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Attracting the best graduate students boosts NC State’s reputation as a research institution. In technology and sciences, that often means luring foreign students, particularly from India and China. But in an age of global competition, can the university keep them coming?
In a lab at Engineering Building II on Centennial Campus, Ajit Rajagopalan holds up a postcard-sized rectangle that appears to be decorated with a copper wire butterfly. It isn’t art, he explains. It’s a wireless antenna designed to capture and transmit data.
A Ph.D. student in electrical and computer engineering, Rajagopalan works in the NC State Wireless Systems Engineering (WISE) laboratory on projects that could shape the next generation of cell phones and radios. A better antenna could enable such devices to pick up weak signals in rural areas, for example, or receive larger data files than current models.
International students like Rajagopalan, a native of Mumbai, India, help drive this kind of cutting-edge science and technology research driver for economic development.”
The tangible advantage to attracting the world’s best minds to American universities? In the past 15 years, immigrants helped found 25 percent of all public U.S. companies backed by venture capital, according to a 2006 study commissioned by the National Venture Capital Association. Nearly 90 percent of these immigrant-founded companies were in sectors like high-tech manufacturing, information technology and life sciences. Almost half the immigrant entrepreneurs came to the U.S. as students.
“We’re talking about the cream of the crop from other countries coming here and experiencing America,” says John Gilligan, vice chancellor for research. “It’s the best situation you could probably want in terms of attracting these very bright, energetic and committed people.” Those who stay become innovators, he says, and those who return to their home countries typically become scientific or government leaders. “They’re great representatives for this country in general. They give America’s point of view.”
But experts are concerned about America’s continued ability to draw from a global talent pool as competition for these students ramps up worldwide. NC State has responded to these worries with new efforts to reach out to international student populations and to encourage more American students to seek advanced degrees in STEM fields.
Bright yellow fliers advertise English conversation clubs on the bulletin boards of Engineering II, where it isn’t unusual to hear Mandarin Chinese or Hindi in the hallways. “Going into the [building], I can go to a lot of different countries without a passport,” says Randy Barlow ‘05. A graduate student from Charlotte, Barlow is one of two American research assistants in the WISE lab. He’s in the master’s track, although he’s considering getting a Ph.D., something few of his undergraduate engineering classmates will opt to do. Just 6 percent of College of Engineering students had enrolled in a doctoral program, according to a 2006 survey conducted by the UPA of alumni who graduated between 2000 and 2003.
Indeed, one of the key reasons American students are underrepresented in STEM graduate programs is that they don’t apply. In some cases, that’s because they need only a bachelor’s degree to get a job in their field so they opt against more schooling, Gilligan says. “There are just many more opportunities for U.S. students,” he says. “They don’t have to get a Ph.D. to get a good job, so why put in that extra?” In other cases, there aren’t enough American students enrolled in undergraduate programs to provide an adequate supply of graduate students.
For example, 200 international students sought admission to NC State’s graduate program in statistics in 2005-06, compared with 77 American citizens. NC State enrolled 17 of 25 international students admitted and 22 of 45 American students. “It is very hard to recruit very good U.S. students in statistics,” says Sastry Pantula, head of the statistics department at NC State and an Indian-born U.S. citizen. “There are not many undergraduate programs in statistics, and also not many U.S. students are opting to go into mathematical sciences in their undergraduate programs, let alone to continue on to graduate programs.”
Foreign students have filled the void, but that may not last. Other countries are beefing up their own university systems to retain their best students and attract global talent—in other words, pursuing the same students who might otherwise come to the United States. Since Rajagopalan graduated from the University of Mumbai in 2002, his alma mater has started offering more advanced degrees. Australia’s aggressive campaign to attract global talent produced a 280-percent jump in its international student population between 1994 and 2003. European nations also are recruiting more aggressively. Countries like Germany started offering graduate degree programs with instruction in English to lure students from a broader pool.
Countries like China and India are taking other steps to reverse “brain drain.” The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences released estimates in June that more than 1 million Chinese men and women have gone overseas to study since 1978, but only 275,000 returned. To lure them back, some provinces now allocate civil-service jobs to Chinese educated abroad or guarantee the expatriates’ children admission to the best schools. And some universities supplement professors’ salaries to achieve parity with wages earned in more-developed countries.
At the same time, the U.S. introduced restrictive visa rules for foreign students after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The measures included mandatory interviews at overseas U.S. consulates—a process that required many students to wait months for appointments and travel long distances. Some applicants were subject to longer visa waits because they’d applied for certain degree programs or hailed from countries that invited additional scrutiny, like Syria. In some cases students hit snags that delayed their ability to start classes on time, complete research projects or travel to present papers at international conferences. Universities also were required by the Department of Homeland Security to increase their monitoring of international students. Every academic term, NC State’s Office of International Services (OIS) must verify the students’ address, major and enrollment status and certify that any off-campus employment is related to their field of study and doesn’t exceed a certain number of hours.
“The perception was that it was a hassle to try to come here,” says OIS Director Michael Bustle, and other countries capitalized on that. Visa delays only prevented small numbers of students—between 40 and 50 in 2002—from enrolling at the university. But fewer international students accepted offers of admission from NC State, and enrollment dropped in some colleges and departments. In fall 2001, 408 international students enrolled in the College of Engineering. In fall 2004, the number fell to 232, and the overall number of new graduate students declined by nearly 100.
It was a national trend: According to the Council of Graduate Schools, member colleges and universities experienced declines in international graduate student enrollment each year from 2002 until its 2005-06 survey recorded a 1 percent upswing.
The population is now on the rebound at NC State, and only a few students each year experience the extreme visa delays that were more common in 2002. Still, “in China, there hasn’t been an open interview slot for two months,” Bustle said in August. “If you didn’t get an appointment by May, you were out of luck.” And OIS has had to cut a number of programs for international students, such as an annual research symposium, to devote more resources to advising international students on visas and reporting to Homeland Security.
In chemistry professor Reza Ghiladi’s lab, a graduate student from Germany is working on a more effective tuberculosis treatment. In the Department of Wood and Paper Science, Chinese doctoral student Gang Hu works with professors John Heitmann and Joel Pawlak on methods of converting wood cellulose into ethanol. And Indian graduate student Ravi Shankar worked with textile professor Tushar Ghosh ‘84 MS, ‘87 PHD and engineering professor Richard Spontak on their recent discovery: an electrical field can activate a muscle-like polymer and make it change dimensions, a technology that can have applications in areas such as robotics and prosthetics.
International graduate students help professors do better research, says Len Pietrafesa, associate dean for external affairs in the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences. They bring a different perspective to the table that can help illuminate problems or identify new areas of focus. Pietrafesa researches climate patterns and the effects of weather on coastal areas. He’s found that students from perennially drought-prone regions like Africa’s Sahel, which includes Burkina Faso, Mali and the Sudan, understand the implications of poor water supply in entirely different ways than many U.S. students who get their water from faucets or bottles. He’s been persuaded by two students from Venice, Italy, to reconsider his assumption that it and other coastal cities had no future in the face of rising waters and expected climate change. As a result, he’s beginning new research that combines environmental physics and coastal management principles.
But the influence of international graduate students extends beyond the research lab to the campus environment, where they help create a global atmosphere. Ling Xiang, a graduate student in industrial engineering, is developing a logistical model that could help international freight companies find a faster and cheaper way to transport packages from one place to another. In his spare time he serves as the president of the University Graduate Student Association, participates in the Chinese Student Scholars Friendship Association and sings in a 16-member Chinese student choir. The group had a big turnout for its first performance of traditional and popular Chinese music at Stewart Theatre in April. Events like that, and the Chinese New Year’s celebration that the Chinese Student and Scholars Friendship Association holds on campus each year, are ways that Chinese students share their culture with Americans.
Other groups are sharing, as well. Last year, there were 21 international groups on campus representing specific nationalities, like Thai or Brazilian students, as well as regions or continents, like Africa or Asia. They bring an international flavor to campus and serve as a vital support network for graduate students, particularly those newly arrived. The OIS, limited by its eight-person staff, relied on these groups to help arrange airport pickups and temporary housing for the nearly 750 new international students, mostly graduate students, who arrived in August. The groups also provide an instant social network that can help students adjust once they’re settled in. “We have a mailing list and chat online,” says Xiang of the types of services the Chinese student association offers. He regularly gets together with a smaller group of close Chinese friends for dinners out—35 Chinese is his favorite restaurant—or other social engagements. It took a deliberate effort, he says, to broaden his circle of friends beyond that comfort zone. “In the beginning, I was very close to Chinese students and I realized that’s not really the way to practice your English and get to know other cultures,” he says. “So I decided to develop friendships with other international students and Americans.”
OIS encourages these cross-cultural relationships through a variety of programs: English conversation clubs and international friendship programs that match students with Raleigh residents willing to host them for a meal or multiple get-togethers. Integrating the international graduate student population into the campus community is a high priority for NC State because such contact helps foreign graduate students understand American culture and develop a positive view of both their educational experience and the U.S. “We want them to see us through the eyes of a friend,” says Pam Cook ‘85, program coordinator at OIS.
Also, contact with international students is beneficial for American students who need a global perspective to be competitive in the job market. “We have a real interest in having our students—American students—have more knowledge of the global, knowledge-based economy that we live in,” Chancellor James L. Oblinger told a reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education in August. An internationalized campus is one means of accomplishing that goal.
NC State also depends on warm feelings from international alumni both as a means of luring the best and brightest to campus and expanding international opportunities for American graduate and undergraduate students. In May, an economic development delegation comprising Lomax, Oblinger and other university and business leaders traveled to China on a relationship-building mission. They met with groups of prospective students, alumni and officials at a number of Chinese universities on the multicity trip. At one alumni reception in Shanghai, they talked with a group of former graduate students who had studied at NC State in the 1980s. All are now senior managers at large, multinational corporations, but they still stay in touch. “It’s remarkable what an impression [studying at NC State] made on them,” Lomax says. “They were here when Sidney Lowe ‘83 was a star. They were asking things about the [basketball] team and could sing the fight song.” She thinks the alumni will help create internship opportunities for NC State students at their companies.
Alumni also helped form a new partnership with Zhejiang University, one of six relationships with Chinese universities that NC State formalized last year. Jun Zhu ‘89 PHD now serves as a vice president at the university, ranked among the top three in China. “It definitely helps get our foot in the door,” says Lomax about the importance of alumni connections in these partnerships. “Everyone is wanting to create relationships with [Chinese universities],” so they can really pick and choose which American universities they want to associate with.
Oblinger also visited India earlier this year, where he met several incoming and prospective NC State graduate students. Officials from NC State will visit Ghana, South Africa, Japan and South Korea this academic year. These trips help publicize NC State’s offerings to prospective students, says Bailan Li, vice provost for international affairs, and help boost the university’s reputation overseas. “We have done very well with word-of-mouth, but we would like to [promote the value and quality of education offered at NC State] in a more organized way,” he says.
Going out and meeting the best students—whether they’re living abroad or in the U.S.—has worked for Indiana’s Purdue University. A leader in international student recruitment, Purdue has invested significant staff time and financial resources to boost its international enrollment. Its Office of International Students and Scholars, similar to NC State’s OIS, has 21 staff members and spends $150,000 annually on international recruitment. Individual departments at Purdue spend even more. Increased competition from universities around the globe has driven the strategy, says Riall Nolan, dean of international programs at Purdue. “It’s no longer, ‘Please, sir, can I come to your university?’ ” he says, “You’ve got to spend money to [recruit internationally], but it can be done.”
NC State has been slower to adopt a more active international recruiting strategy, Bustle says, partly because it’s lured students successfully without much effort. “We still get [5,000 to 6,000] unsolicited applications from excellent [foreign] students, so we’re not worried yet,” he says. The university doesn’t currently have a budget for international recruitment, he explains, although some colleges and departments do limited recruiting on their own. The College of Management, for example, participates in MBA recruiting events in seven international cities, including Seoul and Toronto. And certain departments, like plant biology, have started conducting telephone interviews with international graduate applicants—an opportunity to size up the applicants, but also to pitch them on the merits of their programs and introduce them to the faculty. However, Lomax says, the university is planning to invest more in international recruitment efforts such as improving the Graduate School’s Web site to make it more informative and searchable.
Informal international recruiting efforts at NC State have consisted mostly of professors talking to colleagues at overseas institutions, trading e-mails with prospective students or giving applicants practical tips on completing the online application.
Nuclear engineering department head Mohamed Bourham, originally from Egypt, has encouraged engineering students from Egypt and Jordan to come to NC State for their graduate studies. But more than half the department’s applications are typically from China—unsolicited. OIS also maintains a list of graduate student liaisons for individual departments and specific countries whom prospective students can e-mail if they have questions. Students spread the word about NC State’s programs on Internet message boards and mailing lists, as well. “There are pipelines of students,” Gilligan explains. “Information gets around so easily in the world today via the Internet. Once students feel that they’re welcome here, they bring their buddies.” That’s why, for example, there were 59 graduate students from Turkey enrolled in the spring 2006 semester—a higher number than students from Taiwan and Japan. Previous Turkish graduate students had good experiences and helped attract new students, Bustle says.
The university also is working on what may be the most important tool for recruitment, whether for international or American students: funding. Increasing the number and amount of fellowships available to graduate students is one of its top priorities, according to the Graduate School’s strategic plan.
Currently, about 50 percent of international students—and as many as 85 percent of Indians and Chinese—receive teaching or research assistantships from the university that pay their out-of-state tuition and a stipend to cover living expenses. Others, including many of the Turkish and Thai graduate students, receive government fellowships from their own countries to fund their studies. Without that help, most couldn’t come to NC State at all because to get a visa international students are required to prove to immigration officials that they can cover the entire cost of their degree. They aren’t eligible for federal financial aid, and they’re also not permitted to work in their first year, except in part-time jobs on campus.
Those financial constraints “affect who comes and where they come from and what they’re studying,” Bustle says, explaining that STEM programs have more international students than humanities in part because they have more funding and can offer more assistantships. “People don’t get an offer and they go somewhere else,” Li says. That’s particularly true for students from developing countries, he says, and it’s one of the reasons NC State is planning so many relationship-building trips to other countries. Foreign countries that offer fellowships for students to study in the U.S. often prioritize funds for students to attend certain universities. Publicizing NC State to overseas officials could move the university higher on these lists, boosting both the amount of funding available to students who want to come here and the likelihood that those students will attend, he says.
No one recruited Ajit Rajagopalan, the electrical engineering student from Mumbai. He learned about the university through U.S News & World Report rankings and followed up by surfing the Internet for more information. He was drawn by the electrical and computer engineering department’s work on electrical devices and the College of Engineering’s overall reputation. Reading a Yahoo discussion group in which Indian students at NC State discussed living and learning abroad helped him make his decision to come. Funding through a graduate assistantship sealed the deal.
He’s not sure if he’ll stay in the United States or return to India after he graduates. His home country offers more employment options than it did a few years ago, with new companies in Bangalore’s high-tech zone and IBM and Cisco Systems in multiple locations, including Mumbai. Though salaries are lower, they often provide a higher standard of living than that of comparable jobs in the U.S.
Rajagopalan is glad he came to NC State to study. Despite improvements to India’s educational system, he believes that American universities still have more to offer. “Graduate school in India is not so attractive,” he says. “You don’t get the exposure to the best people, the best facilities, the best laboratories. In developing countries like India, [advanced degrees from American universities are] the key to a better life.”
Cynthia Greenlee-Donnell is a freelance writer based in Durham.