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April 03, 2015

International students find a home in Philly

Resources, opportunities abundant for young foreigners

Higher Education Students
04022015_InternationalHouse Photo Courtesy/International House Philadelphia

Located in the heart of University City, International House Philadelphia (IHP) is a hub of international culture that represents as many as 95 countries at a given time, throughout the year.

Gabrielle Van Jaarsveld has lived in South Africa and Dubai but chose Philadelphia to get an education.

A freshman psychology student at Drexel, she arrived in the city in September to join hundreds of other international students here.

As campuses across the country become still more international, schools in Pennsylvania are among those seeing the most impact.

For the 2013-14 academic year, U.S. colleges enrolled a record 886,052 foreign students, an increase of 8 percent over the previous year, according to the most recent "Open Doors" report from the Institute of International Education.

Pennsylvania ranked sixth in the nation with 41,446 international students, up 11.2 percent from the year before.

Philadelphia has two of the top five schools in the state. The University of Pennsylvania ranked second, with 6,024 international students in 2013-14, the most in the Ivy League.

Drexel University ranked fourth in the state with 3,627 foreign students. Angela Jeon-Huh, Assistant Dean of Drexel's International Students and Scholars Services, said the university represents an international population of over 110 countries.

"They feel Philadelphia will provide them with networking and career opportunities," she said. "Most of our international students seek work authorizations such as Optional Practical Training (OPT) upon completing their degree program to have the opportunity to work in the U.S."

In 2013-14, Chinese students accounted for almost 60 percent of the international-student growth at U.S. colleges. In other words, one of every three foreign students in the country has a Chinese passport.

China was the leading place of origin for foreign students in Pennsylvania, as well, making up 35.8 percent of the total international student population, according to the report. 

Rank  Place of Origin % Total
China 35.8 
India 13.3 
3South Korea 7.3 
Saudi Arabia 7.2 
Canada 3.1 

The rising numbers of global students at American schools is driven, in part, by the growth of "an affluent class in China and generous scholarships offered by oil-rich Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia," according to Miriam Jordan of The Wall Street Journal.

Students in countries like Brazil are receiving governmental support to fund their studies abroad, especially in the science and technology fields.


For Pretoria native Van Jaarsveld, her first impression of Philly was that the city was "big, busy and old," but in a good way.

"The whole city seems to be constantly busy and full of people," she said. "And there is so much history and culture here. I lived in Dubai before I came here, which is a very new city, and so I’m not used to seeing all the old buildings and museums. It was definitely the first thing I noticed about the city as our driver brought us through the old parts of town on the way to the university, and it was beautiful."


Van Jaarsveld enjoys the array of activities and social life the city has to offer.

"My favorite part of living here is just the sheer amount of things to do," she explained. "I’ve spent the whole first two semesters going to visit museums and restaurants, and I’m pretty sure that even after a few years here, there will still be new places to go and see, and I love that."

But sometimes it can get too noisy, she said.

"My least favorite part about living here is probably how loud it always is. It’s weird because I do love living in the city, but I’d never considered what that would mean, and even slightly outside of Center City, where my dorm is, it’s just never quiet." 

Van Jaarsveld said she would like to stay in Philly after graduation if she gets the opportunity, and she recommends the city as a destination for other international students.

"I come from a country where everyone just ignores each other and does their own things, but over here, everyone you meet is super friendly and inviting and always has something friendly to say," she said. "I’d say that it’s absolutely worth coming to stay here. If you’re going to be moving away from home, this is the kind of city it’s easy to settle into. Just come with an open mind, and be willing to meet all sorts of new people, and you’ll definitely love being here in Philly."


Located in the heart of University City, International House Philadelphia (IHP) is a hub of international culture that represents as many as 95 countries at a given time throughout the year. 

IHP presents hundreds of public programs each year to Philadelphia-area residents to foster "a global community by celebrating the world’s cultural diversity and exploring issues from an international perspective."

"At International House Philadelphia, we take great pride in providing that home away from home for our residents to have a safe, welcoming and knowledgeable community to provide resources within which to navigate their experiences in the U.S.," said Michael Beachem, associate director of residence life at International House Philadelphia

"Many of our residents love the growing population within University City, with our numerous cultural fine-dining options and a mix of age groups that provides opportunities for them to practice English speaking skills with fellow college students or from local Philadelphians who have lived in the city for many years."

Gabrielle Mnkande, a second-year resident adviser at IHP, is working on her Master of Public Health at Drexel University. When she moved to Philly for grad school, she was immediately drawn to the IHP community.

"I guess I come from a more biased perspective because my mother is American, but my father is Tanzanian," she explained. "I self-identify halfway as being international, coming from a global perspective. So when I was looking for a place to stay for my master’s program, International House had a draw to it."

Mnkande said Philly's academic opportunities help draw students to the city. 


"Philadelphia is home to many diverse universities. When you have people coming together in a university setting, there is an opportunity, not only for internationals but nationals as well, to be exposed to a global perspective."

In 1910, IHP became the first International House in what eventually became International House Worldwidean affiliation of International Houses from across the continents.


Saif Al Saudi moved to Philly from Iraq in 2013 and enrolled in Penn's English language program. Upon completion of the program, he took the GMAT exam and began the Master of Business (MBA) program at Drexel in 2014.

Al Saudi said he fell in love with the city and wanted to stick around for grad school. He also appreciates its proximity to other major cities.

"Philly is a diverse city," he said. "Everyone is accepted. Its location is in the middle of New York and Washington D.C., and I have friends in both cities. I can go back and forth pretty easily."

Like Mnkande, Al Saudi is a resident advisor at International House. He said he loves the job.

"For me, it’s an opportunity to learn more about cultures," he said. "Getting involved in the international community is something that I like. It’s just a diverse community. The job gives me the opportunity to know more people and help more people from different countries. Even when they leave, we still stay in contact."

Al Saudi said his plan is to find an internship locally, as he would like to stay in the Philly area after graduation.

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Resources for Philly's global community

Philadelphia has a lot to offer its global community. Here are some local organizations that help residents engage with the city's diverse cultures.

Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians

The center offers an Immigrant Professionals Program and an English as a Second Language (ESL) program to new residents.

Global Philadelphia Association (GPA)

GPA encourages local people and organizations to interact and engage in international activity and works to enhance the region's global profile.

Citizen Diplomacy International of Philadelphia (CDI)

Formerly the International Visitors Council of Philadelphia, CDI is the region's international relations organization.

Community for Accredited Online Schools' Student's Guide to Studying Abroad

This site has created a step-by-step process to help students find programs. It also includes a list of 10 tips to reduce costs associated with studying abroad.