In the News: Looking Beyond Borders

Earlier this year, Augustana reported the largest class of incoming international students in College history. In an interview with the Argus Leader, Augustana's Vice President for Enrollment Nancy Davidson and Ben Iverson, associate director of International Programs, talk about the College's efforts to globalize the campus.

Colleges looking beyond U.S. borders to boost enrollment
By Steve Young, Argus Leader

Augustana College, with its Norwegian legacy, no longer is home to just Scandinavian descendants from northern Europe and here in America. The face of its collective student body is changing more today than at any time in its history, into that of Ye Kaung Oo of Myanmar, Hanan Al Rahbi of Oman, Cornelia Calin of Moldova and Maria Cecilia Nieto of Ecuador.

Read more about Augustana's 2011-12 international enrollment.

Those students are part of the largest international contingent in school history - and part of a trend at colleges and universities in South Dakota as well as they reach across the oceans to try to put young men and women into their classrooms.

"The thing is, not only do we have a lot of students interested in studying abroad, but we're also recognizing that the demographics of smaller high school classes in South Dakota and the immediate region are not favorable to being able to recruit as many students," said Nancy Davidson, vice president for enrollment at Augustana. "So when we think about 'what's the potential' for finding our future students, we really felt that international is one area where we could tap into growth."

That's a reality many higher education institutions are embracing today as projections call for fewer high school graduates in the region at least for the next half-dozen years. Schools are looking overseas, and as a result, the six public universities saw their international numbers climb from 1,065 two years ago to 1,114 last year.

"We're a tuition-driven institution," said Ben Iverson, associate director of international programs at Augustana. "We depend on student tuition to fund our costs. International students bring additional revenue to the college, so they're very important to the school financially."

But equally important is the diversity and cultural insights they bring to their American counterparts, said Suzi Aadland, director of the Ivanhoe International Center at the School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City.

One of the values employers have identified as being important in prospective employees is having a global perspective, Aadland said

"So it's critical to bring that perspective onto our campuses and into our classrooms," she said. "For students who are natives of South Dakota ... this is a great way to learn about other cultures because many of them will not travel overseas until they get a job and are working in an industry.

Public universities such as the School of Mines and SDSU do particularly well in attracting students from China, India and Nepal because of their programs in engineering and what recruiters call the other "hard sciences."

Kathleen Fairfax, assistant vice president for international affairs and outreach at SDSU, said there are large and growing middle classes in China and India that can afford to pay for quality education for their children. But the capacity in universities in those countries is limited because of rapid population growth, so parents there are looking overseas.

In China in particular, with its policy of allowing only one child per family, parents paying for the education typically decide on the school, Fairfax said. When they look to America, they're interested in schools' reputations and rankings in particular disciplines, she said, but they're also concerned about safety.

"Especially for the young women, parents don't want them going to the big cities where there's big crime rates," Fairfax said. "A lot of parents would like South Dakota, where it's more rural and safety is not an issue."

Hanan Al Rahbi, an exchange student at Augustana from Oman, said the first question her mother asked her when she said she was going to South Dakota was, "How is the area you're going to?"

" 'Is it safe? Is there a lot of crime going on?' " Al Rahbi said. "I said, 'I'm not sure, but it's not a big city.' "

Cornelia Calin of Moldova said she had to look up South Dakota on the Internet just to figure out where she was going. Exchange students such as her and Al Rahbi submitted their applications through a U.S. State Department program, and Augustana selected them.

For other students, the allure of a strange place in a land many had never heard of started with research on the Internet about programs that interested them.

The efforts of Iverson and Donn Grinager, director of Augustana's International Office, to travel to international locales to talk to high school students, counselors and families made a difference for some of those international students at the school as well.

Maria Cecilia Nieto of Ecuador said she sent inquiries to five or six U.S. colleges, and Iverson was the only actual voice to respond to her.

"All the rest said, 'Thanks for sending your paperwork, but don't respond to this email,' " she said. "Ben replied a week later; I was so happy."

Keeping those students happy once they're here is another challenge. Monica Llaguno of Ecuador said America can be a challenging transition for foreign students.

"We all struggle at some point," said Llaguno, a sophomore government and international affairs major at Augustana. "With the new culture and language, it can be hard for us."

School of Mines, Augustana and the others try to ease that transition, matching students up with families or groups in the community. International students at Augustana also go through an intense orientation period before the American students show up. And groups of six or seven of the foreign students will be paired with American and international student ambassadors at the school in a program called Augustana Cultural Exchange.
Through that connection, they learn much about life in America, from buying sheets for dormitory beds to how to get a driver's license.

Then they begin learning what they came here for. Ye Khaung Oo is studying political science so he can be part of the change as his native Myanmar transitions from a dictatorship. Cornelia Calin is pursuing economics so she can participate in lifting her native Moldova out of its poverty.

"Sioux Falls is wonderful. It is like a second home to me," Nieto said. "I'm not homesick, but if you ask me if I want to stay or go home, I'll go back to my country. That's where my people are. That's where I hope I can make a difference."

Kelly Sprecher
Director of Communications & Media Relations