People often don’t believe College sophomore Jennifer Higa when she says she was born and raised in Japan. Higa, who is of Japanese descent, says that her American accent often confuses people.
“I get a lot of, ‘I don’t understand. You’re from Japan, but why is your English so good? You don’t seem Japanese, but you obviously don’t seem American, either,” explained Higa, who is the Vice Social Chair of the Assembly of International Students. “You have to explain yourself every time you meet someone.”
In the class of 2021, 392 students out of the 2457 students enrolled, approximately 16 percent hail from outside of the U.S. Around 12 percent of all undergraduate students are international students, according to the 2015-16 Penn common data set. But Higa is also part of a group that some international students Penn fall into: international students who went to American schools and are U.S. citizens.
Higa attended the American School in Japan, where her classes were taught in English. She visited the U.S. every summer of her childhood and even went to summer camp here. Her English, she said, is better than her Japanese, and she has always celebrated Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July.
Higa added that the Assembly of International Students has introduced her to other students like her.
She described some differences between students like her and international students who attended local schools in their home countries. For instance, while the latter group need to undergo a complicated visa application process to stay in America over the summer or after graduation, Higa has an American passport that allows her to do that with ease.
College sophomore Liam Stanton spent the first five years of his life in California until his American family moved to Singapore for his father’s biomedical research job. He attended the Singapore American School, where his classes were in English. Like many of his classmates, Stanton planned to attend college in America.
"The only separation from America that we had is that we just weren’t living there,” Stanton said of his school.
He explained that he felt he has more in common with those at his international high school than with local Singaporeans. In fact, he added, Singapore’s laws forbade locals from attending international schools.
International students who attended local schools also felt like their experiences were distinct from American citizens who were studying overseas.
College sophomore Freya Zhou, who attended a local school in China, and Engineering sophomore Zena Kipkenda, who attended a local school in Kenya, said many of their friends at Penn share their cultural backgrounds.
Zhou said she is part of a WeChat group for Chinese international students but added that she has no trouble talking to those from different backgrounds as well.
Kipkenda said she did not initially think she would go to a college outside of Kenya, but ended up taking a gap year to take part in a program that prepared students to enroll in American Universities.
Unlike their American peers, these international students face an additional hurdle while applying to Penn since admission for non-American citizens is not need-blind.
Stanton said that although his application was read against international applicants — which he said is a more competitive pool — his status as an American citizen meant that his application was need-blind. This allowed him to apply for financial aid without worrying that it would damage his chances of admission.
Stanton added that he ultimately considers himself as an American.
“There’s a pretty clear distinction between the international foreign kids and the true foreign kids,” Stanton said. “I can’t imagine how they would feel, coming to a different country for university. I was technically coming back to a place I knew."