Wichita State’s international students part of global diplomacy, director says

Armin Gerhard runs Wichita State University’s international education program. He has helped hundreds of foreign students study at WSU. They come here from 110 countries. There are currently 1,400 at WSU, he said, and another 400 former international students in the U.S. still working with WSU. Most of them face eventual visa deadlines to leave the U.S., he said.

Many want to stay. Many trained at WSU to become engineers, scientists, math teachers, entrepreneurs. After we train them, we make them leave, Gerhard said.

“We haven’t been smart enough to keep these people here,” he said. “With our immigration policy, we welcome them here, they become virtually a part of our country—they become very American in many ways.”

He’s been glad to hear that politicians in Washington are talking about changing that.

International students at WSU can stay until they complete their degrees. They can extend their stays for another year to work, he said. Some students in what educators call the STEM majors, (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) can extend for 17 months.

When they leave, they take not only their potential earning power with them, but the money they spend in living here, Gerhard said.

The 700,000 international students currently in the U.S. spent about $22 billion to live and study here in the 2011-12 school year, according to the NAFSA: Association of International Educators. In Kansas, the 9,277 foreign students at WSU, the University of Kansas, Kansas State and other colleges spent $204 million during the past academic year. For Wichita, by Gerhard’s estimate, international students at WSU, Friends and Newman Universities generated $32 million.

Many of them tell WSU leaders they come here because they have heard about the freedom people have in America. Many are as motivated as they are smart, he said. Some speak four or five languages.

Other educators there have seen the work ethic.

Ramazan Asmatulu is a WSU assistant professor in mechanical engineering who works with nanomaterials.

There are at least two reasons that he works seven days a week, including holidays, at his WSU office in the engineering school, he said. One reason: “I really love my job.”

The other reason: “Many of the international students work hard every day, including holidays. I care about them, and I want them to know that I care, that I am here for them.”

Gerhard, executive director of international education at WSU, said not all the international students work like that, but many do.

“They tend to be more motivated than many of the domestic students. It means more to them in some ways.”

Saudi Arabia sent the most international students to WSU last semester with 256 students, Gerhard said. India sent 254 students last semester. China, Malaysia, Thailand and more than 100 other countries send people.

Many do high level research, such as two natives of India working now with Asmatulu: Madhulika Srikanth is working in mechanical engineering on nanomaterials with possible bio-medical uses; her friend and fellow Indian student Vishal Nageshkar, also in mechanical engineering, is working on a project to see whether nanomaterials can produce renewable energy for possible use in fuel cells.

“I tell people that the international students here are one of WSU’s secret weapons contributing to global diplomacy,” Gerhard said.

“A lot of people have no idea about this community, or the positive impact these students have in the world,” he said. “Many of them go on to become influential leaders in their countries. Most of them go home with a favorable impression of the United States – and say wonderful things about us. It’s a form of public diplomacy, soft diplomacy, and the goodwill it generates for the United States is incalculable.”

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