When Ayna Mammedova heard about Temple University’s new scholarship for international students, called #YouAreWelcomeHere, she couldn’t wait to apply.
She made a video for Temple staff showing the beauty and culture of her native country of Turkmenistan, bordered by the Caspian Sea and largely desert. With the American flag in the background, she talked about overcoming her shyness and boosting her confidence level, all in preparation for a college education in the United States, one that she said too few women in her Central Asian country have the opportunity to pursue.
“I overcame all the obstacles,” she says in the video. “I’m here, now, applying to my dream school, Temple University.”
She is one of two inaugural #YouAreWelcomeHere winners to arrive on Temple’s North Philadelphia campus this semester. The other, Andres Mondragon of Lima, Peru, had dreamed of studying in the U.S. since he was 8 years old and began visiting Florida with his family.
Monday was their first day of classes, and also Mammedova’s 18th birthday. She was ho-hum about the age milestone but ecstatic about Temple, including its new $175.8 million library that opened this month.
“You can do everything there,” she said.
Temple was a leader among more than 50 colleges around the country that established the new scholarship last September as a way to let international students know they are welcome in the U.S. despite concerns about the immigration crackdown and racial tensions. The scholarships come amid a 6.6% decline in new international enrollment at U.S. colleges in 2017-18, which some have blamed in part on rhetoric out of the White House.
Temple has about 3,000 international students this fall, down from 3,171 last year.
The university received about 55 applications for the new scholarship, said Martyn Miller, assistant vice president of the Office of International Affairs.
Not all colleges that offered the new scholarship got takers. Of the three other local colleges involved in the effort, only one, Widener University, has a student enrolled this fall. Chiamaka Oduah, a freshman from Nigeria, is studying biomedical engineering.
Rutgers-Camden received applications and made offers, but those students decided to go elsewhere, said spokesperson Mike Sepanic. Cedar Crest College in Allentown is also participating but has no students this year.
The participating colleges had pledged to offer two renewable scholarships to international students every year, worth at least 50% off tuition. Temple and many other schools charge international students the full price for out-of-state students — at Temple that ranges from $28,992 to $37,608, depending on major. Room and board adds $11,372 to $14,956. Students have to come up with the cost not covered by the scholarship.
Mondragon’s parents, who are physicians, are paying his tab, including room and board, he said. Mammedova received another scholarship from American Councils for International Education and its EducationUSA centers — which provide guidance to international students on studying at American universities — to offset costs, and is living with an aunt and cousin in Philadelphia. She was left with a bill of about $4,000, which is being covered by her mother, who teaches Russian in Turkmenistan.
She said the #YouAreWelcomeHere scholarship was key. “If I hadn’t gotten it, I wouldn’t be here,” she said.
Mondragon said some of his friends were surprised he wanted to go to the U.S., given the school shootings here and charges of racism and discrimination around President Donald Trump’s administration. Neither bothered him, he said.
“My college is very secure,” he said. “I’m proud of that. When it comes to political differences, this is a place for diversity. I believe in that. I may not agree with everything when it comes to stuff like Trump supporters and all of that, but I do respect free speech.… I love it. I love the U.S.”
Mammedova also was not deterred by politics. She said she likes the U.S. and all it has to offer.
“I like freedom,” she said.
Mondragon added: “It’s more liberal than many countries. It’s more liberal than my country.”
“Much more liberal,” Mammedova agreed.
Mammedova, a biochemistry major, hopes to go to medical school and become a researcher, perhaps in the cardiovascular field.
Attending Temple’s Fox School of Business, Mondragon is majoring in actuarial science. He’s concerned about issues of equity for women, particularly the lack of pay equity.
“I would like to change so many things about my country, I don’t know what to start with,” he said. He’s excited about a course he’s taking called “Race and Poverty in the Americas.”
Both Mammedova and Mondragon said they already have made friends with other international students, and look forward to volunteering and getting involved in university activities. There have been surprises: Mammedova had a test the first day in her general chemistry class. For Mondragon, it was the size of the classes — one was about 150 students and the other 200, he estimated.
Both students were eager to thank those who made it possible for them to get to Temple. For Mammedova, that included those in her home country who helped her prepare for and get the scholarships, as well as American Councils. For Mondragon, it was his parents and his home school.
Both wanted to thank Temple, too.
“We are here,” Mammedova said.