Home The Washington Diplomat January 2012 Higher Education’s Frequent Flyers: International Students Flock to U.S.

Higher Education’s Frequent Flyers: International Students Flock to U.S.

Higher Education’s Frequent Flyers: International Students Flock to U.S.

Although times are tough around the world, the economic climate hasn’t dampened the recent surge in higher education exchanges, with internationally minded students increasingly crossing borders to seek their college degrees and broaden their cultural horizons.

Photos: American University
Students perform at an international bazaar last year at American University, where more than half of all students have studied abroad.

The influx is bringing top talent from emerging nations to U.S. colleges and universities, which, despite constant bad press about America’s flailing education system, remain among the best in the world. Many of these students return to help their homelands prosper, leading to some controversy that the U.S. government should be investing more in visas and incentives for these foreign recruits to stay and build up the U.S. economy.

But regardless, their presence, even if only temporary, provides a much-needed financial boost to U.S. schools, with international students often able to pay full or higher levels of tuition. Moreover, it contributes to the prestige and diversity of U.S. colleges and universities, who are training some of the world’s brightest minds and its future leaders.

The Washington area, as an international, cosmopolitan destination and center of power, has naturally benefited from this boom. In a continuing series profiling the foreign populations that are flocking to U.S. schools, The Washington Diplomat took a look at students from India, one of the most peripatetic groups, and why so many are winding up on the shores of the Potomac.

“I’ve learned a lot living in the United States,” said Nishant Bafna, a University of Maryland-College Park engineer from India working on a master’s degree in information management. He said he chose the university because the area is the “information technology capital of the world and Maryland is a top school — its name has ‘brand value.'”

The nation’s capital offers international cultural events and cuisine, all the embassies, and fellow students from around the globe, he added. Bafna previously lived with his family in Indore, a cosmopolitan city of 2 million in central India. His information about studies in the United States came in part through word of mouth — family and friends living here — plus a short visit. Ever entrepreneurial, Bafna told The Diplomat that he’ll probably go back to India and “join a start up” when he graduates.

The American University’s International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) has “AU diplomats” who are paired who new students from foreign nations to help them adjust to campus life and find international groups such as the South Asian Student Association.

Bafna is fairly typical of international students coming to the United States in general and those arriving from India in particular. University administrators describe Indian students as academically strong, “driven,” typically engaged in campus life, and most often studying business or STEM programs (science, technology, engineering, math).

Bafna and his compatriots are also part of a notable global growth spurt: The number of international students in the United States shot up to a record high of 723,277 students last year, a 32 percent increase since 2000, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE) based in New York City.

IIE notes that these international students contribute more than $21 billion to the U.S. economy, through their expenditures on tuition and living expenses, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. In fact, higher education is among America’s top service sector exports, as international students provide significant revenue not just to university campuses but also to local economies of the host states for living expenses, including room and board, books and supplies, transportation, health insurance, and support for accompanying family members.

The 104,800 students here in this country from India are exceeded only by China’s 127,600, with South Korea, Canada, Taiwan, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Vietnam and Turkey rounding out the top 10. Most are here for STEM or business degrees, IIE reports.

India is also second to China in the remarkable increase of students coming to study in the United States, with the U.S. Embassy in India reporting that the number of student visas it issued rose by 18 percent between 2010 and 2011.

Situated in or near the capital city of the United States and boasting excellent academic reputations, the major universities in the D.C. area can typically attract heavy-hitters — not only top-notch students, but eminent scholars, politicians and global leaders who come to a campus as speakers and professors (also see “Campus Diplomacy: Ambassadors Reach U.S. Students With Regular Visits to Universities” in the November 2011 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

Case in point: Last fall, Georgetown University in the District hosted a U.S.-India Higher Education Summit where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered the opening remarks alongside the new Indian Ambassador Nirupama Rao.

“This summit brings together more than 300 presidents, chancellors and other leaders from across the higher education spectrum in our nation,” Clinton told the Georgetown audience.

“[F]or those of you who are watching the great rise of India, I hope you share our excitement that this largest of all democracies, this wildly pluralistic nation, is on the path to providing greater benefits for their citizens within the context of freedom and opportunity. And they know, as we know from our own experience, that a democracy depends upon education, an educated citizenry. And we therefore at the highest levels of our two governments are committed to this,” Clinton added, noting that a joint initiative between President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh provides $10 million for increased university partnerships.

Such partnerships are already flourishing, not only with India. Further south, Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg faculty includes Wu Feng, the electrical engineering and computer science whiz who co-created the “Green500,” an energy efficiency list that annually ranks the world’s top supercomputers.

The American University’s School of International Service last December hosted Egyptian Ambassador Sameh Shoukry — the same month that University of Maryland President Wallace Loh took part in a trade delegation to India led by Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.

This kind of academic star power and practical enterprise helps to draw students from other countries to the area: A combined total of nearly 16,000 are enrolled in schools of higher education in Virginia, the District and Maryland, IIE reports.

Photo: University of Maryland, College Park
From left, the University of Maryland’s Jonathan Wilkenfeld, associate provost for international programs; Gayatri Varma, executive director of the Office of Technology Commercialization; Anand Anandalingam, dean of the Robert H. Smith School of Business; University President Wallace Loh; and Patrick O’Shea, vice president for research visit the Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi.

The University of Maryland at College Park tops the local numbers with its 3,514 international students, nearly 600 of them from India. The George Washington University in D.C. and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore each have about 2,800 foreign students, while Virginia Tech in Blacksburg boasts the biggest numbers in that state, with about 2,400 foreign students, 460 of them from India this year.

The flow is not just one way: During the 2009-10 school year, the D.C. area sent more U.S. students to other countries than it took in — 18,500 — according to IIE data. And these student exchanges, along with faculty and institutional collaborations, are growing.

At American University, more than half of all students have studied abroad. Georgetown offers student, faculty and alumni research and study opportunities in at least 13 locations in India alone, while Virginia Tech has seven official student exchange, research or cooperative work agreements there.

There are two other prime reasons this area attracts foreign students, university administrators say. First is the wealth of innovative, forward-looking, hands-on, cross-disciplinary programs offered here. Second, universities in this area provide sophisticated and comprehensive cross-cultural training and support services that can counter culture shock and help foreign students, some of them very young, navigate the different academic and social expectations they encounter attending an American school.

According to Bafna of the University of Maryland, there are more degree options and a freedom to fashion studies to your particular interests in the United States than elsewhere. There are also more practical possibilities: Some study programs here are “industry specific and tailored to what you’re going to do when you graduate,” he noted.

Perhaps nowhere is that flexibility better illustrated than at American University, where undergraduate honors student Priyadarshini (Pinkie) Komala, 21, is majoring in a STEM discipline and getting a minor in studio art. “I wanted to get in a school that had good computer science and art programs as I was interested in both and AU sounded perfect for me,” she said in an email sent during exam week.

Komala, who speaks four languages — Hindi, Telugu, Tamil and English — is originally from Chennai, where her father is a lawyer and her mother an entrepreneur. She has an older sister with an AU degree and her parents were supportive of her U.S. study plans, although they had initial “concerns about my food and living arrangements,” she said. Helping her adjust and settle in was the university’s International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS).

“It’s important that students know this is their ‘home away from home,'” said ISSS Director Fanta Aw. “We are in regular touch with them before they get here so they know what to expect.” The group also reaches out to the parents, explaining courses and options as well as other features of U.S. academic culture, along with important calendar dates such as university breaks and holidays.

When international students get to the campus, they have their own orientation session before joining the general one. “We are holistic,” Aw said, noting that ISSS connects students to both the AU community as well as to specific international groups. In the case of students from India — there are 71 enrolled this year — it’s the South Asian Student Association, which Aw describes as “vibrant.”

“It’s a fun group,” Komala said. “We join together and perform for events like Diwali [the festival of lights], have Bollywood movie nights, and also celebrate Holi [a religious spring festival].”

Common cultural issues that can arise, Aw said, include how to conduct research here, the structure of a paper with citations, British English versus American dialects, the less formal interaction between faculty and students, and the importance of speaking up in class.

While most international undergraduates at AU major in business or international relations, graduate students often gravitate toward professional training courses or the university’s innovative degree combinations, Aw said. There’s an interdisciplinary master’s in global environmental policy, and the law school offers a degree combined with a master’s in international affairs.

At AU’s School of International Service, graduate students can also earn a “first of its kind” master’s in comparative and global disability policy or in peace building. They can combine advanced teaching degrees, divinity studies or communication coursework with conflict resolution training or global ethics research. They can even get a degree in “social entrepreneurship” and work on start-up funding as part of their degree work.

Georgetown had 102 students from India during its 2010-11 academic year, and the university website even includes an “India and Georgetown” page. Offerings include undergraduate and graduate certificates in Asian studies, a bachelor’s of science degree in international health, a global executive MBA, and a program for law students at the National Law School of India University in Bangalore, among many other eye-widening options.

A four-hour drive from D.C., Virginia Tech is an area outlier. But it has stellar science, technology, engineering and math offerings, along with an architecture program that’s highly ranked in the United States.

The school hosts students from 110 countries, with 600 new students arriving last August and 433 students from India on campus, said Kim Beisecker, director of the school’s Cranwell International Center. The center offers new arrivals personal attention and “information about practical, day-to-day kinds of things,” she said, such as grocery shopping or dealing with legal issues, as well as adapting to a new education system.

“They learn to call a full professor by a first name but must understand that doesn’t mean that a teacher is a friend or won’t grade them strictly,” she noted.

Virginia Tech doesn’t recruit internationally. It depends on global recognition of its programs and word of mouth, Beisecker said, although some undergrads will use commercial services in their own countries to help with choices and applications.

The University of Maryland’s Bafna relied on such services to help him make his U.S. move. He said some students in India will have a private consultant when they look for schools overseas, but most rely on their school counselors, websites, and personal and professional networks.

That was the case for Shree Narayanan, a doctorate student from India who’s also president of Virginia Tech’s graduate student assembly. He is an electrical engineer working in microfabrication and technologies with applications in smart phones and the detection of toxic gas. Hailing from southern India, Narayanan speaks Malayalam and English and can understand and read Hindi.

“International graduate students usually know what they’re getting into” when they study abroad, he said, adding that like his friends, he is above all looking for an academic challenge. “My parents always want me to aim higher.”

Narayanan noted that he’s been pleasantly surprised by how “welcoming” Americans are to foreign students and by their knowledge of Indian culture, including dietary preferences and restrictions.

Narayanan heard about Virginia Tech through word of mouth, and like most advanced students, he’s financially self-supported and has a university assistantship.

According to Monika Gibson, director of graduate student services at Virginia Tech, most international undergraduate students are self-funded, while 65 to 70 percent of grad students do have fellowships or university teaching or research jobs. “A full assistantship at Virginia Tech will include tuition, health insurance and a stipend,” she said.

Graduate students from India are generally dedicated, easy to work with, tend to join student organizations and go to cultural events, she added. “They’re quite a visible group on campus,” and several have won academic and service awards.

The international higher education industry does have its problems though, with most critics honing in on the finances. A November opinion piece in India’s Hindu daily published from Chennai with a readership of 4 million termed these exchanges as little more than a way for American schools to raise money.

While acknowledging that the United States has “one of the world’s most successful academic systems,” the piece criticized U.S. universities’ low graduation rates and high costs while questioning whether American academies had much to offer India’s homegrown education challenges.

The rapid growth in international studies has also created questionable practitioners and practices. The U.S.-based National Association for College Admission Counseling has criticized schools that pay per-student cash commissions to outside agents who recruit foreign students, noting the potential for abuse and exploring a ban on such payments.

Secretary Clinton, along with Indian officials and commentators, has expressed concern about U.S. “fly-by-night” schools offered online or on the ground in India, and said there would be increased efforts to crack down on unscrupulous characters in any country who give international students misleading recruitment information or useless advice.

But on the whole, Clinton says “there are so many wonderful stories.”

“A few years ago, a small group of American and Indian classmates at Stanford University decided to work together to build a better baby incubator. Four hundred and fifty premature and low-weight babies die every hour, and traditional baby incubators can cost as much as $20,000. So the students developed the Embrace baby warmer, a portable incubator for use in poor and rural areas that doesn’t require electricity and only costs around $100,” Clinton said at the U.S.-India Higher Education Summit at Georgetown.

“After graduating from Stanford, this Indian and American team moved to Bangalore to continue working on their idea and launched their project. And it’s now in use in hospitals in India and saving babies’ lives,” she added. “Now, this is a simple idea born out of conversations between students from both of our countries talking about shared hopes for a better world that led to action. And it took these American and Indian students from diverse backgrounds and perspectives working together to make it happen.”


• American University Global Involvement and Public Service: www.american.edu/global/

• Georgetown and India: http://india.provost.georgetown.edu/education/

• International Students at the George Washington Law School:

• Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies: www.sais-jhu.edu

• Northern Virginia Community College International Student Resources:

• University of Maryland at College Park Office of International Services: 

• Virginia Tech Resources for International Students:

About the Author

Patrick Corcoran is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.