LIMA —The United States is a melting pot of people and cultures, and the region’s college and university campuses reflect that with a mix of domestic and international students who learn together.
According to the 2019 Open Doors Report on International Education Exchange, the total number of international students is 1,095,299, a 0.05% increase over 2018. That’s an all-time high. It was the fourth consecutive year with international student enrollment over 1 million students. International students make up 5.5% of the total U.S. higher education population.
While the numbers are up at University of Northwestern Ohio in Lima, most area schools reported a decline.
Decline in international students
Enrollment of international students at the University of Findlay is down, but officials wouldn’t release specific data on how much of a decline there has been.
Pedro Garcia, a 20-year old sophomore from Brazil studying criminal justice, came to Findlay because of its equestrian program.
“What I really love about here is I feel like everybody knows me,” Garcia said. “You get to make connections with staff and faculty that’s usually not common in other schools. My professors, I already like all the ones. I care about them a lot. They helped me with advice with just chats in general with what I want to do with my life, and it’s like a casual thing. It’s not like I’m scheduling an appointment.”
Changes in the way the United States looks at immigrants have tightened restrictions for some students looking to come to this country.
“I feel like (President Trump) making it worse than what the social stigma was,” Garcia said. “When you have people that already have a preconception or a tendency to be xenophobic or racist, and then you have a president like that, it empowers them.”
Getting permission to study in the United States has become more difficult in some cases.
“It’s definitely harder for our students to get visas and from certain countries,” said Eileen Rucki, director of international education at the University of Findlay. “Students are still wanting to come, but their visas are being denied. Then you can imagine, although we don’t have any statistics that I know of, there may be students literally not even attempting to get a visa because they don’t want to be in an environment that they perceive as unwelcoming.”
Bluffton University is seeing some of that also.
“We’re finding it in certain countries, it is more difficult for a student to get visa approval,” said Holly Metzger, admissions counselor for Bluffton University. “We’ve had a lot of students have their visas denied recently for various reasons. Whether it be being able to prove that they have significant financial means or whether it be being able to document that they have reason to return to their country after they graduate from Bluffton. Some don’t give a reason at all really. It’s just really hard sometimes depending on the country to get a visa. In certain African countries, it’s really difficult.”
Universities have been working harder to attract international students.
“They travel, they speak to students, they go to various countries and visit with students there to encourage them to attend our university,” Findlay’s Rucki said. “We have agents that we work with that represent us in other places in the world to bring students to us. There’s a lot of digital marketing that we do both domestically and internationally.”
Much-needed money infusion
Some groups question the national enrollment numbers for international students.
According to statistics from NAFSA the Association of International Educators, over the course of the last year, U.S. colleges and universities lost about $5.5 billion in international student revenue being brought into higher education due to declining enrollment.
At Ohio Northern University, the number of international students has steadily declined from a high of 232 in 2014 to only 98 students this year.
Chris Caldwell, international services coordinator for ONU, says it’s creating a difficult situation for some institutions.
“It’s estimated that somewhere to the tune of about 40,000 jobs have been pitched because of that, and it’s a combination of factors, such as some countries like Saudi Arabia and China have started getting into their own domestic higher education game over the course of the last few years. But at the same time, there’s also Trump administration policies,” said Caldwell.
One such executive order Caldwell recounted dealt with international student’s social media accounts.
“This past June, he signed the executive order about not necessarily individuals but individuals with friends who have ‘liked’ anti-American statements on social media,” Caldwell said. “That ‘like’, by not the student but somebody that the student can know, is enough to get you detained and sent back to your home country. Unfortunately, that has had a chilling effect on enrollment for international students in the United States.”
He’s seen the effects of the policy.
“I know a student in one of the colleges around here. She’s almost done with her degree, but she’s from West Africa and she has a friend who is pretty darn anti-America,” Caldwell said. “But in one particular case, they ‘like’ something that ISIS ended up posting (on social media). She knows that she has a friend who, every now and again, supports ISIS ideology. She can’t go home because she is friends with this person who supports ISIS ideology. She has not been home for over a year and won’t be able to go home for two at the minimum because if she comes back, being from West Africa, having an accent, having darker skin pigmentation, all it would take is one basically racist individual working border security to say, ‘Hey, let me check your Twitter feed,’ and she would get deported, and she only has one more year left to finish her advanced degree.”
Growing population at UNOH
In some cases, higher education is not available in their home countries. In others, it’s a chance to participate in sports. Right now, there are 135 international students enrolled at UNOH; many of them are athletes.
Devaki Ganesh, a 20-year-old junior attending the University of Northwestern Ohio in Lima, wants to be a pro golfer someday. The Malaysian-born Ganesh is a member of the golf team. She’s one of a growing number of student-athletes at UNOH who come from foreign countries.
“We don’t get much support for golfers. It’s not a big sport back home,” Ganesh said. “I wanted to become a professional golfer. So UNOH will be the best place to come, and then second is scholarship as well. So I had a very high scholarship. Thirdly, I wanted to improve my English. So English is basically my third language.”
She appreciates the experience of the smaller class sizes at UNOH.
“If you go to other colleges, all the classrooms will be super big,” she said. “You will not be able to communicate with your professors because in one classroom, you’ll get like 200 students. I get to know every professor, and then the professors know me as well. Then it’s easier for me to communicate with them if I have any problem,” Ganesh said.
She’s hoping to get her master’s degree at UNOH and become a graduate assistant coach for the women’s golf team. She’s settled into life in Lima, but it wasn’t always this easy.
“Trying to adapt to the culture here was a little tough for me because it’s a totally different culture over here, but I got used to it and I feel like I have a family here. I have never felt homesick,” Ganesh said.
Phil Gunder, a professor in the sports marketing program at UNOH, says their numbers of international student-athletes have grown.
“Our program has grown exponentially in the last two years, and most of that growth has been a reflection of some international population growth within the university,” Gunder said.
“Very few countries offer the opportunity for a student to compete what we would call high school and move on to be a student-athlete at the college level,” Gunder said. “They either have to make a distinct choice in most countries of saying either I’m going or not going to college and pursue being an athlete or the opposite, where I just give up my dream of playing whatever sport it might be and focus exclusively on being just a student. Our model of being a student-athlete is something that is very attractive to them, because they can still train, still enhance their availability of possibly making it professionally, but then get their degree at the same time, which doesn’t happen very often in other countries.”
Calvin Lindo is an assistant professor at the UNOH College of Business and sees international students in the upper-level classes. Not all of them are student-athletes.
“I think they bring a worldview,” Lindo said. “When you’ve been different places, you have different points of view, and you’ve seen different lifestyles. I think that I’m very glad to have international students in especially my economics classes and in more than management theory classes because they add to the conversation when you talk about what’s done here versus what’s done in their home country, especially cultural differences.”
More red tape to cut through to get here
The students that do make it here are finding the experience a good one.
“I just wanted a new experience because I like cultures and I used to study different cultures, especially at my history class,” said Veronika Stafa, a 20-year-old sophomore from Albania who is studying biology at Bluffton University. “I was very curious to know more about the world.”
Stafa didn’t have a problem getting a visa to come to the United States.
“Still, I was kind of worried because most of the people in my country are Muslims,” Stafa said. “I am not. We don’t mind that because we have harmony between faiths, but I saw there was an issue here.”
Bluffton University has 25 international students on campus, the highest number since 2003. It’s a close-knit group.
“I feel welcome. Like when I first came here, people are so nice,” she said.
Bluffton University uses host families in the community to help the students, especially during breaks.
“Every international student has one. In mine (the host family), it had a lot of kids, so kids love me. I used to spend a lot of time with them and spend like Thanksgiving last year and Christmas, and it was amazing. I didn’t feel lonely. I didn’t stay on campus alone, but just go to their house and sleep there because they were so nice to me,” Stafa said.
Appreciating the diversity
Lydia Smith, a 21-year-old domestic student, from Ada, has experienced education abroad. She attends Ohio Northern University and feels we can learn much from international students.
“The fact that we have not just cultures from even Japan, we have Pakistani, and then Russia, and even people from Pakistan are interacting with the people from Russia and gaining new things that way. Then you put that all together, and it’s just crazy. It’s pretty exciting,” Smith said.
It’s an experience many of us won’t ever have.
“We’re all human. We have cultural differences, have language barriers, but deep down intrinsically, when you strip it all away, we’re all the same,” Metzger said. “I feel like that’s really important for students who are in this time of their life in college, 20-somethings just trying to figure out their place in this world and to be able to have the experience of different opinions, different cultures, represented in a classroom or in your residence hall. It just really enriches your experience as a student. I know professors will say all the time, the most important learning you do is in the residence hall, not in the classroom. It’s the community that you experience here on campus.”
Reach Sam Shriver at 567-242-0409.