Ask 27-year-old Dalila Moufi why she decided to move from her native Tanzania to attend Wichita State University, and she smiles.
“U.S.A. is everything,” says Moufi, who is pursuing a master’s degree in public administration.
“I mean, it’s the best country in the world. It’s the place you can get the education that you want that you’ll be able to apply anywhere in the world,” she says. “I always dreamed of coming to America.”
The number of international students in the United States in 2013-14 was a record 886,052 – nearly double what it was two decades ago, according to data released recently by the Institute of International Education in cooperation with the State Department.
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Overall, 4.2 percent of students at American colleges and universities are from other countries. In Kansas, about 6 percent of all college students are international students. At state universities, that number is close to 12 percent.
This year, WSU has nearly 1,900 students from 105 countries – the highest in the school’s history. International enrollment has increased more than 21 percent in the past year alone.
Having more students from other countries on campus yields lots of benefits, says Vince Altum, WSU’s executive director of international education. For one, they pay out-of-state tuition and most are not on scholarships, which “helps the bottom line.”
But more importantly, “they bring a lot of diversity to the campus,” he said.
“Students from smaller towns may not have the opportunity to meet people from France, from Germany, from Egypt or Africa,” Altum said.
“So it’s a great opportunity. … Getting people from different backgrounds in the same room and talking with one another is a great way to help them understand what it’s like to be in somebody else’s shoes.”
Among Kansas universities, Fort Hays State boasts the highest percentage of international students. Nearly a quarter of the university’s students are from other countries – primarily China – but not all are in Hays. An international partnership forged in 2000 allows Fort Hays State to offer degree programs to more than 3,000 students at Sias International University and Shenyang Normal University in mainland China.
The new annual report shows that more than 274,000 Chinese students were studying in the U.S. in 2013-14, an increase of 16.5 percent from the previous year. They made up 31 percent of all foreign students nationwide.
‘A nice place’
At Wichita State, the countries with the most students represented on campus are India, Saudi Arabia, China, Sri Lanka and Malaysia. Engineering tops the list of popular majors, along with computer networking and business. Nearly three-fourths of international students at WSU are men.
Isuri Samarakone, 22, was born in Sri Lanka but came to Wichita from Canada, where she spent her high school years and briefly attended York University in Toronto.
She transferred to WSU after visiting an aunt in Wichita, touring the campus and falling in love with the community.
“Everyone is so nice here,” Samarakone said. “Toronto is like New York. It’s really big, and everyone is just so busy. Here you get more attention from your teachers and more help.
“I wanted to just try it out and see if I liked it, and I ended up loving it.”
Samarakone, who is pursuing her bachelor’s degree in psychology, is vice president of the International Student Union on campus, a student group devoted to fostering better understanding and cooperation among cultures. Members of the group greet international students at the Wichita airport when they arrive for school and help them retrieve their bags. If luggage goes missing, they offer emergency bags with clothing and toiletries.
“I hear from a lot of international students that they feel welcome, and I think that’s one of the reasons they come,” she said. “It’s affordable and it’s a nice place.”
Altum, the department director, says word of mouth from friends or family members brings many international students to Wichita. But the university also sends information to more than 6,000 counselors worldwide and recruits at overseas job fairs. His department is in the process of hiring a full-time recruiter, he said.
“For a lot of international students, this is a small city, and they’re wanting someplace safe,” he said. “Their parents may be worried about cost, and the cost of living in Wichita is so much lower than it is in New York or San Francisco or those places. So we’re an educational bargain.”
The recent report said U.S. students benefit from attending college with international students, who bring new perspectives to the classroom. It further noted that international students contribute to scientific and technical research and often develop longer-term business relationships in the United States.
But the transition to Kansas and to American classrooms can be challenging for many international students. Some speak little or no English, so they spend a semester or more in WSU’s Intensive English program, learning to read, write and speak the language well enough to navigate regular classes.
Beyond that, Altum said, cultural differences sometimes create roadblocks.
“International students often won’t participate in class because, in many countries, they’re not supposed to,” Altum said. “The teacher talks and you listen, and you never ask a question. Because in their country, the perception is if you have to ask a question, the teacher’s going to think you’re stupid.”
Orientation sessions for international students cover classroom protocol and other issues, including courtship customs, women’s rights, hygiene and other potential cultural differences.
“We’ve had students who lived in the residence hall who came from cities where there’s no trash collection,” Altum said. “In order to get rid of your trash, you just open up a window and throw it outside. So we’ve had to talk to students and say, ‘This is how you dispose of your trash.’
“For international students whose language is different than our own, who have never studied in our educational system, who don’t understand our culture, everything plagues them in some cases. We become their parents, in essence,” he said.
Maufi, the graduate student from Tanzania, said she felt at home in WSU’s intensive English classes because everyone was learning. After she scored high enough on her Test of English as a Foreign Language and started graduate-level classes, however, she felt “really scared,” she said.
“Honestly, I’m still scared, because in my classes, all of them are Americans, so sometimes I have the feeling that I’m not good enough. … When I make a presentation, I think, ‘Oh, my gosh, my accent is so bad and maybe no one understands me.’ ”
Samarakone said she is glad the number of international students is growing in Wichita and elsewhere, because cultural diversity leads to cultural understanding and cooperation. She also encourages Americans to study abroad if they have the chance to do so.
The State Department’s Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholars program gives scholarships to low-income American undergraduate students to help them study abroad for college credit. More than 17,000 students have received the grants since the program started in 2001.
“Go and have fun – go, but then come back,” Samarakone said, smiling. “Because this is the best place.”
Contributing: McClatchy Washington bureau