Planes, Trains, and Visas

What international students navigate in pursuit of a Stanford degree.

May 2024

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Map of students

Photography by Toni Bird

Bongeka Zuma grew up in a small village in South Africa with no running water or electricity. She’s traveled thousands of miles to be where she is: on the verge of graduating from the Medical School in June. It’s been an incredible journey, she says, but not one without hurdles. 

“I was not prepared in any shape or form for where I am,” Zuma says. Like many of the 4,126 international students at Stanford, she has faced down challenges. She’s been home only twice since arriving at Stanford in 2017, because of the high cost of travel and her demanding schedule. Language differences have been a struggle. And daily, she deals with an intense need to succeed, not only for herself but also for her relatives back home, who sometimes don’t have enough to eat. 

“There’s so much pressure,” she says. “If I fail, I have the feeling that I am letting an entire continent down.”

Stanford’s international students hail from 129 different countries. Some must navigate not only a new educational system and culture but also international politics, finding themselves under heightened scrutiny because of friction between the United States and China, or because they’re from one of the four United Nations member-countries with which the United States maintains no diplomatic relations. Take, for example, Majd Nasra, ’25, a computer science major from Aleppo, Syria, who traveled home this past winter to see his family for the first time since he left for Stanford three years ago. Because there is no American embassy in Syria, Nasra had to travel to Jordan to renew the visa that would allow him to reenter the United States. He wasn’t sure whether he would make it back to campus before classes began in January. Other experiences are more universal, like missing the food back home. When Juan Bautista Romaniuk, ’26, describes Argentinian milanesas, his eyes roll back with longing. “They’re like schnitzel, with a thinly sliced cut of meat,” he says dreamily. 

International students at Stanford comprise 33 percent of the graduate and 11 percent of the undergraduate population. Most travel on an F-1 visa, which allows entry into the United States for full-time study over a defined period, typically four to five years. In 2022–23, a majority—54 percent—came to Stanford from Asia, where roughly 60 percent of the world’s population resides.

“When I think of the challenges they face—navigating complex visa processes, handling culture shock and homesickness, dealing with byzantine immigration regulations, and adapting and thriving in a new academic culture, I am in awe,” says Shalini Bhutani, executive director of Bechtel International Center, which provides support and administrative help to international students. Here are a few of their stories.


Bongeka Zuma

Bongeka Zuma

On family, medicine, and “good problems”

Zuma is from a small village—Nkwezela—in eastern South Africa. She received a scholarship to an all-girls boarding school set up in South Africa by Oprah Winfrey and left home at 13. In 2016, she graduated summa cum laude from Spelman College, in Atlanta, and then earned a master’s degree in medical anthropology from Oxford. Now at Stanford School of Medicine, she expects to graduate in June. Next, she’s heading to an internal medicine residency program at the University of Pennsylvania and hopes doing rotations in Africa will enable her one day to put her skills to use back in her home community. “For so many people, I am like their only hope,” she says.

“I grew up in what’s probably considered here as a stereotypical small African village. I honestly didn’t realize I was living in poverty until we got our first TV when I was 7 and started watching, but still it was ‘Oh, that’s just in other countries.’ In primary school, we shared a desk between three students. None of the students could afford to buy textbooks. Maybe 100 students were cramped into one classroom. We cleaned our own classrooms. All the students would go to the river to get water to scrub the floor, and then the boys would wash the windows. We liked it because it was a break. 

“I didn’t know people read books for leisure until I left home [at 13]. I haven’t been able to spend more than a month with my parents since then. So much of my world, well, my friends here just don’t understand. 

“I was accepted into a medical residency program with global health rotations in Africa. There’s no question of me giving back after everything that I’ve been blessed with. My extended family back home, we’re all still very much connected—cousins and grandparents and siblings of grandparents. You feel the weight of all those people waiting for you to finish and succeed so that you can help them. There’s always the question ‘When are you graduating?’ What if my parents die before they’re able to see me achieve this milestone? Life expectancy isn’t that high back home.

“But what I’m meant to do in this life is become a physician, and I love it. It’s a privilege and a blessing to be able to do something that I love, no matter how hard it is. These are good life problems.”

Top 5 areas of study among international graduate students, as of fall 2022:


Computer Science—17%

Civil & Environmental Engineering—14%

Electrical Engineering—12%

Mechanical Engineering—10%


Majd Nasra

Majd Nasra

On war, sacrifice, and fountain hopping

Nasra, ’25, a resident assistant in the frosh dorm Potter, was 9 years old when civil war broke out in his home country of Syria. He recalls how he and his family, who live in Aleppo, had to dodge snipers and beware of blasts. “My parents are the real heroes,” he says. They worked—his mom as a civil engineer and his dad as a dealer of spare parts for trucks—to support Nasra and his brother, who’s now a physician. Meanwhile, Nasra studied, played, and won science competitions. “For me, I was seeing my friends and having fun. Imagine being a parent. Your children go off to school each day and they might not come back.”

Nasra’s visa is good for only three months at a time. He can stay in the United States as long as he’s a Stanford student, but if he returns home after the three-month period is up, he has to apply for renewal in order to reenter. “I risk getting stuck in processing or getting rejected. There’s always the little probability that I might not be able to finish my education at Stanford.” Nasra did finally make it back to campus after winter break this year—two weeks after classes had started. 

“Living through a war—well, it just meant that you could die any second. If you were on the street or if you’re at home, something somewhere will go boom. I ran many times, but my mom, she used to walk to work where there was this intersection that was covered by a sniper. So, my mom had to run across the street every day to go to work and come back from work. There was no driving because the roads were filled with sandbags put there to prevent bullets and stuff. People lost their cars, their homes. Friends got kidnapped. But nothing happened to any of my family members. I’m grateful for that. I didn’t really know what was going on. I felt like it was a dream. I don’t know if I have PTSD. I don’t want to know. 

“I chose Stanford because of the fountain hopping—and academics. I’m studying computational biology [within CS] and would like to research cancer from the genomic or AI approach. 

“When I traveled home, it was so stressful. There’s no fighting, no bombing there now, but traveling to and from the U.S. gets complicated. The logistics that we have to go through to see our families—book a hotel; get to Jordan, where there’s a U.S. embassy; get a flight; get a taxi; apply for the visa; pay for the visa using only the currency available in the location of the embassy. Normally we would go through Lebanon, which is closer to home, but the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon was temporarily closed due to the war in Gaza when I went. I had to change flights and pay a lot extra to change destinations. I was so relieved to make it back.

“Another thing about being from Syria—we tend to get more generalized as bad people. Like, some people think, ‘This person is dangerous because he’s Syrian.’ That hurts. I was asked once here if I’ve ever killed someone. I was like, ‘Bro, are you for real?’

“I learned [from the war] to appreciate things like water and electricity and food. It taught me to live gratefully. I’m in the best place that a person can ever be in, so I better be grateful. I’m an RA in the dorm and at, like, 3 a.m. I’ll see the lounge lights on, and I turn them off. It’s force of habit. Last summer, we lost power here on campus because of fires and everyone was, like, freaked out. I was like, ‘Bro, come on. It’s chill. Hey, it’s OK, everything will be OK.’”

International students at Stanford

1940: 169

1980: 1,780

2023: 4,126


Juan Bautista Romaniuk

Juan Bautista Romaniuk

On transportation, time management, and calling your mom

Romaniuk, a sophomore, grew up in the city of Mendoza at the base of the Argentine Andes, where he developed a fascination with the ancient irrigation system that turns the arid land fertile and helps the vineyards surrounding the city grow.

“Mendoza’s got these water channels flowing in the middle of the street that keep the city green,” he says. “They transport the water down from the mountains.” This, and his fascination with the subways when he moved to Buenos Aires at 16, spurred him to study civil engineering and architectural design at Stanford, where he says he’s found a wealth of courses and research possibilities.

“Coming here, it’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he says. “There are just so many amazing students with really brilliant minds coming together in one environment. Just getting to know everyone truly is inspiring.”

“When I was living in Buenos Aires, I recall always asking my mom if we could go on a subway ride. And she was, ‘But where do you want to go?’ And I was, ‘I really just want to take the subway.’ The destination didn’t matter. I just liked seeing how dense a city like that is, and thinking about all the factors that keep it functioning, and how, really, transportation is the backbone of everything. In my college application, I wrote about the irrigation system in my hometown of Mendoza that was developed during precolonial times by Indigenous groups. As international students, we bring new ideas like these with us.

“I think everything is just so globalized these days that there hasn’t been a lot of culture shock for me. Small things for sure, like eating dinner earlier here. People in Argentina eat around 9:30 p.m. I think on a day-to-day basis, it’s hard to get too homesick because you’re always focused on the things that you need to do in the day. But I do miss my family.

“I’m an only child, so my mom and I are close. She has a very rare autoimmune disease. It affects her arms and legs and causes a burning sensation. Even if she walks a little bit, she gets fatigued. Calling her is part of my everyday routine. I like having a routine, ticking items off a list. 

“I think the hardest part of being an international student for me is uncertainty for the future. You feel like you’re always battling against time. I am on a student visa that lasts four years, so I can’t just say, ‘Oh, I think I want to take five years to graduate.’ And I think that makes you want to maximize every single opportunity. 

“I’m always thinking about how everything I’m doing will affect my future. It sort of restricts that ability to just enjoy my time here. Which sounds almost contradictory because you really don’t get an opportunity like this all the time.”


Number of countries represented in the undergraduate Class of 2027


Xianghao Zhan

Xianghao Zhan

On trade wars, cultural exchange, and American football

Zhan, MS ’21, MS ’23—who grew up in Zhengzhou, China—is in his final year as a PhD student in bioengineering. He’s researching the use of sensors to help assess concussions to determine the extent of damage from head trauma. He has master’s degrees in bioengineering and in statistics, both from Stanford. Zhan hopes to stay on at Stanford as a postdoctoral scholar, but he still needs to obtain the visa that will allow that. Since 2018, when the U.S. imposed tariffs on China, citing IP theft, and the trade wars began between the two countries, visa requests from Chinese students have undergone more intense scrutiny, Zhan says.

“When I was born in China, they had the single-child policy, so I’m an only child. People are allowed more children now. I haven’t been able to visit China since I came to Stanford. The visa situation is too complicated, the cost is too high, and I’m worried about not getting back to finish my studies. But my mom has come to visit. I’m planning to graduate in spring; I can invite my parents from China to attend my commencement. This is really the biggest moment in my life.

“I’m finishing my thesis on the computational modeling of traumatic brain injury. Our lab uses mouthguards with sensors to measure brain movements in athletes. We’ve tested them in thousands of football players, but I still don’t understand a thing about U.S. football! 

“I cannot easily leave [and then reenter] the U.S., because my area of studies is in STEM and there is technology competition between our two countries. The U.S. worries about [Chinese students] stealing tech. Most Chinese students, of course, they are not spying. But this kind of thing makes it much harder for us to enter the U.S. or apply for a U.S. visa. Nowadays, lots of Chinese students just stay in China or travel to Europe to study. Coming to the U.S. is so hard.

“I’m planning to stay in the U.S. after I graduate under the OPT [Optional Practical Training] program, which allows me to stay for three years of postdoctoral work. But after that, if I want to stay in the U.S., I have to apply for a [different kind of] visa. I have a lot of Chinese friends who wanted to stay in the U.S., but they cannot. They have to go back. I’m not thinking too much about that yet.

“This summer, after graduation, I’m planning to go back to China to visit. If I have to renew my visa, then that could be a little bit risky. Politics make things really hard. I miss that time when there were good relations between the two countries—the freedom and people communicating. I think there is so much benefit to have international students coming and going. You learn from people from other countries, and it makes peace easier when you understand each other, right? I play volleyball at Stanford with lots of international students, some from Ukraine, others from India, Europe. We learn from each other.”

International students from China

1979: 2

1990: 209

2023: 1,111 (996 graduate, 115 undergrad)


Khwaish Billore

Khwaish Billore

On physics, exploration, and very long flights

Billore, ’26, is a physics major with a love of poetry whose parents—an engineer and a surgeon—encouraged her interests in science and the arts as she was growing up in Mumbai, India. She recalls falling in love with physics in the sixth grade. 

“I had this teacher who said, ‘If you’re interested in a topic, you should read everything about it,’ ” she says. “We would discuss things like surface tension, and he’d say, ‘Now tell me how many droplets of water you can put on a coin without it falling over.’ He really helped me explore physics, and things just clicked in place, like this is an actual thing that happens in the world and I can explain why.” Billore chose Stanford in part because of the flexibility to explore a wide variety of courses. It’s not like that for undergraduates in India, she says. She’s able to make regular trips home, which helps with homesickness. But the flights are so long—at least 17 hours, not including layovers. “And I can’t sleep on planes,” she says mournfully.

“Sure, I miss some things. The Indian food here isn’t spicy enough for me. I really miss Mumbai’s chaat. It’s spicy and full of flavor, and I love it both when we go out and eat street food and when we make it at home. Also, it’s cold here. Mumbai doesn’t get cold at all. But I’m getting used to it. I guess I speak what could be called Indian-English—just little differences, like I refer to Z as zed. So sometimes people don’t understand me. But they’re usually willing to explain things to me. And when that happens, it’s a good opportunity to exchange information about our differences. I will tell them what I’m used to, and they’ll tell me how things are done here.

“The reason I love physics is because it helps explain the world. It’s so much fun. I try to share that when I tutor other students here. To me, it’s really logical. Like, if you start off with three equations, you can describe a whole system. That’s extraordinary to me. There are attempts to describe big systems, like entire galaxies, with just a series of equations. And we can do that reasonably well. Everything that happens is, at its most fundamental level, physics. So, if you can understand physics, you can basically understand the world. It just makes sense.

“I’ve made friends from all over the world at Stanford. It makes you think in different ways. We all learned different things in school to some extent, especially in the humanities—things like history and stuff. One of the first friends I made at Stanford was from Malaysia. I didn’t know anything about Malaysian history and my friend didn’t know much about Indian history. So, we can sit and exchange information and learn from each other. 

“In theory, you may be like, ‘I want all of humanity to be friends,’ but it’s not something you really feel until you meet people from different cultures. Things feel less abstract. In terms of making your ideals concrete, it’s important to interact with people from different backgrounds. That’s one of the wonderful things about universities. I’ve learned how much we all have in common.” 

Stanford’s First International Student

Keinosuke Otaku, from Tokyo, graduated in zoology in 1894.

Tracie White is a senior writer at Stanford. Email her at traciew@stanford.edu.

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