When most students receive their acceptance letters in those glossy purple folders, they can’t wait to tell everyone they know. But the exciting news is often greeted by blank stares and feigned smiles or questions about student life at William and Mary. The frustration with this common experience is illustrated by the bitter title of the “You never heard of Williams? It’s cool, you wouldn’t have gotten in anyway” Facebook group. It’s hardly an unknown fact that most people in the U.S. have not heard of the liberal arts college nestled in the Purple Valley, but for students around the world, the hardest part of their journey to the College may have been finding out it even existed. For the 148 international students on campus, this search was a reality in their college application process.
“Nobody knows Williams in Botswana,” Mopati Morake ’11 said. “Nobody even knows what a liberal arts [college] is.” For Morake, it never mattered that none of his friends or family knew about his future school because he always knew that he would come to the U.S. for college. “It simply provides a better education, not to mention the better financial aid,” he said.
So when it came time to decide where to apply, Morake turned to a trusted source, The U.S. News and World Report. “I pretty much just chose a few of the top schools and applied there,” Morake stated. The most important factors for Morake was a sense of intimacy in a small liberal arts college and a need-blind policy for international students, so he just worked from those two main factors. “I used the Internet and a college reference book with some honest information,” Morake said. “But since I couldn’t visit, it pretty much just came down to the prestige for me.” Morake applied to six different schools, but the deciding factor became his generous financial aid: “I forgot to apply for financial aid, and Williams was the only school that still allowed me to apply.”
Arjun Narayan ’10 from India had a similar experience during his research of American colleges. “Williams being need-blind for internationals was a huge draw, and so were The U.S. News and World Report rankings,” he said.
Narayan attended an international school in India where he was advised about the importance of the prestige of colleges. Narayan’s roommate from high school, Ville Satopaa ’11, also applied to the College as an early decision applicant after hearing about the College. “A Williams admissions counselor came to our school and Ville thought she was cool, so he applied,” he said.
Once Satopaa was accepted, Narayan began to seriously consider Williams himself. “It pretty much came down to the fact that Williams offered me the best financial aid and Ville was going there,” Narayan said. Throughout the process, Narayan never did a lot of research, and even after sending in his deposit, he still didn’t really know what constituted a liberal arts college. “I try to convince myself that I chose Williams, but really, it was dumb luck,” he said.
Luck also played a critical role for Andrew Douglas ’08 from Jamaica in his decision to attend college in the Berkshires. Like Morake and Narayan, Douglas realized early on that he wanted to go to school in the United States. “I first started looking in a Baron college book about as tall as me, but it was difficult to make my way through it,” he said.
For a while, Douglas blindly prepared for college without knowing where he even wanted to go. Then one day, Douglas received a phone call from a Williams student who later drove him to apply and attend the College. “At the time, I wanted to be an investment banker, and the girl just happened to be a senior who was going into investment banking,” he said. Douglas heard that economics was a prevalent major and that investment banking was popular among students. Everything just seemed to fall into place after the conversation, even though Douglas was still unsure of what it truly meant to attend a liberal arts college.
Unlike many fellow international students, Ayyaz Ahmad ’11 from Pakistan did his research when it came time to start applying to college. “I have a friend who goes to Middlebury, so he helped to get me started with some names,” he said. However, like his peers, Ahmad also used U.S. News and World Report in deciding where he would apply. “I stayed in the top 30 or so, and I ended up choosing a few from the top and a few a little lower,” Ahmad said.
Along with prestige, Williams’ location, student body, academic offerings and recommendations from friends and teachers also aided Ahmad in his college searches. “I knew I wanted a small college, and after my friend told me about liberal arts [college], that was something I became interested in as well,” he said. Of course, having a need-blind policy for international students was also a significant issue. “If I got in and couldn’t pay, it’d be no use to me,” Ahmad said. The Internet was an integral tool throughout Ahmad’s research and he eventually applied to 12 schools in the U.S., the U.K. and Pakistan. “I had seriously considered going to school in Pakistan to stay close to home, but in the end, I knew I would get more exposure at Williams,” Ahmad said.
Faraidoon Nayebkhill ’10 from Afghanistan began his college search at his computer. The quality of the collegiate education in the U.S. convinced him that studying in America was the right choice for him. “I also thought it would be interesting to go somewhere different to experience a new culture and new ideologies,” he said. Nayebkhill turned to the rankings to condense his list and then researched the select few colleges online.
While working at the Youth and Children Development Program (YCDP) in Afghanistan, he met an alumnus of Williams who strongly encouraged him to apply to the College. The financial aid ended up being a huge draw for Nayebkhill. “I didn’t factor in things like size and location,” Nayebkhill said.
Like many international students having to decide between American colleges thousands of miles away, Petya Miteva ’10 from Bulgaria had trouble determining critical differences while researching school. Unlike many others, the Internet just wasn’t sufficient for Miteva, who enlisted the help of a friend who was already attending college in America. The friend gave her a list of some prestigious schools with good financial aid programs, and Williams was at the top of the list. Miteva knew she wanted to come to the U.S. because of the student freedom in choosing courses, which the Bulgarian educational system lacks. Miteva did online research but found it hard to compare the schools from their Web sites. “They all seemed the same, every school seemed to have a variety of courses and to be perfect for anything you wanted to do,” she said.
Miteva’s teachers and counselors didn’t know much about American colleges, causing her application process to be extremely difficult. Miteva even had to fight to get recommendations from her school since they are not required for Bulgarian colleges. In total, she applied to 10 schools in the U.S. and even came close to attending Vassar. However, after receiving her acceptance from Williams, she was contacted by two graduates of Williams who were originally from Bulgaria and strongly encouraged her to attend the College. The third time was the charm. “A third person contacted me. It was a current Williams student from Bulgaria, and I was finally convinced,” she said.
Even in the United States, it is often hard to see past the shiny college brochures and discover the true atmosphere within different school each proclaiming the same set of qualities. But for international students across the seas, the Internet and those homogenous pamphlets were critical tools to differentiate between schools. For many, the decision to attend Williams resulted from blindly stumbling through college guides and U.S. News and World Report with a few dedicated alums and good old-fashioned luck guiding the way to the Purple Valley.