Illustration by Whitney McPhie

Why international students come to PSU

A look at the experience of studying abroad in Portland

Across the United States, international students make up about 4.6% of the student population. Historically, international enrollment in the U.S. has had a big emphasis on students from Asian countries, with Chinese and Indian students making up the largest two countries of origin for international students. This trend also lines up with Portland State’s enrollment demographics, which lists China and India in addition to a few other countries as the top countries that PSU represents. In fact, while international students make up 4.6% of the student body across the nation, 6% of PSU’s student body come from abroad.


“It’s really nerve-wracking being introduced to a whole new city, country and culture where you have nothing but stereotypes and social media as your background knowledge of the place to go on,” said pre-pandemic PSU alumni Karina, who came from Russia to study biology. “I admitted that I was surprised that Portland was not like New York and Los Angeles like you see on TV. Portland is a big place, but it’s not as big as you would think America is often shown on TV.”


Karina explained how coming to Portland was a shock, not only in the size of Portland compared to how Hollywood portrays other cities, but the cultural differences as well. “People in Portland like to say hello to everybody and they smile a lot,” she said. “In Russia we only smile with people we are close with or if something is funny… but the biggest surprise to me is how Americans are so dedicated to their work and just how much they work… I knew a student who was working one full-time job and a part-time job as well while also being a full student… People from Portland are crazy.”


One of the commonly cited reasons why traveling abroad is an attractive proposition for students lies in the prospect of making more friends than just the ones they already know. According to Karina, meeting new people was not only one of the biggest things she believed made her experience a positive one, but also gave her a sense of greater appreciation for the Russian community. “Portland was so vibrant and full of life the few years I was at PSU a few years before the pandemic,” Karina said. “I met so many different views of life from students who were all about providing for their family, others because it was expected and some because they had family in Portland. Being amongst such a different group made me actually more appreciative of whenever I met another student who came from Russia. In a world where your first language isn’t spoken very much, sometimes meeting another person who also came from the same world as you feels as if it’s just your fellow Russians against the rest of the world. Those small moments were really memorable.”


Beyond the cultural shock of being in Portland, Karina commented on how attending PSU in a new environment posed a lot of challenges. “If I went to school in Russia I would at least have friends or family who could give me good advice,” she said. “But when you’re in Portland on your own you have no one other than the fast friends you make to rely on for advice. It can be very lonely at times… I can only imagine what life would be like in PSU if I was a student there with the Russia-Ukraine situation going on. That said, most people, especially the students, were really nice to me and I really appreciated my time at Portland State. I wanted to study in the United States and the Western U.S. was closer to Russia, and cities like Seattle or the cities in California, they’re just so much more expensive. Portland was the cheapest and I’m really glad I chose Portland State.”


Karina is currently a student in Germany doing more advanced studies. Karina said being an international student and studying abroad at Portland State prepared her to become a good student, and that studying abroad can be great for everyone. “You’re on your own and you have to adapt quickly or else you’re going to fail,” she said. “At Portland State my English was not good and my reading was even worse. But being a student at Portland State forced me to become good at English fast. I think that’s why my transition into German schools is so smooth, because Portland State has taught me what to do already.”