Easing Friction: Three Ways American Universities and International Students Benefit From Each Other

Pictured: SDSU students at the International Student Center’s 2018 graduation ceremony.

Two years ago, there was a question that continuously derailed my hopes and confidence during job applications and interviews:

“Does the U.S. see me as a foreign national attempting to take up university spots and jobs that should be reserved for locals?”

I admit, I went through a stretch in which I grew sad, lonesome and even developed an inferiority complex. Fortunately, I grew out of that phase as I developed myself as a legitimate, contributing professional in San Diego. Occasionally though, such grey thoughts would hover like a dark cloud over my mind, especially after 2016 — with the new wave of political news cycles, immigration debates and the lack of honest, cross-cultural dialogue between students and professionals of differing perspectives and backgrounds.

“The fact that the best and brightest from around the world see the U.S. as a place to receive an excellent education and contribute to the economy through work is a compliment to the country’s perception around the world.”

I stumbled upon an article by the New York Times, in which U.S. universities are facing financial crises upon the decline of international student enrollment. Over 1 million foreign students are currently enrolled in American universities, contributing a staggering $39 billion in revenue.

Indeed, the recent political climate has created a conundrum for American universities and foreign students.

Fear is incited among foreign student families, who now see their annual tuition as a loss in long-term investment. Universities then scramble for ways to compensate for those dollars that often offset lack of state government funding. While U.S. schools increasingly pride themselves on developing global citizens and creating a diverse student body population, hundreds of thousands of foreign students from abroad still look at the United States as the land of opportunity, a dream echoed by the millions of immigrants who pronounce a similar esteem.

So — before we think of ways to remedy this, how do both sides benefit from this relationship?

1. Diversity 

When I ask locals what they like about college, they talk about how college has introduced them to such a “diverse array of perspectives from people of all walks of life.” This includes, social classes, foreign and exchange students, as well as faculty with a wide breadth of knowledge from every contour of the globe.

I grew up in a racially homogeneous society, and I see how America replenishes its strength with diversity — new ideas, experiences and cultures. This replenishment of energy, accompanied with adherence to the country’s values of hard work and equal opportunity, create a strength unmatched by many countries.

Understandably, friction is a natural cog in this relationship. How we get our diverse student population to work positively and collaboratively is a challenge, one exacerbated by difficult economic situations that many students face on daily basis.

Why should we help foreign students when our own students across the street can’t even afford books for classes?

Luckily, foreign students contribute financially with higher tuition costs — a worthy exchange for an education that carries value beyond American borders.

2. Financial Contributors

Because foreign students often pay the full sticker tuition price, this allows the university to provide all students higher quality education and better access.

According to the New York Times article, the decline of 1,500 international students this year resulted in a loss of $14 million, causing the University of Central Missouri to cut instructors in computer programs and the budget of its university newspaper.

The fact that the best and brightest from around the world see the U.S. as a place to receive an excellent education and contribute to the economy through work is a compliment to the country’s perception around the world.

Although many topics become politicized in our current climate, it is important to remember how a beneficial relationship like American universities and foreign students continues to carry a unique strength.

3. Globalization

Universities now carry the title of “global leaders” and “global innovators” for a purpose.

As we go on study abroad programs or perhaps take jobs abroad, we carry the distinction of being graduates and ambassadors of our universities. The more we contribute to our regional and global economy, the more we bring prestige to our perspective universities. This prestige may come from companies that foreign students invest in or build abroad, non-profits we develop or trade partnerships we forge. In fact, according to the Wall Street Journal, 17 percent of total donations made to U.S. universities in 2014 came from Hong Kong alone. The donations then provide universities greater flexibility on which programs and departments to fund, or ways to expand the campus.

As SDSU continues to climb nationwide rankings, our goal of developing global citizens and attaining a global education partially lies in our ability to take advantage of our international study-abroad and fellowship programs, as well as the international students who bring that perspective.

This topic can be sensitive to many, especially those who are not directly experiencing the benefits of globalization. This is where the power of story-telling comes in, and how we often see more of each other through honest dialogue.

To summarize, the relationship between American universities and foreign students is mutually beneficial.

As the world grows increasingly globalized and young people aspire to study abroad, our commitment to diversity and the development of global educated citizens will face tests in friction. How we create ways to share stories of perspective and develop empathetic leaders will be up to us as students and leaders in higher education.

I am hoping we are up to the task.

Marjon Saulon is an international student from the Philippines and fourth-year comparative international studies major. He spent 12 years in Taiwan prior to his arrival at SDSU.

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