Hear from International Students & Alumni at the University of Nevada, Reno

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By Matt Killorin
Published on November 21, 2023

Four students share their experience studying in the heart of the American West.

University of Nevada, Reno

Two women and one man go out for American Food, eating burgers, sitting at a table, with one covering her mouth as she laughs. In American culture food brings many students together in social situations.

International students from more than 60 countries study at the University of Nevada, Reno. We spoke to four students representing three continents and a range of studies, from engineering to political science. Each took a unique path to the university and found a welcoming community once they arrived.

Choosing the University of Nevada, Reno

Many students come to Reno because of its high national university and public school rankings and excellent research opportunities. The university is recognized as one of the United States’ top research institutions, holding both Carnegie® R1 and Engaged University classifications

Roxana Morton came from Mexico because the university offered her a chance to continue her academic studies while gaining experience in front of a classroom.

“I didn’t choose Reno — Reno chose me,” joked Morton, a fourth-year chemical engineering PhD candidate. “I had a very good job as an engineer in Mexico, but my ultimate dream was to be a professor and teach.”

Representatives from the University of Nevada, Reno contacted Morton and other alumni from an undergraduate research program hosted by the University of California at San Diego. During those initial discussions, Morton saw that she could fully fund her PhD through assistantships while pursuing her doctorate — and her dream. 

“I knew this was my opportunity,” said Morton. “So, I applied, and I had the profile that they were looking for because of my previous experience.” 

Reno — a Great Place for Business

Jakob Mwanza is a young entrepreneur from Zambia who started a business helping families in southern Africa finance safe and welcoming homes. The U.S. Department of State recognized Mwanza’s positive community impact and awarded him with a Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, which included a six-week academic and leadership training program at the university.

“We had a presentation from the College of Business where they discussed the programs and scholarship opportunities, and I got interested in the MBA program,” said Mwanza, who applied to the College of Business MBA program as soon as he returned home. “In those initial six weeks, I learned that the people are very welcoming and that the entrepreneurship spirit here is very strong. That’s what really attracted me back.”

The Reno–Lake Tahoe area was recently named the 16th Best Performing Large City in the United States based on salaries, job access, housing, overall growth, and other factors. While pursuing his master’s degree, Mwanza had invaluable access to community and business leaders willing to discuss his ideas, offer suggestions, and contribute to his development.

“The university connected me with local entrepreneurs in the construction and housing space and I also met mentors from the Economic Development Commission of Western Nevada. They provided me with resources and guidance, and even helped me put together a pitch deck to raise financing for my business,” said Mwanza. “All those interactions just propelled my entrepreneurial ambitions and were very useful for knowing how to run a business and also how to raise finances.”

A Strong Community Creates a Supportive Campus Life

Dilara Banu Ozbek wanted to pursue a political science post-graduate degree in a country different from her native Turkey. Her relatives convinced her to find an international destination with family nearby.

“My first instinct was to go to Europe, but two of my cousins live in Reno, and they both graduated from University of Nevada, Reno too,” said Banu Ozbek. “But I met so many wonderful friends at university that I would have been OK by myself. I remember when I would get sick, it wasn’t my cousins, it was my friends bringing soup. From day one until my graduation, I never felt excluded at all.”

Banu Ozbek began working at the Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS) in her second semester. While writing her thesis and pursuing her degree, she worked to help prospective students with their admissions paperwork and made friends with current students on campus. She also had the opportunity to learn more about international education and discover her passion for helping others, leading to a future career in human resources.

“I was a master’s student writing the thesis, but I also worked on the other side of the story,” said Banu Ozbek. “I got to see another perspective — both being a student and helping all these really nice students and gaining that insight. I realized that I really liked helping people and that there might be something else I want to explore outside of academia.”

Instructor Access + Small Classes + One-of-a-Kind Opportunities

After raising two children and taking a decade-plus hiatus from education, Gokce Unlu came to the University of Nevada, Reno determined to earn her PhD. Also from Turkey, Unlu has a master’s in educational management and wrote her dissertation on women in academic roles.

While back home, the University of Nevada, Reno’s Equity Diversity and Language department captured Unlu’s attention. She saw the perfect program to advance her academic ambitions of elevating educational initiatives for international, displaced, and refugee children. However, she had reservations about returning to the classroom as a student. That was when she first got to know faculty members and learned about the culture of support at the University of Nevada, Reno.

“I was very interested in the College of Education program, but I was uneasy with the application procedure. I reached out to the department and they were so helpful — they encouraged me a lot,” said Unlu. “I really needed to feel that way because it’s not easy to restart. I left a good career and I’m 45 pursing my ambition. When I arrived, I met with them and they were so kind — they made me feel perfect.”

Mwanza echoes Unlu’s experience with professors and faculty members at the university. “I’ve studied in Africa and Europe, and now in the US. At Reno, the ratio of graduate students to professors is very low,” said Mwanza. “Each student has a real opportunity to have a one-on-one or personal conversation with any professor.”

The University of Nevada, Reno’s undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio is 18:1, and the university’s graduate classes, labs, and lectures are often even smaller and more personalized. Morton’s chemical engineering research group had 10 faculty members, with two to five students assigned to each. “I had a ton of exposure to faculty,” she said.

Mwanza used face time with professors and local industry mentors to improve Ubuntu Health Innovations, his submission to the $50,000 Sontag Entrepreneurship Competition hosted by the university.

“In January 2021, my classmate from Ghana and I decided to participate in the competition, which initially started with 25 different ideas and ultimately narrowed to five,” said Mwanza. “We didn’t win, but we were finalists. It opened up a lot opportunities for us to engage with the community.”

Banu Ozbek loved — and excelled in — her classes. However, when she first arrived at the University of Nevada, Reno she felt self-conscious about giving presentations in English, her second language.

“At first, I didn’t want to go in front of the class and present, no matter how good everyone said my English was,” said Banu Ozbek. After interacting in small groups and one-on-one with professors, she felt more comfortable and encouraged. “Eventually, the teachers’ interactions, behavior, and attitudes were not so different from friends.”

University of Nevada, Reno Encourages Student Activities and Organizations

For Unlu, finding the Graduate Student Association (GSA) filled a critical social gap when she arrived on campus — before her husband and two children joined her in the United States. In addition, she started her program in the spring and missed the fall orientation sessions, where many of her classmates got to know each other, which led to some initial anxiety.

“Orientations and everything take place in the fall, so I was worried,” said Unlu. “But I learned there was a GSA vacancy in the College of Education as a representative, and I went for it. Those people are amazing — that helped me a lot, and I think that it’s a great way of adapting yourself and finding a community.”

For many students, working as a GSA representative is a great way to make friends and find belonging both within your college and with students from other parts of the university. For Morton — the representative for the College of Engineering — it was also a great way to supplement her educational costs.

“I have a scholarship and responsibilities representing all the engineering majors in graduate school,” said Morton. “We are involved in everything from diversity representation to resolving parking issues and [figuring out] what to do with student fees.”

The University of Nevada, Reno also has numerous clubs, groups, and student-run organizations for students to have fun on campus between studies. Morton loves the diversity of groups and clubs available and is a Nevada Latin Dance Club member. “There are more than 300 clubs at the University of Nevada, Reno,” she said. “There’s a swing club, a K-pop club — there are clubs for board games and just about anything else you can think of. If not, you can start one — and it’s so easy.”

Where Students Take Their University of Nevada, Reno Education

Banu Ozbek is back in Turkey with a successful role in human resource management at a firm in her home country — and still speaks frequently with university friends who now live around the globe. Looking back, she wishes she had slowed down more and enjoyed her experience. She also wishes she had left her comfort zone earlier.

“I would encourage myself back then and the students coming this term or next: don’t be afraid to ask questions,” Banu Ozbek said. “Really good people are there to help you and support you. It’s not just their job — they’re happy to help you.”

Unlu echoes Banu Ozbek’s impressions of the community at the University of Nevada, Reno, reminding graduate students to meet with their GSA representative and get to know them. “You should also work with the writing center. That’s a great resource for international students,” she said.

Unlu’s research with refugee students is helping to create a more equitable, global learning environment for displaced and non-native language speaking students. She has presented at Diversity Summit and is preparing for a presentation at an international conference in Florida soon. “I want to do something impactful for these multilingual learners,” she said.

Morton would also like to do something impactful with her education from the University of Nevada, Reno. Once her green card application is approved, she wants to join the US Navy.

“Once I have my citizenship, I would like to be an officer and work in the nuclear energy program,” she said. “But for now, I graduate with a master’s this semester, and I would also like to work again in the industry. I miss it!”

Mwanza is continuing his entrepreneurial interests in sub-Saharan African countries. However, he has to manage them from afar, as his networking experiences through the university helped him secure a job offer locally in the United States, which includes lottery sponsorship. According to Mwanza, an internship at Nevada Gold Mines led to a contracts manager role and a recent promotion to supply chain manager at Nevada Copper.

“It’s a graduate education that is affordable within a very supportive community at a very supportive university,” said Mwanza. “After you graduate, you don’t have to start afresh finding your feet and looking for a job. The way the community is set up in Reno, everyone just wants to support international students.”

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