Viresha Perera isn’t shy about divulging the less-than-glamorous details of being an international student.
There’s the tedious I-20 paperwork, proving one’s eligibility for nonimmigrant student status. Then there’s a grueling interview with a visa officer, followed by committing to a campus without actually setting foot on it, much less knowing what the food will be like.
And last but not least, the loneliness.
Perera, who was born in Sri Lanka but grew up in Dubai, experienced all of it, but she didn’t let these initial challenges taint her love for the University of California, Riverside, a place that she and her family had set their sights on because of its diversity.
Perera’s family supported her application to UCR in every way, including waiting outside the U.S. Consulate when she went for her visa interview.
“It’s only two minutes long,” Perera said. “It’s just that anything could go wrong in those two minutes.”
Perera would know. She saw students denied after failing to convince visa officers they intended to return home after their studies. But she was one of the lucky ones. By fall 2015, she found herself at UCR, pursuing a degree in psychology.
While she quickly made friends, a nagging void remained.
“There are over 500 student organizations at UCR, but I felt like none of them had a real personal connection with me,” Perera said, noting her passion for cultures from around the world.
Remembering the domestic students who had volunteered at her international student orientation, she approached them about helping her start a new union at UCR to connect international and domestic students on campus.
“We wanted to make a space where we can allow and enable them to make those connections and feel more a part of the UCR campus,” she said.
Perera became the founding president of the International Student Union in November 2017. In April, the union hosted its most successful event yet, “International Night,” in which cultural organizations on campus came together and performed. Over 270 people attended.
“I was never confident of my own abilities, so UCR was able to help me recognize my own potential and enable myself,” said Perera, who won the Outstanding International Undergraduate Student Award in 2018 for founding the union. “UCR has definitely given me so many years of development all packed into four little years.”
And now her family gets to see her graduate.
“It’s the first time that they’ve seen anyone graduate from college,” Perera said. “It’s really a worthwhile experience, and valuable to them, to see so much potential in me.”
After graduation, Perera plans to work off campus for a year before her visa expires. After that, she hopes to get a doctorate in industrial organizational psychology.