World Class

With more international students than ever enrolling at UM, their reasons for studying here are as varied as the nations they hail from.


by the numbers
UM’s international students hail from Antigua to Zambia and everywhere in between. As of Fall 2009, the top-ten enrolling countries are China (384), Venezuela (89), India (71), Canada (62), England (61), Brazil (52), Colombia (49), Saudi Arabia (43), Kuwait (43), and Mexico (42). The majority of undergraduate and graduate foreign students can be found in the School of Business Administration (23.7 percent), the College of Arts and Sciences (21.3 percent), and the College of Engineering (13.4 percent).

His name is Shuo Wang, but he tells friends to call him Sean—partly because it’s easier and partly because he loves James Bond movies. Sean, for Sean Connery, he explains.

The name change speaks to Wang’s long journey from Jinan, a bustling Chinese city known for its artesian springs, to Miami’s neon and palms. It’s a trek that’s becoming increasingly common. Wang is one of hundreds of new students at the University of Miami who arrived from overseas this year. In fact, even as South Florida skids along the bottom of a housing and employment depression, the University of Miami is attracting more international students than ever. The University’s international enrollment jumped nearly 10 percent last year, surpassing the national increase found by the Open Doors report on international educational exchange. In all, 1,673 foreign students dart between classes here, from more than 100 countries as diverse as Peru, Pakistan, and Poland. Another 1,000-plus international professors, researchers, and observers also arrive annually.

New undergraduates from China, like Wang, are driving the increase. UM had 384 students from China this academic year—strikingly, 129 of those were freshmen. Compare that with only 27 freshmen out of 199 Chinese students at UM in 2008 and just 10 out of 153 the previous year.

Wang, a lanky freshman, studies accounting in the School of Business Administration and serves as vice president of UM’s table tennis club. He says the decision to apply to U.S. universities was an easy one. Despite ample opportunities in his country’s fast-growing economy, his parents pushed him to think long term. With China’s global reach in the business world, speaking English would be a great differentiator. When UM offered a partial scholarship, it clinched the deal.

“It’s a lot of pressure. My parents still have a lot to pay for my education,” says Wang, whose parents are also accountants. Under China’s one-child policy, experts say more and more Chinese parents are willing to invest whatever they can in their child’s education. Wang says that investment is what keeps him and many of his peers busy at the books.

Yue Zheng and Shuo Wang

Above right: Citing the example of entrepreneur Bill Gates, who dropped out of Harvard to start his own computer software company, sophomore Yue Zheng, of Shenzhen, China, says, “If we did that, our parents would kick us out.”

Above left: Shuo “Sean” Wang, a freshman from Jinan, China, says he’s encountered a can-do approach in the U.S. education system that’s rare back home. When he asked for funds to hire a coach for the UM table tennis club, the answer was yes. His request to be moved into a higher-level math class? Also granted. “To change your class like this is kind of impossible in China,” he says. “Here, they give me the chance.”

“Study is essential for you to be successful in the future,” agrees Yue Zheng, a sophomore accounting major from Shenzhen who chose Miami for the sunny climate, and because a U.S. degree is a “stand-out” for Chinese employers. “Americans are very creative,” she adds, “and they are brave about pursuing their dreams.”

But being thrust into an independent-minded society, navigating health insurance, even opening a U.S. bank account can be stressful for new students. Zheng talks to her mother via Skype (a free audio-video Internet system) almost daily, especially when she’s trying to cook Chinese dishes. She holds up concoctions to the computer camera so her mother can chide, “That’s a disaster!”

Offers Zheng: “When I ask my mom, ‘Why are you paying so much for my education?’ she jokes, ‘I am expecting bigger returns!’ But I know the real reason is she wants me to have a better future no matter what the price. She tries her best to support my dream.”

The 2009 Open Doors report found international enrollments jumped 8 percent in U.S. colleges and universities in the 2008-09 academic year—the largest percentage increase in more than 25 years. India supplies the most students overall, but China is catching up fast, particularly where undergraduates are concerned.

Mark Reid, executive director of the Office of International Admission, says the turnaround has been dramatic. A few years ago, his office saw enrollment slide, even as his passport overflowed with stamps earned from far-flung recruiting trips. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, U.S. visa restrictions tightened for foreign students. Some grew tired of waiting on background checks, taking their report cards and college essays elsewhere.

Lately, with the visa process smoother and China making it easier for undergraduates to obtain passports, UM is among the U.S. institutions ramping up outreach efforts. Newer technologies such as Skype have even allowed Reid and staff to supplement recruiting efforts by logging face time from afar with candidates who speak Arabic, Chinese, and Spanish.

“We’re very excited,” Reid says of the enrollment trend. “This brings a new dimension to the University of Miami. When you’re looking at international business, for example, and the important role China plays, and you’re sitting in a classroom with those students, you get a different perspective. It definitely opens up new discussions.”

Marini Myers

“I’m glad I didn’t end up anywhere with the four seasons because the cooler temperatures we had here almost made me into an icicle,” says Marini Myers, a freshman from the twin island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago in the West Indies. Her main interest is geography because of her “concern about the human impact on the natural environment,” but “I also plan to take one completely random class each semester just to check out other fields.” As a member of UM’s STRIVE (Serving Together Reaching Integrity, Values and Engagement), she’s devoted to weekly service and leadership activities. Her father, Lincoln Myers, A.B. ’71, M.A. ’77, has served in both houses of the Trinidad and Tobago Parliament.

One obvious draw is the University’s location on the edge of Latin America, where China is making significant economic inroads. The campus is residential, but the city is a financial hub—another plus, particularly for business students.

Alejandra Esayag, a political science major from Caracas who often runs into high school friends on campus, points out an added benefit for international arrivals from Latin America.

“I feel at home here,” says the freshman, who is taking courses in everything from art history to zoology. She chose UM in part for the diversity of the student body and in part because her family has gradually migrated north from her native Venezuela since the country’s polarizing president, Hugo Chavez, launched his “Bolivarian Revolution.” In 2002, Chavez protesters took to the streets to bang on pots and pans, mounting a two-month oil strike that crippled commerce, but Chavez held on to power and later survived a recall election.

“My family started saying we should move,” Esayag recalls. “And my dad said, ‘Figure out where you’re going to study—outside Venezuela.’” When her father finally sold the family home and left Venezuela earlier this year, she began to see her UM education as a possible bridge back there.

“I knew Chavez put a set price for milk, and that it somehow made for a shortage, but I wanted to understand why. I know I don’t like Chavez’s radical socialism, but what do I like? What’s the alternative?” she says. “If I have a chance to go abroad and get a good education, maybe someday I can go back and do something.”

As international enrollments increase, so do the e-mails in Teresa de la Guardia’s inbox. As director of International Student and Scholar Services, she’s a bit like a den mother writ large, helping students navigate visa requirements or apply for a social security number, and reminding them not to pack their travel documents in their checked luggage. She recently launched a spouses club for international families and a Thanksgiving Day Matchup Program to place foreign students in the home of a University of Miami faculty or staff member for the U.S. holiday.

“Lost in the sea” read the subject line of an e-mail that landed right before Thanksgiving. In it, a visiting Spanish scholar coming off an oceanographic cruise for the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science pleaded for “any charitable family that is still looking for somebody to host [for the holiday] … I am very nice, polite,” he added, and de la Guardia fixed him up.

“If we recruit students to come here and we tell them that this is the right place for them,” she says, “then we have a responsibility to help them have the best experience possible.”

Sometimes the challenges are cultural. Freshman Nour Tawil relished the sunset call to prayer in her native Jordan before she arrived at UM, where her father, Mohd Imad Abdul Rahman Tawil, B.S.C.E. ’82, studied civil engineering. During Ramadan, her family would pray, break fast together, and then watch Arab soap operas—a routine that contrasts with some of the extracurricular carousing at U.S. universities.

Nour Tawil

Freshman Nour Tawil, from Amman, Jordan, is majoring in legal studies at the School of Business Administration. She says she misses friends from home but appreciates how U.S. universities guide students through their academic paces. “Here, you make an appointment with an advisor and they set the path for your career,” she says. Asked if she misses anything in particular from Jordan, she replies, “There is a call to prayer that is really nice, around sunset. I really miss hearing the call to prayer... everyone fasting together, and then everyone sitting at home, getting ready to eat.”

“From a religious point of view, we can’t participate in many American norms—drinking, partying,” explains Tawil, a Muslim. “I have been asked [to join friends for a drink] and they respect the fact that I don’t. It’s not a big deal.”

Tawil, who plans to become a lawyer, has settled into her studies, attended her first football game, and joined a couple of student groups. Her mother moved to Miami too, with Tawil’s two younger siblings, so family dinners are still the norm.

Even as increasing numbers of international students adjust to life at UM, International Admission’s Reid expects stiff competition for attracting them to continue too. The economic downturn has been a belly blow to many U.S. universities and colleges, but students from overseas—most self-funded—are offsetting some of the shortfall. U.S. schools are working harder than ever to woo them. Despite record numbers of applicants from Latin America, for example, Reid notes that UM’s enrollments from the region have slipped slightly.

“We’re going after a very highly selective group of students who, academically, can compete to be in a university that’s in the top tier but also financially have the wherewithal to afford a private U.S. university,” explains Reid.

But with overall enrollment climbing, and visa problems fading, he adds, “I think we’ve got our ducks in a row.”

Marini Myers, from Trinidad and Tobago, agrees. “I had been considering other universities even while being faced with a constant bombardment of enthusiasm by my father [alumnus Lincoln Myers, A.B. ’71, M.A. ’77] for the University of Miami,” says the freshman. “But it was really the Office of International Admission that made me feel as if I would be comfortable and not completely lost if I came here. It has been a lesson in independence, but I feel fully catered to and looked after at this school. I like the fact that when I approach people here, they genuinely try to help me.”

Ruth Morris is a journalist based in Miami Beach, Florida.