By: Karen de Bartolome Issue: Global Trade Section: Collaborator Profile
When Barack Obama stood before the nation and took the oath of office, the people who couldn’t be there to watch his achievement undoubtedly weighed on his mind as profoundly as those who could. One of them, an international exchange student from Kenya whose background and belief in the United States as a beacon of liberty and hope, profoundly affected the President-elect’s own world view. That person, of course, is his father, Barack Obama, Sr., who died in an automobile accident in 1982.
The Kenyan’s decision to study in the United States back in 1960, where he met Barack’s mother at the University of Hawaii, is but one example, albeit more dramatic than most, of one of our nation’s most powerful strengths – the “soft” power that comes when the rest of the world regards us as a repository for their dreams, and drives them to come here to study in our colleges and universities. That influence comes from winning the hearts as well as the minds of future generations of regional and world leaders.
A personal story illustrates this point. As a new member of the development staff of a non-profit in Colorado, I found myself substituting at the last minute to give the “pitch” to a powerful businessman in Brazil. We wanted his financial backing to sponsor a seminar that would take place in his country. As I began to speak, I could tell he had more interest in what was in his inbox than in what I was selling. Suddenly, he took his eyes off the papers on his desk and asked, “Where did you say you were from?” “Colorado,” I answered. I never had to say another word: the next 45 minutes were spent listening to his vivid, emotion-soaked memories of studying at the Colorado School of Mines and living as a student in Colorado in the ‘40’s. He had become such an evangelist for our state that he sent two sons back to Colorado to study and probably others as well. My sponsorship deal was sealed.
At last count, Colorado had 5,898 international students in the state, an increase of 11% over the previous year, according to the Institute of International Education’s annual Open Doors Report, funded by the U.S. Department of State. The University of Colorado at Boulder hosted 1,264 and Colorado State University had 1,046 international students. The University of Denver, CU-Denver, Colorado School of Mines and the Community College System are also very important magnets for international students. The presence of so many international students, many of whom will return home to positions of leadership in their home countries, enhances and expands Colorado’s influence as a center of business, innovation, culture, education and recreation.
It’s one thing to read about western hospitality and the creativity and inventiveness that go with our open skies, or to hear about Colorado’s natural beauty, renowned recreational opportunities and rich diverse cultures; it’s quite another to experience it all firsthand.
That experience creates a lasting bond and one that is more important today than ever before as the world is increasingly riven by misunderstanding, cultural stereotyping, sectarian and religious conflict, and terrorism.
People who have studied at one of our universities - not to mention learned to ski, listened to a concert at Red Rocks, and perhaps even fallen in love here – are more likely to give our nation a fair shake, make connections that influence their lives and return to do business or bring their families to vacation with us.
The economic benefits of international students in Colorado are substantial, especially during these difficult financial times.
International education is one of the leading service sector exports in the country, making substantial contributions to every state’s economy, as students pay not only tuition, but room and board and cost-of-living expenditures in their local communities.
The record high number of international students in the United States – over 623,000 in the last academic year - contributed over $15.5 billion to the American economy, with $147 million spent in Colorado alone.
Making up the Solution (1) In an era when educators are working hard to build up the interest of U.S. students in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), international students are a source of strength. Fully 40% of all international students are studying STEM disciplines, contributing strongly to the robustness of research in these fields. Maintaining our research edge is crucial to the businesses that provide an important economic engine for our country, and for Colorado in particular.
The presence of international students in the classroom benefits U.S. students, too. Whether or not students study abroad, having fellow students on campus whose language, culture and nationality are different, presents an easily available opportunity to globalize one’s education. The personal friendships, teambuilding skills and working relationships forged during these years render borders meaningless and frequently last a lifetime.
When President Barack Obama proudly placed his hand on the bible used by Abraham Lincoln and took the oath of office, Americans were not the only ones inspired by his achievement. Millions of young people, the best and brightest from around the world, will continue to make American higher education their choice destination, realizing that a good education makes everything else possible.
Karen de Bartolomé is Executive Director of the Institute of International Education’s Rocky Mountain Regional Center (www.RockyMountainIIE.org). The Institute is an independent, non-profit organization founded in 1919 that administers international scholarship and educational and cultural exchange programs for public and private sponsors and provides resources to the higher education community. IIE has offices around the world, including Denver, Chicago, San Francisco and Houston.