Macalester seeks to attract more foreign students

  • Article by: JEFF SHELMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 6, 2008 - 11:28 PM

A $13.5 million gift from philanthropist Shelby M.C. Davis will be used to expand the international student program.

Every time Talha Khan flies back to the United States from his native Pakistan, he goes through the same routine.

"I get brought into the Homeland Security office," Khan said. "I get asked a bunch of questions, and it's a mini-sort of interrogation."

It's a familiar drill for foreign students after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which triggered tighter scrutiny from the federal government of those arriving on student visas. But Khan knows he's welcome at his destination: Macalester College, an institution with one of the highest proportions of foreign students in the United States.

A big donation announced Thursday will bolster Macalester's commitment to enrolling students from other countries. The $13.5 million gift from philanthropist Shelby M.C. Davis will be used to help fund the education of international students.

Macalester draws heavily from the United World Colleges, a group of 12 high schools around the world that have multinational student bodies. Davis, founder of a mutual fund and money management firm, has supported UWC graduates, and his gift will expand the support for them at Macalester.

Students selected as Davis UWC Scholars will receive $20,000 annually toward their costs at Macalester. Currently, the school -- which has a larger percentage of foreign students than any Minnesota college or university -- has 93 Davis Scholars.

Carleton College in Northfield currently has 19 Davis Scholars enrolled.

Macalester President Brian Rosenberg said Davis' gift will do more than increase aid for foreign students. It will, in turn, leave more money in Macalester's overall financial aid pot for U.S. students.

"Macalester has a long history of international involvement and was way ahead of the curve in American education in the international world," he said. "They recognize the world we live in in the 21st century is global. Business, medicine, technology and travel are global, and this is becoming a world without boundaries."

Rosenberg said the philosophies of the UWC very much jibe with those of Macalester, and it is a natural recruiting area. Macalester has a full-time staff member in charge of international recruiting who has logged some serious frequent-flier miles.

The school has had a long history of global education -- Kofi Annan, a native of Ghana, graduated from Macalester and went on to be a United Nations secretary general and Nobel Peace Prize winner -- and currently 12 percent of its students are from foreign countries.

Because of that, it's difficult to go very far on the St. Paul campus without finding a student who grew up in Angola, Estonia, Mongolia, Zimbabwe and other far-flung locales.

"I think that 12 percent enriches dramatically the education of the 88 percent that are not international students," Rosenberg said.

A better understanding

The goal is that both foreign and American students gain a better understanding of other cultures, especially at a time when more and more business is done internationally. One of Khan's roommates is Varun Dutt, a native of India.

"For my grandparents, for example, that I'm living with a Pakistani and a Muslim whereas I'm from India and I'm a Hindu, shocks them," Dutt said. "These are two countries that have had a rivalry for years, and I just think it's normal."

It's becoming more normal.

After dipping for three consecutive years following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, foreign student enrollment in the United States increased by 3.2 percent for the 2006-07 school year to 582,984, according to the Institute of International Education. That number is within 4,000 of the high watermark for international students in the United States.

Minnesota was home to just more than 9,000 foreign students in 2006-07, an increase of 3.9 percent from 2005-06. The University of Minnesota, the state's largest school, has about 3,300 foreign students, or about 7 percent of its student body.

Kay Thomas, director of International Student and Scholar Services at the University of Minnesota, said the U is actively recruiting foreign students, especially undergraduates.

"For any major university, or even a small school, if we are just educating students that are only talking to each other and not getting an international perspective, we are doing a grave disservice," Thomas said. "Anybody graduating today is going to go out into an international world."

Though academic institutions welcome foreign students, there are still barriers. Thomas said the biggest is having to apply in person and be interviewed by U.S. officials to obtain a student visa. For some students, that requires a journey of hundreds of miles.

While the visa process is smoother than in the past, some students from troubled parts of the world encounter significant red tape. This week, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that students from Iraq encounter major obstacles in obtaining visas to study in the United States.

In addition, the United States is facing increased competition for foreign students from institutions in the United Kingdom, Australia and China.

Jeff Shelman • 612-673-7478

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