Valerie Do of Vietnam is in her third year of college at Miami University in the Midwestern U.S. state of Ohio.
The school has about 19,000 students, including about 1,000 international students. It has a good reputation for giving students an authentic college experience. The small city of Oxford is pretty in the autumn and spring. The brick school buildings are arranged on wide green spaces with walking paths.
But Miami University is definitely not in Florida and not close to any ocean beaches. The University of Miami is in Coral Gables, Florida, and about 15 kilometers from the famous beaches.
Do only found out, after she was accepted, that the school she had applied to was the one in Ohio. Some international students and those who work with international students say these kinds of mistakes are common. For example, one international student remembered being confused by the difference between Washington, D.C., and the northwestern state of Washington.
Do recently got attention from news websites such as Insider and the Daily Mail after telling her story on the social media site TikTok (@dankgiao).
Do often uses TikTok to discuss her experiences as an international student. One of the videos shows her explaining how she learned to pronounce difficult English words. In another, she discussed the costumes she wore during the Halloween holiday in 2021, 2022 and 2023.
Earlier this year, Do made a video about her discovery that Miami University was in Ohio, not Florida. About 2 million people watched it.
“I didn’t realize it was in Ohio until I got the acceptance letter,” she said. “I basically went through the whole application process without knowing it’s in Ohio.”
Many commenters offered sympathy that she was going to apple orchards instead of beaches this autumn. But in a follow-up post, she said she was happy with her experience in Ohio.
Do said she went to Miami for a number of reasons, including a good financial aid offer, “the vibe of the school” and the business program.
She said Miami looks like the colleges shown on TV and in movies like Animal House.
Dan Sinetar works with international students at Miami University. He and his colleagues help students like Do feel comfortable once they arrive on campus.
Sinetar said many international students make the decision to come to Miami without visiting. So, he helps to “set the expectations” of what it is like to live in southwestern Ohio before they arrive.
He said some international students worry about how they can find food they are familiar with, so the office tells them about food stores with products from around the world. But other issues are more complicated.
“You know, race and ethnicity is a big topic in the U.S. and obviously impacts how people might engage with you. But there’s many international students who might be coming from a country culture where they don’t have those issues.”
Before students arrive in the U.S., Sinetar said, Miami works to help them learn about what they should expect. The school has peer orientation leaders who help new international students get comfortable. Do, in fact, is one of them.
Sinetar said it is difficult to move across the world for school. “For many international students, it is their first time living away from home,” he said.
Sinetar said that he and others at Miami often hear students discuss the Ohio and Florida confusion. One reason for this, he thinks, is that the international students often work with education agencies that help them apply to colleges.
“Sometimes,” he said, “students are a little disconnected from the process.”
Reactions from international students
Arkar Chen is from Myanmar. He attended college in Los Angeles and now works for a computer software company in New Jersey.
“The agency probably thought she knew she was applying to the university in Ohio and didn’t think to tell her that,” Chen said.
He said he did not use an agency and as a result, he was more prepared for his time in Los Angeles. However, he still had some surprises.
“From one neighborhood to the next, it can be very different,” he said. Chen noted that Myanmar is a poor country, and he did not expect to see so many people in the U.S. living in poverty.
“In pop culture, when you mention L.A., you know people think about Hollywood the beach and stuff like that. The good images. But in reality, it is not so much different (from Myanmar). I guess you could call it a culture shock.”
Chen said it would be smart for international students to think about choosing an American university close to where family or friends live — in case the culture shock is too strong.
“Because having someone able to help you is really invaluable, especially when you came alone to a foreign environment,” he said.
Another former international student is Christian Cao from Vietnam. He currently lives in Toledo, Ohio, close to the border with Michigan. He is an engineer who works with robotic systems in the automotive industry.
He had not heard of Do before the recent stories. He said he did not think her situation is very common for international students in 2023, but he understands how the confusion could happen.
Cao said young people in Vietnam know about most major universities in the U.S. But 10 years ago, there were not many education agencies visiting Vietnam and recruiting students for schools in the U.S.
He agreed, it is still possible that not everyone would know there is a Miami University in Ohio.
By the time Do understood Miami was in Ohio, Cao said, “She already got accepted, she already got the scholarship. It would be a waste of time and money trying to find another university.”
But, as Cao said, “Maybe it’s not the life she expected, but it is not bad at all. She’s making friends and still making progress.”
Cao said a student’s college experience depends on what they are hoping for after they graduate. In his case, he was interested in studying engineering, so he did not mind that Toledo, Ohio did not have a big nightlife.
“If you’re a person like me, I don’t party at all,” Cao said. “I just made friends and spent most of my time doing what I wanted to do at home…Ohio would be a great place for me.”
Cao said life in Vietnam and other Asian countries is very different from life in the U.S. Young people spend a lot of time studying and living at home.
“When you move to America you break out of your shell,” he said. “You experience a lot of new things and it’s a big step up from your regular life.”
Cao went on to say “it doesn’t matter where you are, you could be at a small university in Alabama. It’s just a huge step up in terms of learning and adulting.”
Sinetar of Miami said one way students can learn about life in America is through the school’s program of matching international students with American families.
He said local families who want to meet people from other parts of the world can sign up to spend time with the students.
They attend events together on campus and visit American homes.
Cao said he could see how that kind of activity might be more appealing in Oxford, Ohio, than in a city such as Dallas, Texas. Dallas has a large international community, Cao said.
“Sometimes,” Sinetar said, “there are these really deep relationships that are formed. Sometimes the international students have said ‘yes, I look at these people like an aunt, uncle or grandparent.’”
I’m Dan Friedell. And I’m Jill Robbins