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Ready to launch: International students leave prepared

Eight international students graduating this May share their stories.

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Oklahoma State University is the bridge between dreams and reality for many international students. 

For these eight graduating students, OSU was a place to grow professionally, personally and socially. Here they share their stories, advice for future international students and accomplishments during their time at OSU.

Salome Suarez

OSU has not disappointed Suarez. 

Suarez is from Quito, Ecuador, and she came to OSU to earn her Ph.D in plant pathology. 

“I think my childhood was pretty great,” Suarez said. “I really loved it.” 

Suarez said aside from different majors, she had similar opportunities in Ecuador as in the US. She came to OSU because Carla Garzon, a now retired professor from Ecuador, had a program to bring Ecuadorian students to OSU. Suarez liked the program, department and professors, so she chose OSU. 

Suarez studied abroad for a year in Belgium when she was 17, so preparing to move to the US was not difficult for her. 

“The beginning is always sad because you’re always going to miss your family and friends,” Suarez said. “But then you start making new friends over here and you start getting to know other people and getting involved in other activities. That makes it a lot better.” 

Since high school, she has known she wants to work in a field related to biology, so she earned her bachelor’s degree in biotechnology engineering. She is interested in plant pathology because of how it can be useful to people, such as protecting plants from diseases, which in turn, increases food security. 

Suarez is currently looking for a job and said she is ready for something outside academia. She wants to work in a research lab, specifically with fungal diseases, but said she would also love a job working with bacteria, viruses, nematodes or any other plant pathogen. 

“Examining different toxins, peptides or metabolites that are produced by fungi, I think that that would be like my dream,” Suarez said. “I would love to have a team that does research on that. And if I get to travel around the world doing research in different parts of the world, that's my dream.”

Rabia Ahuja

As she prepared to leave her family and home for the first time, Ahuja packed enough food, toiletries and clothes to last her a month. 

Ahuja had not been aware of the resources OSU offers to its students, and she anticipated life away from home would be hard. She was living with her family in a small town in the Punjab region of India, and moving to the US was a big change for her.

“While I was boarding for my first international flight for America, I was very scared to go away from my family,” Ahuja said. “But with motivational family and supportive friends, I was able to do this.”

Ahuja came to OSU to pursue research in the field of plant biology. The land-grant research in the field of plant pathology was a specific motivator for attending OSU. 

Ahuja is graduating with her master’s degree in plant biology and will pursue her Ph.D in the same field at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Once she graduates with her Ph.D, she plans to find a job in the field of molecular biology, but as of now is unsure whether she will continue to live in the US.

“My expectations (for college in the US) were to have experience and research progress in the field of plant biology, and OSU perfectly matched my expectations,” Ahuja said. 

Ahuja said she had a great experience at OSU, and she advises future international students to access the available resources.

“Since there are many WhatsApp groups and other online resources for international students, everyone should try to have access to them, because they can get answers for their questions,” Ahuja said. “Usually there are (a) tremendous number of queries and doubts, but if incoming students can pay attention to the available resources, they can easily get answers for their questions.”

Santiago Neira

Neira’s nightmare became a reality on his first day in the US. 

He arrived a week later than planned with no SIM card and, because he enrolled late, no access to the school Wi-Fi. Neira had no way to contact his family, friends and girlfriend back in Bogotá, Colombia. 

“I actually arrived right here at like 9 a.m., and by 7 p.m. still didn’t contact my family, so that was difficult,” Neira said. 

Neira did not choose OSU; OSU chose him. He went to the Columbian School of Engineering Julio Garavito and his adviser told him about an opportunity OSU. He applied, interviewed and was selected for the master’s program in fire safety and explosion protection.  

“In this program we don’t only focus specifically on fires and explosions,” Neira said. “We also try to prevent that (from) happening. I chose this program because I work with hazardous material team mentors, so my focus in my first thesis was to develop safety management from those materials in order to avoid or prevent tragedy in case of an incident of a fire or an explosion.” 

Neira advises international students to live the international student experience without fear and to get to know as many people as possible. Neira also wants international students to be aware they are representing their homes when they come to OSU. Being a positive representation opens the door for other students from those countries to be able to come here, Neira said. 

“Don’t be afraid, (...) and in a certain way, we are representatives from our country,” Neira said. “Every single day when I work, I want people to know Colombians can do these things.”

Jennifer Tapia

Roses provided her everything she needed as a child.

Now she is graduating with a master’s degree in plant and soil science. 

Jennfier Tapia was raised in Ecuador, and her father exported roses for a living. Tapia said Ecuador is a beautiful country full of biodiversity and natural resources. When she first applied for her master’s degree, she applied to plant pathology and plant sciences.

“I have always been fascinated to work with plants,” Tapia said. “I feel like with all the problems with climate change that is happening, I think there will be a point we will need to produce more food to ensure global food security, because the population is going to increase, but the food should increase as well.”

Tapia will continue growing her love of plants; she will be working toward a Ph.D. in plant biology in the fall at North Carolina State University. 

Tapia said coming to a new country is hard, but she suggests finding emotional support, in international or domestic students, as well as academic support, in advisers, faculty and departments.

“I think that the school is hard, but if you have the right adviser, department or people that care about you and are willing to support you, you will be fine,” Tapia said. “I think you’ll find you have to choose very well who is going to be your adviser or what research that you’re going to work on. I think that’s very important because it’s hard, you have to find a way to make it easier for you to go to grad school.”

Abhishek Tikar 

It’s 90 degrees outside, and Abhishek Tikar has no phone, no car and no ride home.

Tikar just moved to Stillwater from India to attend OSU and is struggling to move into his new apartment at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. With no car of his own and public transportation shut down across the country, Tikar walked to Walmart to buy supplies for his new apartment.

Tikar is waiting to get a phone and cannot call Uber or Lift to drive him home. Each of his hands are holding as many grocery bags as he can carry, and the Oklahoma heat made him feel like he was going to faint.

As he pushed forward, Tikar saw someone who could help him: a police officer. Tikar approached the car and asked for a ride, and the officer joked he was not Tikar’s Uber.

“Then, I was like, ‘If I'm going to try and walk, if I fall, call the Indian Embassy,’” Tikar said.

Tikar’s boldness to ask the officer for a ride paid off, and the officer drove him home. Since then, Tikar has purchased a phone and a car, as well as earned a master’s in mechanical engineering. 

Tikar dreams of being an entrepreneur after he graduates. He left India to attend college in an area where he could learn the most about current software and technology. 

Although Tikar has made many friends at OSU, not all international students share this experience. Tikar, a member of the Student Union Activities Board, advised incoming international students to explore what OSU has to offer by joining a club or organization.

Non-international students can contribute to the international experience too. Tikar encouraged students to reach out to international peers.

“I feel like undergrad specifically should try to communicate more,” Tikar said. “If you see an international student, they are shy. Don't be shy. Go and talk to them, say ‘Hi.’ They're really sweet.”

Tikar suggested all students study abroad, but said students need to stop fantasizing about common study abroad locations such as Europe, and consider traveling to other locations. Speaking from experience, Tikar said traveling to unfamiliar places pushes one’s linguistic and cultural boundaries. 

“That's exactly what we've [international students] been through, and it only helps you grow out of your comfort zone,” Tikar said. 

Abdulla Karjikar 

Many students' parents push them to pursue a certain major at college. 

Abdulla Karjikar, a senior graduate student studying computer science, said his parents assured him they would support the career path of his choice. While in his home country of India, Karjikar explored his options, taking a variety of engineering courses in high school. 

“I even took classes in arts and crafts, but I suck,” Karjikar said. “I know that now.”

One option continued to stand out: computer science. 

“Everything about it is interesting,” Karjikar said. “The moment you log onto your computer, like, even when you use your phone, your applications, everything. Everything is computer science.” 

Karjikar may not have a specific company he hopes to work for in the future, but he has one specific priority: help others. 

“I would like to make a difference in someone's life by working on a piece of software or something meaningful,” Karjikar said. 

Prior to his time at OSU, Karjikar worked for an insurance agency helping customers and agents fix their computer issues. Each time he helped a customer, he said he felt like he made an impact on them. 

Karjikar’s passion for others has shone through at OSU during his time as a graduate teaching assistant. Karjikar’s job is to advise campus organizations, but he has also created computer automations that allow his co-workers to do less computer work manually. 

Outside of his computer science work, Karjikar said he always wanted to learn how to dance. He joined the Latin American Student Association at OSU and performed at campus events such as the Miss Hispanic pageant. 

“It's been really great,” Karjikar said. “I would say I feel like I did something by being here apart from studies as well.”

Reflecting on his experiences at college, Karjikar said he will miss OSU but is ready to graduate.

“It has been an integral part of my life,” Karjikar said. “So coming here, like learning all those different things and experiencing those things, that will always stay with you forever.”

Minjung Lee

Lee has been a creative person her whole life. 

Lee, a senior getting her bachelor’s degree in graphic design, came to OSU from South Korea. She said she’s always enjoyed creating things, whether that be making music or a knitting project. 

In South Korea, Lee studied music composition, not graphic design. 

“One day, my parents said, ‘What about going to America?’” Lee said. 

Lee traveled to Oklahoma, although she wasn’t sure what to expect. Lee’s story began as a student at Tulsa Community College.

One of Lee’s professors at TCC recommended she transfer to OSU for its graphic design program. Lee took her professor’s advice and found success in her projects at OSU. 

Lee’s photography was selected for the “Being and Belonging” collection displayed in the Student Union, which gave students the chance to showcase what finding a community or sense of belonging means to them. Lee’s photo was displayed from April 3-29.

After graduation, Lee plans to build her graphic design portfolio in hopes of finding a job. Lee works as a graphic designer for Edmon Low Library, which she described as one of her favorite experiences at OSU. 

Lee’s parents are traveling to Oklahoma from South Korea to watch Lee graduate this week. She said she is excited to show them her graphic design projects. 

Lee’s favorite project she’s done at OSU is her junior year graphic design project, which showed she can clearly express her ideas to others. 

“I'm really proud,” Lee said.

Ashish Gupta

Few students start their dream job straight out of college: Gupta will. 

After earning his Ph.D. in mechanical and aerospace engineering, Gupta will move to Arkansas to work for Big River Steel. He will be tailoring the hardness and strength of materials so they can be used for different applications. 

“My expertise will be studying the alloy at the nanoscale,” Gupta said. 

Gupta grew up in India, where he said the high population density made for limited resources. He graduated from the College Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur before coming to OSU, and he said reserving and obtaining an instrument like an electron microscope would take about a week there as opposed to an hour at OSU. 

“It is saving my time, and with more experiments, you have some good statistical data to work upon,” Gupta said. “And whatever size you are proposing, that can be a good match because you are doing a lot of experiments.”

Gupta said he came to OSU because of the research work of Ritesh Sachan, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. He said Sachan is one of the pioneer professors in his field and he has great understanding of the field. His work was aligned to the work Gupta was doing, so that brought him to earn his Ph.D. at OSU. 

Gupta said the first semester as an international student is tricky, but once adjusted he advises exploring the organizations offered at OSU. 

“Be passionate,” Gupta said. “America is a country which gives you dream(s). (...) You have to just dream and work hard.