International students are increasingly foreign objects at GW

By most accounts, freshman Carmen Barboza, an international student from Venezuela, likes it here at GW. She has made friends, likes her classes and is convinced she’s getting a better education than she could in her home country.

Still, in many ways – from the differences in school curriculum to the candidness in which guys approach her in dance clubs – life at a U.S. university has been a major adjustment.

“I just think that culturally we’re very different,” Barboza said. “I don’t know if it’s just GW or if it’s the same at other schools, but the whole leaving home and coming to another country and another culture, it is shocking and it is difficult.”

While it may sound like a standard frustration from someone coming to live in a new country, there are signs that such perceptions might be more of a problem for foreign students than some realize – and that it may, indeed, have something to do with GW.

Despite an overall increase in students, international enrollment at the school has dropped significantly over the past decade. The number of international students studying at GW has decreased nine out of the past 10 years, dropping roughly 23 percent since 1996 – from 2,376 to 1,835.

Those numbers are almost the opposite of both national statistics and the school’s own enrollment trends. During that same period, the number of international students in the United States has gone up 23 percent overall, according to information from the Institute of International Education.

More significantly, the school’s total enrollment has risen 27 percent from 18,986 to 24,099, bringing down international students’ percentage of the total student body from 12.5 percent to 7.6 percent over the course of a decade. The disparities haven’t gone unnoticed.

“International student enrollment was bucking the national trend, and it was bucking what was going on here at GW in terms of overall student enrollment,” said Greg Leonard, director of the University’s International Services Office. “When you see something like that happening, you know something’s wrong. It just doesn’t make sense. Something’s going on.”

Indeed, school officials said the decline is a big concern for GW, which has long prided itself on its internationalism. A school that was ranked fifth in the country in 1983 by the IIE for international enrollment among U.S. colleges has dropped to number 62 in the most recent data, for 2005.

Yet while the problem may not be hard to identify, the reasons are far less definite. By virtue of its location, officials said GW should naturally be one of the top destinations for students from abroad, making the situation even more troubling.

Theories run the gamut from admittedly poor international recruiting to broader issues such as the rising costs and higher academic standards for incoming freshmen, all of which provide a piece to a complex puzzle.

Leonard, who is in his first year at the school, said a major problem has been the University’s neglect for particular needs of its foreign students. He noted that international students have until now only received a one-day orientation program, leaving them unprepared to deal with the challenges of adjusting to an unfamiliar environment.

“International students need additional information that’s tailored to them,” Leonard said. “A lot of those students have never even opened a bank account. You’re not dealing with the same kind of students as those that are coming in over the summertime from cities across the United States. It’s just a different situation.”

In addition, special programs that once sought to involve foreign students with their home countries’ embassies have been gradually phased out, taking away one of the more unique advantages GW could offer.

To be sure, GW is not the only one paying attention to the issue. Though the long-term trends have produced an increase, a slight decline in international enrollment among all American universities since Sept. 11 has drawn concern from the federal government.

Much of the problem stems from new student visa restrictions put in place immediately after Sept. 11 that have deterred many would-be foreign students. While no one sees a crisis, government officials are taking active steps to dissuade such perceptions.

“After September 11, there were a number of factors that came into play,” said Adam Meier, spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. “One of the things we’ve tried very hard to do at the highest levels is to say the United States does welcome these students and wants foreign students to come here.”

Meier said the State Department has succeeded in reducing wait times for student visa applicants and streamlining the security screening process. In addition, the government held a first-ever summit with presidents from 150 universities across the country specifically on the issue of foreign educational exchange, which brings $13 billion to the economy each year.

Leonard dismissed Sept. 11 as the cause for GW’s declining international enrollment, noting that the trends have gone on for far longer. While some factors may be out of the school’s control, he said, the issue is one the school will have to tackle largely on its own.

Indeed, some have recently begun to do just that. Undergraduate Admissions Director Katherine Napper said in an e-mail that her office has increased the amount of international travel in the past five years in response to the trends, and are exploring new ways to reach out to foreign applicants over the Internet.

Moreover, Leonard said the school will expand the international Colonial Inauguration to a four-day program starting next fall and look for new ways to promote GW’s unique location to potential applicants. However, that will only be the start.

“There is not a simple answer to this,” Leonard said. “There have most likely been a combination of a different things that we expect have contributed in some way to this decline, and it’s going to make more than just a shotgun effort to try and turn it around.”

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