Alessandra Chimienti always looked up to people who left their home countries to travel or live abroad and learn a new language, but she never thought she’d be one of them.
She grew up in a small town in Puglia, in southern Italy. After earning the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in education with highest honors, she realized the job opportunities in Italy at that time were low. This was her opportunity for an adventure.
A few years earlier, her aunt and uncle, Stefania and Roberto Ciccarelli, had bought her a plane ticket to the United States to open her eyes about the great possibilities the world offered. During the trip, she fell in love with California; as she now thought about changing her life, that love came back.
Alessandra enrolled in a cultural exchange program and came to the United States in 2014 to work as an au pair for a family in Oakland, California. There was just one problem — she didn’t speak English.
International students often face unique challenges when they move abroad to continue their education. The language barrier is just one of them; it’s also expensive, and it can be difficult for them to earn scholarships. Still, Alessandra was committed — she wanted to study business, so she started learning the language.
The fast pace of American life suited her. She immediately loved the family she worked for, who represented a role model and a strong support for her. However, due to the language barrier, the first six or seven months were lonely. Alessandra volunteered as a tutor for two years in an elementary school, making a lot of new friends. She took intensive English classes, and she watched a lot of Netflix with the subtitles on.
“It’s incredible how volunteering gives you even more than you give to others,” she said. “Mentoring was a wonderful experience.”
In 2016 Alessandra decided to continue her education and enrolled at Berkeley City College. But when a friend joined the Phi Theta Kappa chapter at Merritt College, also in the Peralta Community College District, she transferred. She was fascinated by the idea of being part of an honor society.
She now faced a three-hour round-trip commute to school, but she felt like she was joining an organization she’d been part of for years.
“They welcomed me,” she said. “They didn’t care about where I was from nor about my accent. They just cared that I was trying to be the best person I could be.
“It was the beginning of a completely new version of college for me. I wasn’t just a foreigner anymore; I was part of a community.”
Spurred by her advisor, Barbara Dimopoulos, Alessandra became treasurer of the Beta Theta Lambda Chapter in 2017. The loneliness she had felt as an international student began to fade.
“In PTK, I felt like part of something bigger,” she said. “More than a chapter, it felt like a family to me. I am very grateful to Barbara, her husband Bill, and all the officers for supporting me, inspiring me, and for playing such an important role in my life.”
Alessandra’s network widened. Her affiliation with PTK helped her find a job in the business services department under Dr. Dettie Del Rosario, who quickly became a mentor. Now she was putting to use the skills she was learning in her classes.
Financially, though, Alessandra was struggling. Tuition for international students can be six times higher than for in-state students. A common misconception about international students is that they all come from wealthy families, she said, but that often isn’t the case.
“A big percentage of the international students I meet have a hard time paying for college,” she said. “Most of them left their countries because they were going through tough times and wanted to improve their lives.”
Alessandra had used up most of her savings to pay for school. Despite her job, she needed scholarships, which can be difficult for international students to get. She turned to her advisor, Barbara, for help.
Barbara wrote Alessandra six letters of recommendation for scholarships offered by the college. Alessandra paired them with recommendation letters from Dettie and with the ones available for members on ptk.org. For the first time, she received two scholarships, allowing her to finish her education at Merritt.
“I know for a fact that her recommendation letters were a big part of it,” Alessandra said. “Even if my grades were very high, I had never gotten a scholarship before. I couldn’t have had it without PTK.”
Despite the difficulties, Alessandra graduated in May with three degrees and three certificates in business — all with a 4.0 GPA. She was named valedictorian of her class at Merritt and gave the commencement address at graduation. Her mother came from Italy to be there for the special occasion.
The Peralta Community College District has a large international student community and hosts a separate commencement celebration for its international students. Alessandra was valedictorian among those students as well and spoke at their ceremony.
“I want international students to know that if I did it, they can do it,” she said. “Some people I met at college came from very tough beginnings. Seeing their determination inspired me, showing me that my ‘only’ problem was the language, and a language can be learned.”
Alessandra now lives in San Francisco and plans to seek an MBA. Her circle continues to grow — she has founded a community for people in her area originally from South Italy. It started with just two members and now has more than 150. A violinist in the group was also a PTK member in college.
Alessandra said PTK improved her life significantly by giving her a strong support system, something that can be key for international students. She encourages other international students to look for the PTK chapters on their campuses and to get involved with them.
“Being a PTK member gives you a network to lean on if you need it, and it opens doors for what you want to do next,” she said. “PTK had such a positive impact in my life both personally and professionally, and I’m sure it will help me again in the future.”