Reimagining the PhD

Perspectives from Two International Students at Shoreline Community College

An Interview with Maral Atayeva and Yara Musad (Class of 2021)
Maral Atayeva (top left), Jessica Bachman (top right), Katia Chaterji (bottom left), and Yara Musad (bottom right)

“In the summer, the Trump administration attacked international students, saying we would have to go if our classes remained online. That was hard for me because, again, I can’t go back to Turkmenistan (due to Covid). But my international office was really communicative. They talked with me to ask how the policy would affect me. They said they would use the information they gathered to prove that international students cannot just go back.”

Image: Maral Atayeva (top left), Jessica Bachman (top right), Katia Chaterji (bottom left), and Yara Musad (bottom right)

In 2019, Shoreline Community College in Washington State became the first 2-year college in the United States to award international students a #youarewelcomehere scholarship. As part of the nationwide #youarewelcomehere campaign, which aims to combat xenophobia and affirm diversity on U.S. college campuses, the scholarship provides selected international students with a 50 percent tuition reduction for two years of study. In the inaugural year of the scholarship, Shoreline Community College’s International Education office extended scholarship offers to Maral Atayeva from Turkmenistan and Yara Ibrahim Abdalla Musad from Sudan. Maral Atayeva grew up in the Mary province of Turkmenistan where she attended a Turkmen-medium high school and worked for American Councils for International Education before applying to study at Shoreline. Sudanese Yara Musad was born in Malaysia and completed her high school education in Saudi Arabia before arriving in Washington State. 

As 2020-21 Collaborative Mellon Fellows for Reaching New Publics, we are invested in learning how higher education institutions can better meet the evolving needs of a diverse student body, and in identifying what institutional supports exist to meaningfully reduce barriers to academic success. The #youarewelcomehere scholarship seemed to us to be an excellent example. International students are confronted with a set of unique challenges and systemic barriers: they must pay for an external agency to evaluate their transcripts and diplomas in order to establish credit equivalency in terms of U.S. educational standards; they must search for institutions that offer financial aid and scholarships to non-U.S. citizens; they must find local guarantors or co-signers to secure housing in tight rental markets; and finally, they must perform rigorous educational financial planning that takes into account their inability to work anywhere off campus while on a student visa.

Last year, Maral and Yara spoke to Shoreline’s International Education department about how they learned about the #youarewelcomehere scholarship, why they chose to study at Shoreline College, and what their academic plans and goals for the years ahead were. You can view the filmed interview on YouTube. But we wanted to glean their insights at the close of the community college experience—and to learn how the shifting social, political, and educational lanscape may have shaped their experience since the outset of their college journey. Here are some highlights from our conversation.

Last March, shortly after you arrived in the U.S. to study at Shoreline College, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States. Professors and administrators had to rush to shift their courses online, while many students were compelled to move out of their dorms. How did you experience this upheaval to your life as an international student? What classes were you taking at the time and how did you experience the abrupt shift to remote learning?  How did your professors and instructors at Shoreline adapt to the challenge of shifting their courses online? 

MA:  “It was rapid… most of my friends actually moved back to their countries. And that was a hard thing for me. My country, Turkmenistan, had a more extreme level of restrictions, all the flights were suspended. So I couldn’t go home, I had to stay somewhere here. I was on this other scholarship [from the government of Turkmenistan] that paid for my dormitory fees, but when I decided to move into a host family in late March, I had to figure out a way to pay them. My college was a big help here. They helped me make my first months’ rent and worked on adjusting the scholarship payment to the host family, which took a long time, around 1-2 months.” 

“I really didn’t want to take English 102 online because I took English 101 on campus and I found the professor’s office hours really valuable. But it turned out the English 102 professor was so helpful online. He had two live lectures a week and additional live office hours. We had regular peer-reviews and opportunities to speak with other students about their work.”

YM: “In the spring, I was taking Animal Biology, Multicultural Understanding, and Communications. All of my professors were really, really accommodating. I wasn’t scared about how I was going to do in my classes. I was more concerned with where I was going to live. After [the quarter] ended, I was planning on going home to my parents in Saudi Arabia. But by then they closed their international flights … they [Saudi Arabia] weren’t letting anyone in or out at that time. So I had to move to Boston and live with my relatives [there]. I lived with them for six months. Eventually I had to move back because they have so many kids and the house is always loud. Boston is also really cold, colder than here [Seattle], and I was shocked when I came here from a country like Saudi Arabia.”

“I had never taken [online classes] before, but I think it wasn’t that hard for me because the system at Shoreline, even before COVID, a lot of my classes were hybrid classes. So I was used to going online and submitting stuff online. The only difference was I wasn’t going to class two times a week. By now, my professors are used to teaching online. For example, my plant bio class is very lab concentrated. So much of the content is lab-based. So the professor sent us lab kits so we can use them at home. Because it’s plant bio, we do a lot of field trips. This week, we were studying algae … so he told us to go to any beach nearby and look at this species of algae. … they know how to go around the whole online thing [now].”


Are you involved in any student organizations at Shoreline? If so, which ones? How has the pandemic affected your participation in student life at Shoreline? Were you able to maintain a sense of connection to fellow students and if so, what structures or support systems were in place to facilitate these connections?

MA: “As a fun activity, I was attending fencing club, but after COVID it was closed. But just recently, this quarter, we opened up a new club — a chapter of College Leap. It’s an organization from UC Berkeley that supports international students at two-year colleges who are looking to transfer to universities. Our international education office made an announcement about it on Instagram, and that is how I learned about it and applied for a leadership position. I started off as an international student network officer where I had to interview international alumni from Shoreline who transferred to other universities. I talked to them about their applications and admissions process and posted the interviews on the College Leap website. Now I am serving as president of the club.”

YM: “In summer 2020, my supervisor reached out to me saying they need somebody for the International Student Ambassador position, the Arab position. So I applied, did the interview, and now I’m an International Student Ambassador. We help with international student admissions, but not the technical side. When [prospective students] apply, they can ask people from their home country [about] how you adjusted, what made you pick your major, or how the school helped you. I just got a question yesterday from a student asking for pointers about the student visa interview. I told them what I did: I researched it online (there are a lot of examples on YouTube), and told them that Shoreline also offers a mock interview option so that you’re prepared for the actual interview. Because that interview is really stressful.”


You have now been studying at Shoreline for a full year. Despite the pandemic, how has the education you are receiving at the college lined up with the expectations or hopes you came in with?

MA: “One of the things I was kind of hesitant about before coming was the technology. I’m not that good with technology and I was concerned that it would be a more technology-heavy [learning] environment. But I got used to Canvas really fast. In Turkmenistan we never did anything online, and by that I mean, in my high school, we never even wrote any essays using typing or MS Word. It was all hand-writing. But I’m glad that I had already spent one, almost two quarters here before COVID hit because I learned how the technology worked. I feel it would have been much harder for me if I had just arrived and everything was online.”

YM: “In my first year, because I was a new student, I just took a lot of Gen Eds and [those classes] are generally easier. But when I started taking biology [in my major], for some reason I struggled so much. It was really familiar content for me from my A-levels, but I realized that although the content may be the same, the structure, the way these professors teach, is different. Their exams come from their lectures more than they do from the book. Back home, with the Cambridge curriculum, I was used to really focusing on the book and the info in the book because that’s what the exam would be. But at Shoreline it was more lecture-based. That was something that was really different from my expectations, how everything was structured.”

“I went to an international high school in Saudi Arabia, and most of my friends there (all different nationalities) returned to their home countries for their degrees. But that wasn’t an option for me. Back home in Sudan, in my parents’ time, the University of Khartoum was really elite. If you got a degree from there, then you were guaranteed a job. But now, the quality of education has deteriorated, so I needed to look elsewhere. I decided to come to America. I have family here so I would at least know some people in this country. I came here with that goal in mind, I wanted a better education and a good future for myself, so I was thinking about what jobs, what degrees, would align with my interests.”


Can you describe your educational goals and interests?  Have these changed or become more refined over the course of this year?

MA: “When I came here, I hadn't decided on my major. The business classes are popular so I decided to try them out. But taking more humanities classes, especially English classes, helped me to decide upon a major. In English 101, our first college writing class, the professor was focused on persuading us that we are good writers. We had to develop a three-part essay: the first part was about how I became a writer,  the second part was on where I write and what my writing style is, and in the third part I discussed how my writing would help me in the future. That assignment was really helpful. And then last quarter, I took English 102. It was an honors class dedicated to exploring the democratization of education. This is a fancy term, but it asked us to think about how accessible information is for us now. I decided to write a paper on the Islamic Golden Age, on Islamic scientific achievements during that time, and my research question was “why is the Islamic Golden Age not recognized in the west?” My professor was a really helpful guide with this research paper, and that was an important aspect in my experience at Shoreline this far. I’m now majoring in International Studies, but I really want to transfer to a university to major in Islamic Studies and to study the Arabic language.”

YM: “At first I wanted to major in psychology, so I took a few classes and I really enjoyed the content. Honestly, I was planning on doing pre-med. But when I came here and I saw how much [medical school] costs, especially for international students because we can’t get federal financial student aid, I had to change my plans. I had to think of something realistic, so I changed my major to Biology.  I’m going to transfer next fall and I’m hoping to get into a data science program so I can later on do my graduate studies in bioinformatics. I may change my mind later, but that's the plan for now.”


The U.S. has witnessed major political and social unrest over the past year, ranging from the rapid increase in public participation and awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement last summer to the events surrounding the 2020 presidential election in the fall. How did college instructors and administrators communicate about and respond to these events? Were these events and movements discussed in the context of your classes? What did you learn from or, alternatively, what did you feel you could contribute to these conversations and discussions?

MA: “My English 102 class really helped me to understand some of the context for Black Lives Matter. As I said, the theme of the course was the democratization of knowledge, and my peers were writing about discrimination against Black Americans and Asian Americans as well. I learned a lot from them. Shoreline also hosted several panels with faculty to talk about current events and BLM. Our international office also held a meeting after the election to check in with us. I attended it, and we talked about how we hoped that things would get better for international studies and the visa process because we had lots of concerns with the previous administration and changes to immigration policy.

YM: “My Multicultural Understanding class was really heavy on the history of racism in America, but we talked about racism against Japanese, Chinese, Native American [peoples] so it wasn't focused on Black Lives Matter. But I personally felt that it was aligning with what was happening in real life. I found it really valuable to learn all these things.”

“I was really shocked [about the realities of gun violence in the U.S.]. First, the cops were killing civilians. Second, civilians were killing other civilians because everybody has a gun apparently. I remember my first quarter here, I was at Rain Cafe next to Shoreline, and on the TV there was news about a shooting in downtown Seattle, 15 minutes away from me … I don't know how I forgot during the whole application process and moving here, I just completely forgot that shootings happen here every other day. That was a really shocking thing.”


Seattle-area community colleges, like most colleges throughout the U.S., have witnessed a dramatic decline in international student enrollment over the past few years. University administrators attribute this not only to the coronavirus but also to a hostile, or “unwelcome” political environment for international students. It is in this context that the #youarewelcomehere scholarship and movement was created.  In what concrete ways did Shoreline make you feel welcome here over the past year? In your opinion, what else can be done to make international students feel welcome and supported in the U.S.?

YM: “The reason I chose Shoreline originally was because they were offering the #youarewelcomehere scholarship. Other schools did not offer funding for international students. As soon as I got to Shoreline, I met my supervisor, the Dean, and the Director of Scholarships. It was a really nice introductory meeting. My advisors here are really good. My first advisor helped me understand that medical school was going to be expensive and then she explained the residency [concerns], so I understood from her that I needed to figure out a plan B. They also helped me find a good place to live. I asked them about the area, because I wasn’t sure what was safe or not because I had only lived in Shoreline. Looking for apartments was so stressful. And being an international student, you need a co-signer. I was lucky because my landlord accommodated me and accepted a written statement instead of a co-signer.” 

MA: “In the summer, the Trump administration attacked international students, saying we would have to go if our classes remained online. That was hard for me because, again, I can’t go back to Turkmenistan (due to Covid). But my international office was really communicative. They talked with me to ask how the policy would affect me. They said they would use the information they gathered to prove that international students cannot just go back.”

“We are each assigned an international advisor, but I pretty much know all of them in the office, four or five of them. I often go to walk-in advising sessions, and we can come to them with all sorts of questions—on academic planning, choosing classes, etc. And in my case, they are particularly helpful, because after Covid I experienced some financial difficulties. They check in with me to ask if I need help, or if I need them to delay my tuition payment. They definitely check in a lot to see how I am doing.”


Interview responses are edited for clarity and brevity.

Maral and Yara plan to transfer to 4-year universities in pursuit of their Bachelors degrees. Maral is looking to eventually major in Islamic Studies and Yara in Bioinformatics. While most of their time in the US has been under COVID-19’s new normal, both Maral and Yara have benefited from the support structures in place at Shoreline Community College that demystify the transfer process. The City of Shoreline too is, on average, less busy than Seattle and its diverse immigrant  population makes many international students feel at home. For students like Yara, these reasons made Shoreline a great place to begin her journey as a student in the US—a journey that, we hope, will continue for many years to come. We wish Maral and Yara all the best and success in their future endeavors!



Watch the filmed interview here