Total Immersion

International STEM graduate students must navigate a new land and unfamiliar ways.

Salina Hona

International STEM students, including Salina Hona, become fast learners in an unfamiliar setting.

Total Immersion

International STEM graduate students must navigate a new land and unfamiliar ways.


Graduate STEM students, especially international students, may face extra stress if they have families or jobs to worry about on top of their studies, said John Singleton, director of international services at TCU.

“Not only do international STEM students of color have to survive a rigorous academic routine, but they have to navigate that without having family, friends or a map for how to compensate for these things,” Singleton said. “There’s a very good chance that a number of people have pooled resources to help them get through their degree, so there’s additional pressure to succeed.”

Salina Hona, a graduate student in biology from Nepal, didn’t know anyone when she arrived on TCU’s campus in fall 2021. Amid academic pressure, she was also trying to figure out practicalities like how to open a bank account and acquire a credit card.

When Maverick Tamayo, a master’s student in biology from the Philippines, arrived in the United States last year, his English wasn’t very good. The budding botanist struggled to convey his thoughts.

“That’s really a gap between forming a connection with other people,” he said. “You feel like you are not part of the community.”

Tamayo met Peter Fritsch, vice president of research at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden/Botanical Research Institute of Texas, in 2019 during the latter’s research expedition to Mindanao, Philippines. Fritsch now serves as Tamayo’s mentor and thesis committee member.

As a research assistant in TCU’s biology department whose studies are supported by a National Science Foundation grant, Tamayo splits his time between TCU and the botanical institute.

No matter how hard they work, international graduate students sometimes face obstacles outside their control.

Last year Hona and Tamayo were among students whose stipends and paychecks were held up by a pandemic-related delay in receiving a Social Security number from the federal government.

In a tight spot, Tamayo borrowed $4,000 from Fritsch.

“It was just a highly unusual circumstance,” said Fritsch, who called it a cash flow problem.

Hona borrowed about $5,000 from her parents. “I came here thinking I could manage my own expenses,” she said. “I felt helpless.”

Neither Hona nor Tamayo has let such hurdles deter their studies and research.

Hona, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology from a Nepalese university, came to TCU to work with Shauna McGillivray, a biology professor who researches how bacteria can cause infectious diseases.

Hona is now helping McGillivray figure out how genes aid Bacillus anthracis, the bacteria that causes the infectious disease anthrax, and make cells antibiotic-resistant. She hopes to pursue her PhD or work in a clinical research lab.