus Award from UWL.
Tiachi “Maverick” Mo
Home country: China
Education: PhD Candidate in Computer Science (2023), Stony Brook University
While others profiled here have built on their past experiences as international students and now contribute to the workforce in significant ways, Tianchi Mo, 28, represents the potential of current international students.
Mo, who goes by the nickname “Maverick,” is working toward his PhD, and his future contributions to the field of computer science will likely be as significant as his journey to Stony Brook University’s campus. All international students and scholars face challenges when transitioning to a new country, but Mo has overcome more than most.
“I have cerebral palsy, but I don’t want to be limited by my physical disability,” he says. “I chose to study in a foreign country because I want to broaden my horizons and experience a different education and culture.”
Mo says that cerebral palsy makes physical movements like walking, speaking, and writing difficult, but Stony Brook has provided accommodations such as a wheelchair accessible van, note takers, and his own office. The university also offered Mo an accessible apartment through the Office of Residential Community Standards. “I don’t feel like I am different here,” he says.
“I hope one day I can use what I learned to help other people with physical challenges.”
Mo is not the first international scholar from China to call Stony Brook his academic home. When Mo was a child, he read about Chen-Ning Yang, a Chinese scientist who won the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics, in a children’s encyclopedia. Yang taught at Stony Brook for 37 years and is the namesake for the university’s C. N. Yang Institute of Theoretical Physics.
Yang’s legacy, combined with a highly regarded computer science program, convinced Mo that Stony Brook was the right fit when he decided to apply to PhD programs. If Mo’s determination up to this point is any indication, he may offer to others the same inspiration he drew from Yang.
Mo is currently in the first year of his computer science PhD program and hopes to eventually pursue interdisciplinary research. He wants to use his own experience to encourage other people with disabilities. “I hope one day I can use what I learned to help other people with physical challenges,” he says.
About International Educator
International Educator is NAFSA’s flagship publication and has been published continually since 1990. As a record of the association and the field of international education, IE includes articles on a variety of topics, trends, and issues facing NAFSA members and their work.
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NAFSA: Association of International Educators is the world's largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. NAFSA's 10,000 members are located at more than 3,500 institutions worldwide, in over 150 countries.