Words by Tyler Haughn
Along with adjusting to a new culture, international students must contend with a new standard of driving.
Beads of sweat form on the forehead of an anxious 22-year-old. Yaser Almutlaq approaches the Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) in Ravenna, jingling keys in his hand. He’s only minutes away from receiving his Ohio driver’s license. The woman at the desk finally calls his name, and a wave of apprehension passes through his body, making his hands and legs twitch. He takes a deep breath and follows the driving instructor out to his vehicle.
Almutlaq slides behind the wheel of his 2008 Chevrolet Impala, ready for his American driver’s test. He pulls the seat belt across his chest and takes a deep breath. The driving instructor’s silence hangs in the air, increasing Almutlaq’s anxiety as he prepares to pull out of the parking lot of the BMV. Suddenly, Almutlaq is 17 again, the legal driving age in Saudi Arabia, nervous and excited to receive the plastic card that will give him freedom. Almutlaq shifts the gear into drive and takes off.
Almutlaq’s eyes shift back and forth between the road and the speedometer. The speed limit through town only reaches 25 miles per hour, and Almutlaq knows the speed limit guidelines are stricter in the United States than in Saudi Arabia. He eases up on the gas to keep from exceeding 25. He sneaks a glance at the instructor, who has remained silent except for directing when to turn or make a lane change. She writes something on the clipboard, and Alumtlaq turns his attention back to the road.
Adjusting to the American lifestyle can prove difficult for international students at any college campus, says Miao Liu, an international program advisor and liaison for the School of Communication Studies.
“As students go throughout their academic year, they adjust very difficultly,” Liu says. “Academic wise would be the most difficult aspect.”
Liu also works as a counselor to provide services for international students, which is typically needed as they may have to learn a new language. The language barrier can make it even more difficult to make friends. Liu also mentions how drastically different American education is compared to the rest of the world.
“Academic wise, when they struggle, (it) is because the classroom and the class work is so vigorous that they (are) not used to this,” Liu says. “American education is drastically different than other countries.”
Along with all of these new activities to juggle, there is also one other matter that has even more adjustments to consider: obtaining a driver’s license. It is important for an international student to feel confident when taking the wheel, as driving rules can vary from nation to nation.
“They are not able to use their license from their own home country here because they are on an F1 visa,” Liu says. “Their license will only work if they are on the tourism visa, so that is the difference in the Ohio BMV law.”
Liu’s work with international students includes what they must do to obtain their respective driver’s license and what that process entails. The international students that come to the U.S. to study abroad come on an F1 student visa, which is required for nonimmigrants that wish to study at any academic institution in the U.S. International Driving Permits (IDP) do not work for F1 student visas.
Almutlaq, a senior finance major, has to go through a six-month trial with his international license before being eligible to receive an Ohio license. The process for obtaining a driver’s license varies depending on whether the international student is a foreign exchange student or a freshman international student.
Foreign exchange students may only study for a brief period of time abroad while freshman international students typically study for the duration of their bachelor’s degree. For foreign exchange students, it is usually more feasible to get an IDP because it is only valid for up to one year.
Because Almutlaq is not a native of the U.S., he follows extra steps while aiming to receive his license. When Almutlaq goes the the BMV to get his license, he brings along his visa, form I-20 and immigration documents. The form I-20 is needed prior to getting an F1 student visa, which essentially allows nonimmigrants to be admitted into the U.S. for a predetermined amount of time, depending on the student’s academic aspirations and in what institution they are enrolled. It also proves he is “legally enrolled in a program of study,” according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The process for getting a license also varies depending on what nation the student is from. Almutlaq notes the similarities between Saudi Arabia’s driving test and the American- issued test, such as the computerized exam and the driving portion both being present.
“It had two ways, driving and computer,” Almutlaq says. “Maybe the computer was a little bit harder for me, as driving is very easy.”
Though the Ohio BMV requires Almutlaq to bring multiple documents, including a valid green card, Social Security card and proof of Ohio residency, the overall process remains fairly simple. Like any Ohio resident, Almutlaq provides his full legal name, date of birth and Social Security number.
Students studying abroad in the U.S., such as Almutlaq, have two options to obtain a driver’s license: apply for an IDP or get a state-issued driver’s license. To actually receive an IDP, the transaction must be done in the student’s home country before traveling abroad. This license is only valid one year. Almutlaq chose to get his Ohio driver’s license because he is on the F1 student visa, which will be credible throughout his academic career at Kent State.
The rules differ state-to-state on whether or not an international student needs to have a U.S. driver’s license administered in the their home country. For example, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in Connecticut states that full-time international students can use their foreign licenses for the duration of their studies in the state. The University of Minnesota says that international students in the state can continue to use their original foreign licenses for up to 60 days, but after that time period is up, they will need to get a state license, according to the university’s International Student and Scholar Services website.
Thibault Leportier, a 21-year-old freshman foreign exchange student, uses an IDP instead of an Ohio license. The process for receiving an IDP is somewhat different, compared to what Almutlaq needed for a state-issued license. The IDP can be used in multiple countries and translated to 10 different languages.
Leportier, a native of France and a foreign language major, filled out a form online before going to the agency in France with his ID. Once Leportier gave the agency his French driver’s license and the application for an international license, he received an email confirming his license acceptance. After about a week, Leportier returned to the agency to receive his international license, which he now uses in the U.S. As long as Leportier drives with his international driving permit and his French driver’s license, he is permitted to drive in the states.
Though the processes for obtaining a foreign exchange student driver’s license and an international student driver’s license vary, the reason for getting them are similar: freedom. Leportier wanted to get his license so that he always had the option to drive somewhere.
“Getting a driver’s license was important for me because I like to be free to move whenever and wherever I want,” Leportier says.
Even though Leportier does have his IDP available to him, he has not used it to drive anywhere yet. There is a certain calculated risk involved with taking the wheel, and Leportier does not wish to take that risk if he does not have to.
Leportier also eludes to the difference in prices for traffic quizzes that potential recipients are required to take before receiving their driver’s licenses.
“An Italian friend of mine just got his license here in the U.S. three weeks ago, and he told me that he just had to take a quiz about the traffic rules,” Leportier says. “In France, everyone has to take at least 20 driving lessons in addition to an official quiz, which usually represents a total cost of around $800 to $1000.”
With the help of Liu and others from the Office of Global Education, international students like Leportier and Almutlaq are able to adapt to American culture a little easier, and this change involves adjusting to American citizens’ reliance on vehicles. According to a 2010 study published in the New York Times, Americans walk less than other countries, with an average of more than 5,000 steps a day, compared to the 7,168 steps taken by Japanese and the 9,695 steps made by Australians each day.
Though Leportier found it easier to walk than take the risk of driving, the opportunity for international and foreign exchange students to obtain their license is there. By going through some quick, painless steps, students studying outside of their home country can find themselves mobile and free to travel in the U.S.