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International Students

International Students

As we near a decision about a project to increase significantly the number of international students at Mason, at both graduate and undergraduate levels, a word on the most commonly asked, and perfectly appropriate, question. Why do this? Note that my answer applies to our strategic commitment to grow the numbers, regardless of the current project.

First the obvious: increasing international students imposes some difficulties. One needs to arrange or expand some special services, from visa facilitation to appropriately specialized advising. These things are do-able, but they require extra effort. Faculty, dealing with more international students in class, will need to make some adjustments. The students will be competent in English – we’re not opening floodgates – but second-language speakers and writers require some flexibilities that domestic students, despite their own variety, do not normally require. Domestic students themselves will have new interactions, not only in class but in dorms and (we hope) student organizations. I hope and believe that many will be enthusiastic about the opportunity, but let’s face it, some would much rather not bother.

A few possible problems will be avoided or minimized. We will not be displacing domestic students as we expand international numbers: we will continue to grow domestic ranks, though more slowly, and the facilities to accommodate them. We will also be making every effort, for the sake of all involved, to make sure our international admits have the study skills and advice necessary to be successful, in addition to their language level. We have a good record here in an existing transitions program, and we intend to build on it and extend it. Still, with all the extenuation, there will be adjustments.

Which returns to the main question: why bother? Several answers combine, and the result is (in my view) a resounding positive.

First, international students, paying out of state rates, contribute to the University’s revenues, at a time when many other sources are limited. This more than compensates for some of the extra costs involved in serving them properly. There’s also reputational benefit, in creating a wider pool of students and alumni.

Second, they provide educational opportunities for our other students. Intermixed in dorms, classes and organizations, they offer a vital resource for learning more about other cultures and habits, for collaborations across cultural lines on common projects. They contribute directly to a wider formation of a global mindset. Again, these advantages require some careful organization. There is no desire to exploit international students through special outreach obligations (though some offer willingly, as in the experience we’ve had with Chinese students volunteering in language courses). There is no pretense that every domestic student will relish the notion of rooming with an international, though for everyone’s sake we will be mixing groups in the dorms.

Educational opportunities extend, obviously, to classrooms, and this can involve faculty as well as students. Several of my colleagues in Management have commented on the advantages offered by an international mix of students, in talking about different business approaches, values assumptions, and organizational habits. I have certainly benefited hugely from a similar mixture in teaching world history, in helping domestic students explore other religions or other contemporary assumptions about human rights or military policy. The examples can easily be multiplied, and will be multiplied still further as the project takes shape. The results more than repay any extra work involved in accommodating second-language presentations.

At Mason as at many institutions, we face the challenge of seeking a “meaningful” global education in a mix of students many of whom, for various good reasons, cannot actually study abroad. Collaborations with international students offer a huge benefit in this situation, and we will put great effort into organizing such collaborations appropriately – while also anticipating the kinds of mutual interactions that will develop more spontaneously.

There’s a third area that deserves cautious reference. Higher education is arguably something that at its best the United States does pretty well, despite all the doubts and problems we’re now contending with. Giving more international student exposure to this kind of education will hopefully be a genuine benefit to them and, however modestly, to the societies to which they will return. The exposure will also (on the average) create opportunities for a reasonably positive impression of the United States more generally. As with the improvement in global capacities among our domestic students, the larger results – it’s reasonable to hope, without being simplistic or naïve – should work in the direction of greater understanding across borders.

So: the question is legitimate but eminently answerable. We look forward to the results.