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Thursday, May 12, 2011 07:59 pm

Grads from around the globe

The growing effort to attract international students to UIS


Therese Wyatt (left), the troupe leader of Daughters of the Dance, and troupemate Shauna Bishop (right) performing American Tribal Style bellydance. Therese can be reached at Dance Arts Studio in Springfield, perform at UIS's 33rd Annual International

Over the last decade the University of Illinois Springfield has slowly but steadily increased the number of international students in attendance, reaching 5 percent of the overall student body in graduate studies and working toward the same ratio for undergraduates by the fall of 2012. Almost 63 percent of the 218 international students come from a region near Bangalore, India, to earn graduate degrees in computer science through a special fast track program offered by UIS that allows completion in less than the normal two years. Shruthi Gennepally from Hyderabad, India, graduates after completing her master’s program this summer and gets to walk on May 14 in the UIS graduation ceremonies. Several of her cousins and an older brother graduated from UIS and she always planned on coming here to do her graduate work.

“This was my first choice. Everyone from my city talks about coming to UIS. I’m totally into computer science and graduated with my bachelor’s in 2007,” she explains. “Mostly there aren’t any changes in lifestyle for me here. I hang around friends from back home, eat the same food and do the same things. After I graduate, I’ll work here for awhile, then return home.”

She hasn’t visited downtown Springfield yet, but took a trip to White Oaks Mall and spent time in Florida and Houston this past winter. (“I love beaches.”) Her post-graduation plans include participating in a federal program administered through the UIS International Center called Optional Practical Training. OPT allows immigrating students, who under a regular student visa must agree to return to their home countries after completing school, to remain working in the U.S. for another year in their field of study. Students in science, technology and math fields can apply for a 17-month extension to help fill shortages in the U.S. workforce.

Other students come to UIS from around the globe, including Afghanistan, Canada, Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Mongolia, Morocco, Nigeria, Nepal, the United Kingdom, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Yugoslavia and Zambia. Hyejeong Chang, originally from Doegu, South Korea, intends to graduate in the fall of 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and management. She spent time living on both coasts and prefers the Midwest, choosing Springfield for its small campus and attractive tuition prices.

Seham Ataullah, a UIS graduate student from Lahore, Pakistan and Hyejeong Chang a UIS undergraduate from Doegu, South Korea.

“I came to the U.S. to study and to get exposed to a more challenging but inviting environment and to avoid the intense competition back home,” says Hyejoeng, who has lived in the U.S. since she was 15, first as an exchange student in New Mexico, to attend the New Mexico Military Institute. “I can’t help the stereotypes some people think of, but I can break down intercultural and gender barriers. The International Student Association here at UIS has helped to promote acknowledgement of our diversity. I had a great class with Professor [Hinda] Seif about cultures and prejudices. We never talk about that back in South Korea.”

Since its inception as Sangamon State University in 1972, international students have played an integral part in the student makeup of the University of Illinois Springfield. When the soccer program was in full swing, players from around the world (predominantly Turkey) joined the successful team, expanding the global reach of the student population. Attractive as a small, yet affordable, campus, steady growth in the international sector continued, especially after the school became associated with the prestigious University of Illinois system and expanded into a four-year institution.

Following a national trend, during the last decade the UIS administration made a strategic move to attract more foreign students from around the globe and began aggressive recruitment actions to get a share of the burgeoning worldwide student market. With the official hiring of an admissions counselor specifically to deal with international recruiting, a director of student affairs for international students and trips abroad by the admissions department, all within the last three years, UIS makes no bones about actively seeking scholars from around the globe.

According to the interim director of admissions, Lori Giordano, there are simply fewer high school students graduating in Illinois than in the recent past, due to overall population shrinkage. And more options are available to those students who want to attend higher education facilities. That led to the decision for UIS to head for the lucrative markets of China and India, as well as smaller countries like Vietnam and Pakistan.

UIS students and staffers making origami cranes for a Japanese relief benefit.

 “Previously we worked what we call ‘armchair recruiting’ through websites, Facebook, and email, to focus on international recruiting to diversify the campus and increase our enrollment,” says Giordano. “We then realized we needed to do more and actually meet students and families to establish relationships and decided to focus on Asia, primarily China and Vietnam.”

This focusing led directly to trips overseas to China in September and Vietnam in December of 2010. Agents working there set up college fair meetings with prospective students and helped with the distribution of UIS informational materials. Plans known as 2 2 agreements offer students a chance to sign up to attend UIS for the final two years after finishing two years at a school in their own country, basically agreeing to become what are normally called transfer students here. These agreements allow students to plan toward spending a few years abroad, which includes learning English, considered the most difficult obstacle for scholars adjusting to a new life in a different country. Fortunately, UIS planned for that as well.

“We greatly expanded our English as a Second Language program to accommodate the new international groups in conjunction with our overall plan,” says Giordano. “All students attending here whose native language is not English take one of a few types of language proficiency tests before admission.”

These standardized tests are part of a nationwide service that most universities use to ensure students not native to English are capable of participating properly at a college level. Another aspect for consideration when admitting students of other countries entails evaluating previous academic experiences, including comparing high school and college grading qualifications in native nations to the admissions standards at UIS. It’s done on an individual basis by admissions counselors aided by a website list of how educational systems in other countries equate to U.S. principles in evaluating international transfer credit.

Indian students playing during a recent Stress Break event hosted by the International Office of Student Affairs

Ellie Haag, a three-month employee of UIS as its second international admissions counselor, brings to her new job the experience of teaching for a year in China during 2003 and the personal intercontinental background of a German father and an English mother. She recently returned from a recruiting trip to China in April and noted the differences between the Chinese and American ways of secondary education.

“Their style is based on a rote system with not much creativity involved. My teaching work helps me to understand some of the difficulties students have adjusting to the American education system,” she explains. “We discovered, too, that most Chinese students find colleges through agencies. The most important part of my job is directly communicating with students and making sure the information gets to admissions correctly.”

After students reach academic admission standards, then begins the intense business of preparing for immigration with background checks, medical procedures and other normal visa requirements mandated by the U.S. government. Rick Lane, UIS director of international student services, steps in as the intermediary during this process. Lane comes to Springfield from Tennessee after living in Costa Rica and Spain and traveling through much of Central America and Europe, plus stays in South Carolina and Kentucky.

“Immigration rules change constantly. Just this past week special instructions for students from Iran and Afghanistan changed. It’s a constant challenge,” he says. “The government follows students very closely. Students know it’s very important to keep their status updated.”

Ellie Haag, UIS international admissions counselor, and Lori Giordano, UIS interim admissions director

Lane works alongside Jonathan GoldbergBelle, the UIS director of international programs, to manage and help the growing global community on the Springfield campus. Both directors work out of the UIS International Center, with a good deal of interaction and overlapping tasks a daily occurrence. Basically Lane works with international students coming to UIS and GoldbergBelle deals with UIS students studying abroad and international faculty visiting here.

“We are a home base for our visiting students. They come here to the center first, usually because they’re familiar with us, then we direct them to other services on campus,” says Lane. “We’ve organized bus trips to St. Louis and Chicago and host campus activities. Our newest initiative is the International House, to open in the fall of 2011.”

An interesting and experimental notion, the “House” offers anyone attending UIS and living on campus an opportunity to be housemates with other students from various foreign countries in campus-provided, adjacent townhouses. Lane hopes the intermingling of cultures will offer advantages to international and U.S. students interested in gaining experiences in global diversity. Other offerings include the International Week campus celebration and the popular International Festival (to be held Nov. 11 in 2011), now in its 34th year, making it the oldest student-started organization at UIS and clearly showing the depth of the international community at the university.

Hailing from the Liaoning province in China, bordering North Korea, Pingjing Qzao (she goes by Zoe) came to the United States several years ago with her husband. They’ve spent time in Hawaii, Seattle, Los Angeles, D.C., Chicago and three years in Tucson, while her spouse worked on his doctorate. She was attracted to UIS for many of the same reasons other students applied, namely, lower fees, smaller classes, graduate program benefits and the overall friendliness of the campus, both in the student body and the administration.

Left to right: Rick Lane, director of international student affairs; Tracy Beard, office manager; Cassie Bernardi, graduate assistant; Jonathan GoldbergBelle, UIS director of international programs.

“The International Office was very efficient and helpful in getting through the complicated paperwork for the visa process,” she says. “I really appreciate the good service. It influenced my decision to come here.”

UIS benefits from the added campus diversity, but also by padding the university coffers. International students pay roughly 2 times what an Illinois resident pays to attend the state-sponsored university. As state funding shrinks, every dollar counts, and as more and more college income is derived from tuition, recruiting overseas becomes a viable option to increase the financial health of the university. But even at the increased rate of tuition, international students feel they’re getting a bargain and are happy to be getting a fine education in the United States at a decent price.

“I was looking for a good public administration program and UIS came up in my search,” says Seham Ataullah, a graduate student from Lahore, Pakistan, with an MBA from her native country, scheduled for a May 2012 graduation. “The faculty here is excellent and the fees are quite reasonable. I work at the Department of Commerce and Community Affairs in the GYPSI program (a graduate assistant program that places students in a workplace outside the university). I’m learning a lot, enjoying my work and planning on studying for my doctorate after my master’s degree.”

As with other students interviewed, Seham hopes to remain in the states by using federal work programs like the OPT, while planning to achieve permanent status, then possibly moving toward American citizenship, citing better opportunities for women to work and participate in society in general, as her primary reason for exploring avenues to remain.

Seham enjoys excursions to downtown Springfield, visiting the historic sites and checking out restaurants, especially supporting the local businesses, but has yet to try a horseshoe. Hyejeong heartily admits to liking Café Moxo and enjoying a ponyshoe at D’arcy’s Pint. Both students credit the speedy and friendly response of the UIS admissions office for bringing them to Springfield, as well as the intimate class size, first-name-basis instructors and the comparative bargain of the tuition and living costs.

If all goes according to plan, this process of actively recruiting international students, referred to in the business as “Comprehensive Internationalization,” is destined to succeed. As the university administration begins implementing measures recently addressed by the UIS International Planning Coordinating Task Force and with hefty reciprocal benefits on both sides of the equation, steady growth will likely continue for the international student community at UIS.

Contact Tom Irwin at tirwin@illinoistimes.com.


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