Man standing outside of the Pinnacle Bank Arena in his gap and gown on the day of his graduation in May 2020.
Pictured is Sajjad Alhassan on graduation day at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. 2020. Photo courtesy of Alhassan.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is home to more than 3,000 international students who make up approximately 10.9% of the total student population. 

Eight years ago, 17-year-old Sajjad Alhassan traveled more than 7,000 miles from Saudi Arabia to start his life as an electrical engineering student at UNL. 

Alhassan said he had family who studied abroad at UNL and told stories about their experiences and the quality of education in the U.S. This encouraged Alhassan to pursue an education at the university. 

“My cousin studied at the university, and he recommended me to UNL. He said it would be a good fit for you, they have a lot of activities, different programs and diversity,” Alhassan said. “I always thought, I would like to learn this experience, to learn another language, learn a different culture and meet new people.” 

Alhassan came to Nebraska speaking only Arabic, a challenge he had to overcome. 

“When I came here, I wasn’t speaking English,” Alhassan said. “This was so hard, coming from a different country and no one spoke my language.” 

The university provided classes that met five days a week practicing reading, writing and speaking English. Alhassan learned English in a year and a half and was ready to start his classes. 

Alhassan said he has always had skills in subjects such as math and physics, and a liking for electronics and power, which prompted his decision to study electrical engineering. 

Alhassan graduated in August 2020 and started looking for a job in Nebraska, a task much more difficult than he expected. 

“It was so hard, I had so many interviews and put a lot of work in with them,” Alhassan said. “I would almost sign a contract with them, but when they found out I’m not a U.S. citizen, they said sorry, we cannot go through with this.” 

Alhassan searched for a job for almost two months before he began working as a lab processor at a local hospital, a job that did not fit his career goals. He decided to apply for a master’s program after experiencing difficulties getting a job in the electrical engineering field. 

“At that time, had I had a good job, I probably wouldn’t have done my masters,” Alhassan said. “Since the market didn’t offer good jobs, I figured out it’s better to continue to study and do my masters instead of staying doing nothing or waiting for a job.” 

Alhassan struggled with finding funding for his master’s degree after applying. He put the application on pause and returned home to Saudi Arabia. This was until a previous professor reached out offering Alhassan a grant that would pay for his master’s. Hussein said this was the luck he needed. 

“I’m so lucky. It’s so hard to get funding, and even harder to get a TA position, so I am lucky,” Alhassan said. 

Alhassan is now a 25-year-old graduate student at the university. He does not know what his plans are after graduating but said he is looking forward to the opportunities to come. 

“I always tell myself, if I didn’t come to America in 2014, I wouldn’t be the same person who I am now. It’s really enlightened my mind to the world,” Alhassan said. 

Sai Charith Vaitla, another student who came to Nebraska at a young age to study, is just beginning his journey as an international student at UNL. Vaitla is an 18-year-old student from south India studying computer science. He has only been in Nebraska for a few months. 

Similar to Alhassan, Vaitla also had family members that studied in America. Vaitla’s older sister studied computer science at UNL, which made the decision to come here for his education that much easier. Vaitla also said the quality of education is a big reason for his move. 

“I came here because back in India, they don’t have a lot of good educational institutions like there are here in Nebraska,” Vaitla said. “We need quality education, so when I searched for quality education, I immediately knew about America.” 

Vaitla noted differences in the educational processes back in India compared to Nebraska. 

“Back in India, everything is scheduled for us. We don’t have much choice on what kind of subject we want to choose or what courses we want to take,” Vaitla said. “Here, everything is on us. So the one thing that I liked in America is that you have a choice and the power of decision.” 

Along with choice, opportunities are another big reason Vaitla made the decision to study in Nebraska. 

“I thought it was a good opportunity because it has all the interests, America has all the infrastructure while it has all the opportunities,” Vaitla said. “So I just knew that I that had to come to America because of these reasons.” 

Despite only being here a short amount of time, Vaitla has felt welcomed and comfortable. 

“When I came here, I was a bit scared about how I’m gonna be making friends, but after meeting these people and making connections on my own, all my worries are gone,” Vaitla said. “I have come from a long, long way from my house, so here, friends become family.” 

Vaitla said he plans to stay in the U.S. and work for a few years before starting his own software engineering business. 

“I think I’m going to stay here because of all the opportunities that I have here,” Vaitla said.

Vaitla described how his feelings about his choice to come study in Nebraska have changed after experiencing it.  

“I am relieved, happy and eager,” Vaitla said. “Seeing the new kinds of people here, it gave me some hope honestly.” 

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Sai Charith Vaitla at a local Lincoln park during his first week in Nebraska. 2022. Photo courtesy of Vaitla.