As a high school student in Saudi Arabia, Alanoud Damas' idea of the American college experience was from the movie "Legally Blonde" with Reese Witherspoon, set at Harvard Law School.
So when a recruiting agent brought her to the LIU Post campus in Brookville, with its green lawns, slate walkways and historic buildings, she was sold.
She craved the independence and responsibility that came with leaving her parents and nine siblings in her hometown of Jubail, an industrial oil city along the Persian Gulf.
"It's a new beginning for me," said Damas, 22, a junior majoring in forensic science. "But I do think some of those movies exaggerate a little."
As Long Island's public and private colleges and universities prepare for the start of the academic year, nearly 10,000 new and returning international students on F-1 or J-1 visas will arrive alongside classmates who hail from places across the United States. The visas, limited in scope, generally allow them to be in this country only to study.
Students flock to NY The international students, enrolling in U.S. schools in record numbers, come with varying degrees of English language proficiency and financial means, and often struggle with culture shock and homesickness, experts, college officials and students say. They are flocking to New York State, one of the top destinations for students from abroad, according to the Institute of International Education and Brookings Institution studies that use data from both colleges and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Move-in days and orientations that help them adjust to American college life, as well as language training and welcoming events, are underway at Adelphi University, the College at Old Westbury, Dowling College, Farmingdale State College, Five Towns College, Hofstra University, LIU Post, Molloy College, New York Institute of Technology, St. Joseph's College and Stony Brook University.
About two-thirds of the international students on the Island are expected to attend Stony Brook and NYIT. More than 500 are slated to go to Nassau Community College and Suffolk County Community College.
Outings to New York City landmarks, Broadway shows and other gatherings are planned throughout the year to keep the international students engaged, particularly during breaks when domestic students go home to their families. Stony Brook and NYIT host Thanksgiving dinners to introduce the students to American traditions.
These students' enrollment has such a significant impact on the campuses and the local economy that several of the colleges have hired administrators to coordinate international student recruitment, programming and job placement.
Paying the price The U.S. Department of Commerce estimated that in 2014, international students had a $27 billion impact on the economy nationally. Along with tuition payments, much of those dollars is spent in local communities on housing, vehicles, transportation, health care, entertainment and retail outlets.
Some students, like Damas, come here through private recruiting agents who match international students to U.S. colleges. Many others find their way with the help of their own government programs or through Education USA, a Commerce Department agency that sponsors college fairs all over the globe. Larger schools, including Stony Brook, conduct international recruiting trips.
The students say they face challenges while they're here.
"It is hard to adapt once you are here, but eventually you do," said Ana Pinto, a Hofstra University graduate student. Pinto, 25, of Goiás, Brazil, first came to the Hempstead university for a year as an undergraduate exchange student and returned for her MBA. "Meeting locals is very hard. We mostly know other international students because it becomes sort of easier."
The students often have their tuition paid for either by their families or by scholarship programs from their own governments. Their visas typically do not allow them to work off-campus, so budgeting their spending money, particularly in such a high-cost area as Long Island, can be difficult for some.
They are not eligible for federal and state financial aid, and there are virtually no domestic scholarships or stipends for international students, college officials and the students say.
Pinto said she will be the first in her family to have a U.S. college degree. Her mother owns a shoe store and her father works in manufacturing in her hometown, in the central part of Brazil. They could use her financial help back home, she said, so she tries not to ask them for spending money.
"If I need to ask, they will help me," she said.
"Invisible barrier" Finding internships or companies willing to sponsor them for work visas after graduation also can be tough, the students and college officials say.
"There's an invisible barrier," said Taek Keun Lyu, 24, a Stony Brook engineering student from Daejeon, South Korea. "Even though we may have the skills, companies don't want to hire us because they aren't sure whether we are going to be able to stay long-term."
The majority of international students are in the United States on F-1 visas, intended only for the length of their education and internship, called Optional Practical Training (OPT), federal officials say.
While there are nearly 900,000 international students who came into the country in the 2014 academic year, there are only 65,000 H-1B temporary work visas issued to employers on a first-come-first-serve basis, said Neil Ruiz, who studies foreign students and high-skilled immigrant workers.
The OPT program has no minimum-wage or salary requirements, so employers can pay foreign-student graduates little or no wages as they wait for an employment-based visa such as the H-1B, Ruiz said.
Ruiz formerly conducted his research for the Brookings Institution, a private nonprofit research organization based in Washington, D.C. He now is executive director of the Center for Law, Economics and Finance at George Washington University, a think tank where he is continuing his studies.
"The system allows for students to be exploited or for them to not stay here," Ruiz said. "It is really just a pathway to studying. It is not a pathway to becoming an American."
Vikrant Sood, 22, an NYIT engineering student from Phagwara, India, who works on-campus helping other international students, said he and many others take out education loans from banks in their home countries. Rates on government-backed student loans can be as high as 13 percent, he said.
"Nobody is rich enough to actually pay out-of-pocket," said Sood, who hopes to continue on to graduate school in New York City.
"I'd like to stay here. I love this country and the way of life here," he said. "Plus, I have to earn in dollars. I can't go back and pay back my loan earning in rupees."
At NYIT, officials are actively expanding the number of staff members dedicated to putting international students into career-track jobs, said Barbara Multari, director of international education.
"I tell them I'm their mother away from home, so they have to keep in touch with me after they graduate," she said.
The school, which has campuses in Old Westbury and Manhattan, also is hiring multilingual counselors to help aid international students who experience depression or anxiety during their time away from their home country, Multari said.
"They tend to be very close and sometimes live with their extended family," she said. "If Grandma at home isn't doing too well, they can't concentrate on their work, so they do need counseling."
Worth the sacrificeMeanwhile, the students say a degree from a U.S. institution is worth the homesickness and other sacrifices, because it makes them more attractive to employers in their home countries and they can expect to earn more when they return.
The United States is the primary study destination globally, by far.
Seventy-four percent of prospective students reported the United States as their top choice, according to a survey released last month by the Institute of International Education, which conducts research on students who study outside of their home countries. The second most-cited destination, the United Kingdom, received only 8 percent.
The Manhattan-based nonprofit group asked nearly 16,000 students worldwide about their perception of U.S. higher education.
The survey also found:
Sixty-eight percent of prospective students believe the United States welcomes international students.
Cost was cited as the primary obstacle to overseas study, with 62 percent of prospective students worldwide perceiving tuition in the United States to be expensive.
Concerns about obtaining a visa to study in the United States varied by country, ranging from 22 percent of students in Turkey to 73 percent of students in France.
"I've had some families come to me and say, 'Money isn't an issue. What are my options?' " said Maria Conzatti, chairwoman of Study NY Inc., a consortium of public and private colleges and universities in the state.
Conzatti -- who also is officer-in-charge of Nassau Community College, the largest single-campus community college in the state -- said the group was founded in 2009 to market New York institutions globally.
College officials were finding that students who were not satisfied with their choice were transferring after their first semester here, a costly process for both the student and the college, she said. Study NY's mission is to manage the students' expectations and give them accurate information about the individual campuses, their offerings and their locations.
"What they see on TV drives their images of New York," Conzatti said. "When you say New York, what they think about is Manhattan and the Hamptons."
Damas, the student from Saudi Arabia, said while going to college on Long Island was a major cultural adjustment, it also has been a memorable opportunity.
Plus, there's a huge upside for her that some might not think about: "I'm learning how to drive," Damas said. "Women aren't allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, so it is bold. It is all very exciting for me."