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International Student Increase

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Why international students choose to study in the United States and the role they play in helping others to become global citizens

By Julia Sayers

A map in Bill Burress' office has red pins to represent where Elon University's international students are from.

Elon University has 49 different countries represented in its student population, with international students comprising three percent of the total enrollment.  In the past ten years, many schools, including Elon, have been seeking to diversify and globalize their campuses by recruiting more international students.

“We’re trying to be more representative of the world,” said Cheryl Borden, director of international admissions at Elon University. “It’s a lofty goal but it would benefit both students and faculty.”

Graphic courtesy of Open Doors

The number of international students in the United States has increased significantly since 1999.

In the past school year, 2009-2010, there was a 2.9 percent increase in international students in the U.S. over the previous year, from 671,616 to 690,923 students. This trend is expected to grow steadily. These increased numbers come as a result of U.S. colleges attempting to diversify their campuses and the students’ desire for higher education.

Lions on the back porch — Overcoming stereotypes

As part of the Elon University Commitment and 10-year strategic plan, Elon leaders say they hope to provide a global experience for all students, even while they are on campus.

“You hear the phrase ‘global citizenship’, and you can achieve this with study abroad, learning about new languages and religions, and having students go out in the world. But why not have that in day-to-day experiences?” Borden asked.

Toorialey Fazly, an Elon freshman from Kabul, Afghanistan, recognizes these day-to-day experiences are an important part of college life.

            “The international students are contributing a tremendous amount of knowledge and skill to the system,” Fazly said. “They do this in formal ways through research, in class and in organizations, and informally as promoting awareness, having discussions in dining halls, parties and the library.”

Borden says celebrating and understanding global diversity includes having people from various cultures, backgrounds and religions on campus.

“Not only does it make our students well prepared for the world, but it educates staff and makes people more tolerant and aware of differences,” Borden said.

François Masuka, director of international student services at Elon University, says it’s good that Elon is trying to increase the number of students, but this shouldn’t be the end goal.

“The goal is to take advantage of every encounter you have,” Masuka said. “To learn and teach what each country has to offer, culturally, politically and economically. When we interact, we open the doors for each other to see what the other culture has to offer, and you respect them for that.”

Bill Burress, international programs advisor at Elon, says seeing what other cultures have to offer will help students to see similarities between each other.

“The presence of students from foreign countries helps us to realize most people have the same goals and similar values, like hard work, family, good education,” Burress said. “It’s humanizing the other culture, making alien cultures have a face. It also helps the foreign students put a face to those in the United States, instead of knowing us only by our government policy.”

Many people have stereotypes of what different cultures are like, but when they actually meet someone from that culture, their views are changed.

“It’s funny to hear some of the questions the international students get asked,” Burress said. “People will ask the African students things like ‘Do you have lions on your back porch?’ They find out that their lives aren’t really that much different than their own.”

Elon’s international students also recognize the role they play in helping other students to become global citizens.

“So far I have seen that international students are providing first hand information for most domestic students on issues that can not be found out through media or online resources,” Fazly said. “It definitely contributes to the knowledge of domestic students in being global citizens.”

Burress also says these first-hand accounts are vital to learning.

“Any time you have someone in class discussing something like the Arab conflict, it’s always better to have a first-hand source of information,” Burress said. “You can read in a book about it all you want, but having someone who has lived there all their life and can say ‘this is the way it is from my perspective’ is so much better.”

The nature of the current times is also an influential factor of the increase in international students, Masuka says.

“We’re living in an age that’s challenging any notion of boundaries, countries, economic, political, linguistic and social barriers,” he explained. “Technology changes things and the world is flatter than it has ever been, so it only makes sense that we have peoples from different countries and cultures.”

Draws of the United States education system

One of the reasons Fazly, age 26, came to the United States was because of the lack of institutional leadership in Afghanistan. He said many students come to the United States for school because of the richness of the education system.

“In Afghanistan, there is a lack of equipment and resources in the educational systems,” Fazly said. “There is a lot of information for research for students here. I can come up with any question and no matter what it is, the answer is easy to find. Back home it’s very different because of the lack of resources.”

            Many students say the reputation of the education system in the United States is the reason for the increase in international interest.

“The education system is obviously the best in the world,” said Marzia Faraz, also from Kabul, Afghanistan. “If you have a degree from a university in the United States, it means a lot when you go to get a job.”

Borden has similar views.

“For many years, the U.S. has been the premier destination to obtain a bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate degree,” Borden said. “Other countries in the last few years have started to more actively recruit international students, but what helps the U.S. is the diversity of schools it has to offer students.”

This diversity refers to the size of the schools, the region and the majors and degrees offered. Beth Pryor, an employee of Student Recruitment Media in the United Kingdom, a company focused on international students and students interested in studying internationally, says that the broadness and diversity of the education system in the United States is one of the main draws for students.

“The U.S. is thought to be harder because you have to take so many more classes, whereas in the United Kingdom you literally take your degree subject and that’s it,” Pryor said. “People who want a broader education may choose the United States.”

            The options for a diverse and broad education also factor into students’ desire for new experiences. Chris Spalding, an Elon senior from Costa Rica, wanted to do something different than his friends.

“I always knew coming to the United States would be better than staying home and seeing the same friends and doing the same things,” Spalding said. “A lot more people are wanting to have a different experience than what they know and the United States seems like a great place to do it.”

Students can choose to go to schools in big cities such as New York or Los Angeles or schools in small towns, like Elon. Teri Horn, an Elon student from Bangkok, Thailand, explained that most international students only know of the big-name schools in the United States.

“The thing that’s hard about being international is that the schools we know about in the U.S. are like Yale, San Diego, the big name schools,” Horn said. “I had no idea about Duke or Chapel Hill. We only know of small schools through what comes to us. It’s really how the information gets to us, and Elon is great with that.”

The Recruitment Process

North Carolina is ranked number 17 out of all 50 states in the amount of international students enrolled. According to the Open Doors data report for 2010, North Carolina State University had the highest international population, with a total of 3,262 students out of a total enrollment of 34,376. The leading places of origin for foreign students in North Carolina are China (at 20.4 percent), India, South Korea, Canada and Taiwan. The institution with the highest number of international students in the United States is the University of Southern California.

Elon University’s number of international students has grown throughout the years. These numbers have increased from 37 students in the 1997-1998 school year to 120 students in 2009-2010, a 224 percent increase.

Elon admissions counselors focus their recruitment in specific regions of Asia, Europe, Central America, Latin American and the Middle East. To help choose which areas to focus on, they use Open Doors data reports, part of the Institute of International Education, to track where international students are coming from and what the top countries are regionally. Other strategies are to look at where students currently at Elon are from and where alumni are from.

Borden and her colleagues travel in groups with other schools to recruit students from foreign countries. They hold college fairs where they meet students and discuss their programs and contact schools in particular cities that they have had students from or schools known as good places at which to recruit students. Part of the reason Elon is successful in recruiting internationally is its active involvement with organizations that support international student recruitment such as NAFSA: Association of International Educators and the Overseas Association for College Admission Counseling, which promotes international exchange.

Horn heard about Elon through one of the college fairs the school held and then was contacted afterward by an admissions counselor.

“I got a lot of personal attention, which was nice,” Horn said. “The counselor would e-mail me to see how things were going, and if I needed anything I would e-mail him specifically and he would e-mail me back right away.”

Duke University, ranked second highest in North Carolina for the number of international students, has a similar recruiting process to Elon in that counselors travel to international high schools and keep in contact with students. In 2010, Duke had 2,325 international students enrolled, according to the Open Doors data report for North Carolina. Anne Sjostrom, associate director of undergraduate admissions and director of international admissions at Duke, says one of best ways to recruit international students is to bring a personal aspect to the process.

“We try to give every applicant as much personal attention as possible by keeping up correspondence,” Sjostrom said. “Personalization is really important. It’s a human process, and without that contact the student could feel anonymous.”

Another resource for recruitment is the leaders from all over the world who travel to universities to speak.

“I was referred to Elon by our embassy in D.C. because our political counselor, Ashraf Haidari, had been invited to give a speech at Elon,” Fazly said. “He had been briefed by Elon’s president and had information on majors they offered and other information that was given to me when I contacted the embassy.”

Fazly says that schools could recruit even more students if they took advantage of the United States embassies in other countries.

“Prior to my arrival, it was hard to find anyone who knew about Elon,” Fazly said. “One of the easiest ways would be to go through the U.S. government. The U.S. has embassies in different countries, and those embassies have educational programs for citizens seeking information. If Elon has an information packet or campaign to share with them, that would help to put its name out there.”

However, not all schools are trying to increase their international population simply to have a higher percentage.

“We’re not necessarily trying to recruit more international students at Duke,” Sjostrom said. “We’re not led by a particular percentage. The number we’ll have in the future depends on compelling applications. We’re just eager to have the best and broadest selection of students we can have.”

The Duke international population is not evenly distributed, with more students in the freshman and sophomore classes. International students make up 12 percent of the class of 2014 at Duke.

“I’m really pleased with the size of our international class this year, and if we could stabilize at that level, I think it would be great,” Sjostrom said.

How do international students continue to affect Americans even after graduation?

            Attending a globally diverse school is not only effective in helping students to become global citizens but also in sparking a desire to see more of the world and learn about other cultures.

“If you have a friend from France, you are more likely to be interested in going to France,” Faraz said. “It makes you want to go there to see your friends and when they speak to each other, it makes you want to learn the language.”

Having students from all over the world interacting with American students can be a life changing experience.

“When you graduate you have a sense of what someone from Afghanistan thinks,” Masuka said. “You don’t go with the media and the stereotype it’s putting out there. You’ve met them, you’ve learned from them and you feel comfortable with them. Your life is changed forever.”

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Written by juliasayers

April 27, 2011 at 11:18 pm

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