This is us: International students follow path to success via USF

Their stories are different, but their goals are similar.

Each of four USF graduates interviewed by 83 Degrees for this story about immigration in the Tampa Bay Area was born outside the United States and arrived in Tampa via the University of South Florida in search of top-quality education and a better life.

They are a small, random sampling of a myriad of international students who have gotten to the United States by enrolling in classes at the University of South Florida since it opened in 1956. 

Their experiences are being told here as a reflection of common bonds, trends, and success among immigrants.

All four thrived at USF, are rising stars in their careers, and have decided to stay in the Tampa Bay Area -- at least for now.

In general, their stories are similar to those of many of the international students who arrive in the U.S. to attend college. These four enrolled through USF World, a 10-year-old program designed to attract more foreign-born students to USF.

Why USF?

Once known predominantly as a commuter school for local residents, USF has worked hard to broaden its appeal and change its image to one of academic standing. The result: USF is now a highly respected university globally, known for its strong research programs, and for attracting students from all over the United States and from nearly every country in the world. 

“We want to bring the best and the brightest here, no matter where they’re from,’’ says Dr. Roger Brindley, VP of USF World. “If you’re going to get the best and brightest, you have to recruit globally.’’

According to Brindley, USF had approximately 1,400 international students a decade ago. In the Fall of 2018, USF had 4,733 international students with most taking classes at the main campus in Tampa and fewer at USF Sarasota and USF St. Petersburg. International students are represented at every educational level, including in doctoral programs. They come from dozens of countries and are involved in dozens of different courses of study.

The highest percentage of USF’s international students arrive from India and China. In 2018, India topped the list with 952 students across all levels and China was second with 794. Most of the Indian representatives (772) were graduate students.

Meet four in search of a better life:

Raj Patel 

Raj Patel is a good example of an Indian student who quickly found a home and success at USF. He started by earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Biomedical Science with a minor in Public Health. He has stayed at USF and currently is pursuing an MBA in Healthcare Management.

Raj H. PatelPatel could have gone to virtually any school, so why did he choose USF?

“I applied to basically every school in Florida,’’ says Patel, who is 21, wants to be a neurologist, and plans to begin medical school in 2020. “Part of it was that Tampa Bay is a great place to live and part of it was that Tampa Bay has a large Indian population. But, mainly, it was because USF had the best track record in medical research.’’

USF is noted for its research in all areas. In the 2018-19 school year, USF led the nation in faculty members who were awarded Fulbright Scholarships.

David Ponraj

David Ponraj is another former Indian student with a story somewhat similar to Patel’s. He first earned an undergrad degree in Physics in India and then came to St. Petersburg College, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in International Business in 2008. He returned to India for a couple of years before coming back to work at Nielsen Research in Pinellas County for seven years. While at Nielsen, he decided he wanted to earn an MBA degree. He chose to do it at USF St. Petersburg while continuing to work.

“A big part of it was location,’’ Ponraj says. David Ponraj“I actually wanted to go to a campus and not do it online. USF St. Pete was perfect for me.’’

Ponraj graduated in 2017 and started his own business, an app called Startup Space, that helps people start small- and medium-sized businesses.

“USF was definitely a catalyst with my personal journey,’’ says Ponraj, 36 and a Dunedin resident. “I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do when I first got to USF, but USF prepared me for all this.’’

Patel and Ponraj sailed through USF, but it’s not so easy for every international student. That’s why USF has a program called INTO USF (sometimes also called Passwat), a one- or two-semester program that focuses on allowing international students to improve their English skills and adjust to a new culture.

“This is for very bright students who need to polish up their ability to speak and write English,’’ Brindley says. “We bring them here to succeed, not to fail.’’

Joao Pinto

One former student who says he succeeded largely because of INTO USF is Joao Pinto. He came straight from high school in Joao Pedro PintoBrazil to INTO USF. He lived on campus for a year and immediately became active in the Brazilian Student Association, but also started making American friends. Pinto admits there were some struggles early on and he was homesick.

“But I look back now and I wouldn’t change a thing,’’ says Pinto, who graduated with a degree in Mass Communications in May. I compare my life to the lives of my friends in Brazil and have no regrets. My original plan was to get my degree and go back to be part of the generation to change Brazil. But, after, I got used to life here, I liked it much better.’’

Pinto, 21, has decided to stay in the United States. He now works as a communications assistant, specializing in marketing and recruiting, for INTO USF.

“I’m proud that many of our international students stay in the Tampa Bay Area and a lot of that is because this area has a lot to offer in industries like finance, medicine, hi-tech, and cybersecurity,’’ Brindley says. “But we also have many students that go off to places like New York, Texas, and California. But there also are many, many students that go back to their home countries.’’

Aditya Sharma

One former international student who eventually plans to return to his home country is Aditya Sharma. A native of India, Sharma did his undergrad work in Computer Science in his home country.
Aditya Sharma
“But my plan has always been to return to India,’’ Sharma, 25, says. “And I plan to do that in the next two or three years. But going to USF was one of my best decisions. USF molded me into a better person. I want to give what I learned at USF back to my country.’’

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Read more articles by Patrick Yasinskas.

Patrick “Pat” Yasinskas is an award-winning Tampa-based freelance writer. He has covered the National Football League since 1992 and worked for The Tampa Tribune, The Charlotte Observer and ESPN. He also has served as a selector for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the NFC South chairman of the Pro Football Writers Association. He also has been an avid baseball card collector since the 1970s.