Harvard Wants You

At Harvard, an increasingly international student body faces both opportunities and challenges.
By Michelle B. Timmerman

When Majahonkhe M. Shabangu ’14 was picked up from Logan Airport seven months ago, he was hungry. He had been traveling for days, and he couldn’t remember where he ate. He picks up the salt and pepper shakers sitting on the table in front of him—the restaurant was near a structure that resembled them.

—The Charles MGH Bridge?


“I had a sandwich—a bread sandwich.There was bread and chicken and a lot of stuff,” he recalls.  “But then what was interesting was when I said I wanted a sandwich the waiter started to ask me all these questions. ‘What type of bread do you want?’ and I said, ‘You have types of bread?’ You know, we only have one type of bread in my country.”

After finally arriving from Swaziland, Shabangu shared his first meal in the United States with Robin M. Worth ’81, a woman he says knows basically everything about him. As director of international admissions,  Worth’s institutional memory matches her knack for recalling faces and first meetings.

Situated in her office on Brattle Street, Worth sits in front of a Persian tapestry given to her by an Iranian woman class of ’76 now living in the U.K. When asked, she identifies each of a dozen  items on her desk, statuettes and boxes from all over the world, all gifts from former students at the College or contacts she met on the numerous trips she’s made abroad to increase international enrollment.

Over the past 10 years, the percentage of the international Harvard student body has risen from 6.76 to 10.01 percent. Worth is proud of the increase. Harvard was the first school in the Ivy League plus Stanford and MIT to have an African country rank among students’ top ten countries of origin. Since coming to the College as an undergraduate from her native Texas, she remarks that the biggest change in international admits is not in number—which has recently hovered around nine to 10 percent of the undergraduate population—but in the diversity of backgrounds.

“I think that is the whole Internet revolution, that we really have people applying from their neighborhood high school and coming to us. So that for me, from the time I was a student here to now, has been the biggest change,” she says.

But the impact of the Internet is a recent phenomenon, complementing an existing framework. Worth describes international students’ motivation to come to Harvard in a “push me, pull me” context. Drawn by the globally recognized name and the appeal of a uniquely American liberal arts education, and pushed by lack of higher educational opportunities in their home countries, international students come to Harvard under a variety of forces not exerted upon their American peers.

For some international students, Harvard’s unrestricted financial aid has special allure. Applicants from the poorest of backgrounds can come to campus without paying a penny. According to Worth, these students—no matter their educational circumstances at home—are evaluated within the context of their environments.

“One of the hardest things to explain about Harvard admissions is that it’s not a reward for what you’ve done, its sort of an investment in what you will do. Admissions is really about looking forward, not looking backward,” says Worth.

Be that as it may, many international students are both pushed and pulled. They aren’t afforded the luxury of the admissions office’s blinders.

“I’m on financial aid. But here now that’s not really what’s pushing me. What’s pushing me is what’s behind me,” gestures Shabangu, glancing over his shoulder. “It’s what’s back home. It’s what I need to do back there.”


For international students who don’t attend international schools or one of the 13 United World Colleges (UWC), ignorance of opportunity is as limiting as geographic distance and financial feasibility. UWCs award two-year scholarships to top students selected to attend by National Committees in nearly 130 countries.

Christopher Coey’s ’12 interactions with exchange students at his own school, the University of Queensland in Brisbane, compelled him to apply. Feeling limited by the narrow field of academic offerings, he decided to take some time off while he considered American colleges.

“Everyone’s heard of Harvard in Australia,” says Coey, the only student who has ever applied to Harvard from his hometown of Mackay, Queensland. “Maybe they realize it’s open to internationals, but I don’t think they think anyone would really get in.”

“There’s no way I would have applied straight out of high school because I didn’t know anything about the liberal arts degrees or the general education or anything like that,” he adds.

Giselle Huerta ’12 spent three-and-a-half years at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile before applying to Harvard last spring. Pursuing a rigorous five-year degree in business and economics which only allowed her to choose one course per semester, she worked to open an international liberal enterprise with a Harvard exchange student who was studying abroad. In working closely with the student she learned about Harvard and the liberal arts program offered in the United States.

“I hadn’t realized until that point not how unhappy, but how restricted I felt,” says Huerta. When she received an email in January from her friend informing her that Harvard had reopened transfer applications, she decided to apply.

One-and-a-half years away from her projected graduation in Chile, she transferred for two years at Harvard.


Lacking the chance to study the arts and humanities back home in an academic system with limited options, Namrata Baral ’12, feels liberated by the Core Curriculum while many of her classmates feel constrained.

Carrying a Harvard tote bag from the Coop and wearing a seasonal parka, it’s difficult to imagine that the petite economics concentrator had never left her hometown in Nepal before she began her applications to American colleges.

“You know how we always talk about bursting the bubble?” she smiles, “For me, [leaving my hometown] was a big bursting.”

Baral was the first student to apply to Harvard from Pokhara, the third-largest city in Nepal.

“My school did not have any resources whatsoever for students that wanted to apply to U.S. colleges,” says Baral, who learned about the application process by emailing admissions officers and searching the web—dial-up, that is, between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. when it was more affordable and slightly faster than its normally sluggish pace.

She traveled seven hours for each of her SAT tests. For advice on aspects of the application process she didn’t understand—early decision, financial aid options—she turned to more informed students in Katmandu via College Confidential, the discovery of which she credits as crucial to her ability to apply to Harvard.

As impeding as her and her teachers’ complete ignorance of the application process was her community’s reluctance to aid her endeavor.

“I had to start everything from scratch, everything from initially convincing teachers to write a recommendation for me because they were unwilling to let me consider anything except engineering or medical school,” she says.

In Nepal, students that want to come to the United States do so because they want to earn money, she explains. They apply through consulates to community colleges that are cheaper for them, make money, and go back to Nepal to have a “good life.” Her teachers stereotyped her into the same group.

As her classmates entered the medical and engineering schools in Nepal that she’d been encouraged to attend, and neighbors who had applied to community college in the U.S. were accepted and obtained their visas, her mother became increasingly skeptical of Baral’s efforts, going so far as to question whether her daughter was hiding the fact that she had been rejected from all schools in the States.

“There’s so much uncertainty. You’re doing it all on your own,” stresses Baral, leaning forward over a table in the Dunster dining hall, punctuating each sentence by slamming her fist on the table. “You have no examples from the past. There is no support. If I hadn’t gotten into a good college in the United States, I’d be one of those students who is not able to get into medical or engineering school and just goes to a random school and wastes their life. There was constant fear, uncertainty.”


Harvard accepts approximately six out of every 100 applicants. For American students, whose application to the College usually requires just one more fee, one more interview, and one more essay, the hardest part of Harvard, it’s often said, is getting in.

But before international students from remote communities can face the remarkable challenge of being granted acceptance, they must break a second wall.

Shabangu, who joined dorm crew and the Freshman International Program (FIP) at the beginning of the year, grew up in a small village in Swaziland that lacked running water. When thirsty, he went to the river to drink. In his home, firewood substituted for electricity. Floods in his village would make access to primary school impossible, and sometimes he wouldn’t attend for weeks.

Wearing a windbreaker with the logo of the UWC he attended in Swaziland, Shabangu acknowledges that he was lucky to possess all the structures and encouragement necessary to apply to schools in the United States. He explains, “There are two sorts of walls here. The first one you have to break is to attend a primary school in the village and go to a better public high school and from there make it to a UWC.”

This is exactly what Shabangu, ranked the number two student in the country when a teacher at his public, urban high school recommended he apply to the UWC, did.

When Baral surprised skeptical teachers and peers with her acceptance to Harvard, she also faced opposition. Growing up in a conservative family, her parents were wary of sending their daughter to school in the States—especially to an institution as liberal as Harvard.

After her acceptance, an alumnus from the capital interviewed her about her reasons for applying.

“He asked me some questions to gauge how liberal I was. He asked me about homosexuality because maybe he thought I was very conservative or something,” who recalls her first experience on campus seeing two men holding hands and how it seemed to indicate to her the freedom of speech and thought that she had always attributed to America.

With the help of the alumnus and Harvard’s promise of a host family to look after their daughter, Baral’s parents, who are both educated, understood she would be safe in the United States and accepted their daughter’s decision.

Besides, Harvard held a special place in her parents’ knowledge and her country’s history. “Ever since I knew what school or college was, I knew that the [former] king [of Nepal] was very educated and that he went to Harvard. Harvard is the only U.S. college that everybody in Nepal knows.”


“The day I left I was so clumsy it’s insane,” says Dalumuzi H. Mhlanga ’13, recounting how he briefly forgot his passport and bag at the airline counter in South Africa on his way from Zimbabwe to the States. Attempting to bring biltong, a type of jerky, into the States, he remembers that “I was clever enough to declare that I had it in a little package, and I had to hand over this small package … I was trying to be honest; I didn’t want to get deported. And so I had to wait for three hours with the real criminals.”

Once released from customs, he went to Starbucks (“I felt so American.”) The coffee was decent, he recounts, but the barista didn’t add sugar to it. “I didn’t see where the sugar was and I was like, ‘Oh, so Americans drink their coffee without sugar. Fine!’” he laughs. “So I just went to my little corner and tried to finish the coffee without sugar only to discover later that no, we actually do put sugar in coffee.”

After becoming accustomed to the speed of the internet, the flavor of coffee, the preponderance of food, and social habits in the United States, the shock of coming to Harvard can be matched by the shock of going back home.

Naseemah Mohamed ’12, President of the Harvard African Students Association (HASA) and also from Zimbabwe, attended a prep school on the East Coast on scholarship. In her past seven years traveling between Zimbabwe and the United States she has realized that going back to Zimbabwe is definitely more difficult after being in America.

“It’s funny,” she admits, “because when you come to Zimbabwe from America you undergo a culture shock. And when you’ve been in America for a long a time and go back to Zimbabwe it feels like another culture shock.”

Remembering his trip to the United States in the fall, Shabangu recalls, “I’d only seen airplanes up in the sky, so the excitement was there. I’m going to get on an airplane for the first time in my life.”

This summer, Shabangu will be returning to his village and seeing his family for the first time since he made that trip.


“Whenever SAT season comes,” says Yifan Wu ’14, “if you go on the plane [to Hong Kong, where the SAT is offered] half of the plane is people going to take the SAT.”

Wu, who went to a local school in Beijing, is the only student from her school to ever attend an Ivy League school. Although she got into one of the two best Chinese universities, she was thrilled with the opportunity to come to Harvard.

“Ranking-wise, the best schools in China don’t even get into the top 100, globally,” says Wu. “I knew I would learn so much more here.”

Wu, who gets excited when she discusses the number of talks she went to first semester, says, “I like knowledge over bonds. I prefer going to talks on academic topics than going to parties and socializing.”

She admits to experiencing a certain culture shock socially upon arrival on campus—a shock she thinks may contribute to her current dissatisfaction with her involvement in extra-curricular activities. “To be frank, I myself don’t like the party culture. And it may be that I am limited in a sense growing up in a society that is so used to non-party things, but I think sometimes by not identifying with the culture you don’t connect with the people as well, and this is definitely very impeding in my extra-curricular activities,” she says, mentioning that if she were in China, she would be involved in more organizations. “Sometimes I feel like I can’t mingle with other people on campus … should I try to change myself, or should I try to stick to who I am?”

Andrew N. Trott ’11, on the other hand, was drawn to the U.S., and specifically to Harvard, in part because of his extra-curricular involvement.

While applying to Harvard, Trott studied the most competitive major, business science, at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in his native South Africa.

Pulled to Harvard by the quality of the rowing program here, Trott explains: “There’s no other institution in the world I could go to and get this opportunity, and that’s ignoring the academics and everything else, so it was worth the risk. I guess because it’s Harvard, but also because it’s Harvard crew.”

Aware of the opportunity to be recruited to rowing at Harvard—the only American university to which Trott applied while at UCT—the athlete gave up rowing on the water for a year, in order to be able to be classified as a freshman upon entering the school, according to NCAA laws.

On campus, Trott immediately bonded with fellow international students. Although his closest friends at the beginning of the year were from FIP, by the spring he found he connected even more with fellow rowers—the athletes who would form his blocking group and remain his closest friends.

“I think the number of times I thought of myself as an international freshman year was probably quite a lot,” remarks Trott, who, when asked to explain what defines him, says he thinks of himself as a CS student, a lightweight rower, and a South African. “Nowadays, I don’t think about it at all really.”


Approximately 75 percent of international students haven never been to the United States when they arrive on campus for the Freshman International Program (FIP), says Evan R. Covington ’12, the former Director of Freshman International Affairs.

FIP, co-sponsored by the Woodbridge International Society and the Harvard International Office, serves to introduce international students to American life at Harvard. For the past several years, freshmen have stayed in Weld during a week in which they get to know campus and each other.

“It was definitely a great program,” recalls Trott, “and absolutely necessary for me in terms of understanding all the essentials like American banking, getting accounts, getting a phone, all those sorts of things.”

Many internationals attest to meeting some of their closest friends during FIP. Some international students who meet during FIP block together in the spring. All-international blocking groups and a very Western European-heavy board have perpetuated an image of Woodbridge as an adamantly exclusive group—a stereotype that the Society’s current President, Aleksandar Stefanovski ’12, hopes to mitigate.

“There’s this misconception that it’s mostly Eurocentric and mostly internationals who want to party,” he says, noting that Woodbridge will be trying to reach more people in the next year through extended outreach and partnership with other student groups on campus, including the IOP. For the first time ever, the FIP leader application was sent to the entire freshman class, in the hope that more Americans would apply.


Mohamed notes that students from Africa, more so than ones from Western countries, feel the pressure of being very privileged compared to most on the low-income continent. This pressure, in addition to an appreciation of the richness of African culture may account for why many African students choose involvement in HASA over Woodbridge and desire to return home after graduation.

“It’s the personal responsibility that really compels me to go back,” says Mhlanga. “It’s not that I don’t love the U.S. I love the U.S.; I’d love to stay here, but I feel like there’s more for me to do, and I could use what I gained here in a way that impacts more people in a deeper sense if I go back home.”

David Sengeh ’10, now a graduate student at MIT working on the connection between the body and prosthetic limbs, hopes to bring his technology to his native war-torn Sierra Leone.

“I want to be close enough to the problems in Sierra Leone and close enough to the solutions in Boston so that I can fully understand what the problems are and be able to use the resources I have access to—the colleagues and the innovations here—to solve them,” he says.

Shabangu grows somber as he recalls his mother at home and his brothers, who get drunk and give her trouble.

“Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes she’s crying because something happened and, you know, once I call her she’s like ‘I feel better.’ Sometimes when I think about the things I have to do, the things I have ahead of me, I still feel like it’s a bit too much.” Shabangu sighs, not as a sign of exhaustion, but more like a release of pressure. “Then I ask myself, who else will do it? If I don’t do it … I have to do it.”

Conversely, for some international students, a plane trip to Harvard isn’t part of an extended round-trip back to a home country.

Some students pursue graduate school in the States. Next year, Trott will be in Boston. Coey, who was drawn to Harvard in part for the greater opportunity to study international development, doesn’t know where he’ll find himself in a few years, but expects that it won’t be Australia.

“I’m not a nationalistic person at all. I think national borders are somewhat arbitrary constructions. I mean, they are,” laughs Coey. “I’ve never felt patriotic. I don’t feel tied down to one place. I’m just going to go wherever exciting work that I enjoy will take me. Be that Europe, be that Africa, be it America, or Australia, eventually.”


This week, 10 girls from Stefanovski’s school in Macedonia find out if they’ve made it to Harvard. Since Stefanovski was accepted in 2008, NOVA has sent a student to Harvard every year.

“I think it’s a common occurrence now that a lot of high-achieving students from other schools are transferring to our school junior year just to take advantage of opportunities that come of applying to schools in the U.S.” says Stefanovski.

Ana Angelovska ’13 has followed Stefanovski’s path. Both have become precedents, points of access for students at their school.

She recalls that Stefanovski came back to NOVA during her senior year to give a presentation. Last year, she did the same.

“I feel like something that’s so far away—that people think is only in the movies—becomes through us, so much more accessible.”

Trott and Baral received dozens of emails from students interested from their high schools, interested in applying to Harvard and curious about the process. Coey’s cousin now holds Harvard as her goal.

Sometimes all it takes is one point of access to bridge the distance—to make Harvard, so distant in thought and space, familiar. And once that bridge is constructed, momentum can build and with increased awareness comes higher numbers of applicants.

But how much is too many?

Worth asserts that there is no quota for international students.

“I think that it’s less that you have an end goal in mind that you’re getting to, it’s not like we say, you know, we want to be 25 percent international,” says Worth. “The most important thing we can do is make sure that anybody who’s interested—maybe they don’t even know they’re interested yet—is introduced to what a liberal arts education is in the United States, why Harvard, all that, and let people decide for themselves whether that education is for them.”

As of yet, no one has followed Baral to Harvard from her hometown. She finds that awareness of Harvard’s opportunity, locally, is still limited.

“Just because you were born in some obscure rural city far away from the capital, that should not lessen your chances of getting a good education. Just because your financial background is not as good as those of students who live in the capital, you should not be penalized.”

Baral acknowledges that it isn’t financially or physically possible to go city by city in every country. But she thinks building a relationship with the Nepalese government, a local nonprofit, or herself as a returning student, could increase the number of talented applicants from her country who are ignorant of opportunity abroad.

Mhlanga cites unfamiliarity with Harvard’s financial aid program and with opportunities abroad as a crucial barrier hindering the number of Zimbabwean applicants.

“There are a heck of a lot of smart people in Zimbabwe, a lot of them,” he says. “But they just don’t apply because they think they don’t have the money.”

Sengeh believes that the admissions office does “a very good job” giving opportunities to students from different environments, and that the College thrives on the diversity of financial context.

“It’s good to have people who come from the high end who learn to live with people who don’t share the same background with them,” says Sengeh. He pauses excitedly, having discovered something.

“Actually, I think this is the simple question: if I gave you access to world-class faculty and I gave you access to some amount of money and if I gave you access to colleagues who could take your project to another level, what would you do with it?”