Sabah Randhawa, who became Western’s president during the summer, also hopes to attract more international students as one way to promote diversity on the Bellingham campus.
Western Washington University is known for its linguistics department, and its students are avid learners of world languages. So the Bellingham university’s new president hopes to encourage them to take the next step: studying abroad.
Sabah Randhawa, who over the summer became WWU president after Bruce Shepard’s retirement, says interacting with people from around the globe will be an important part of students’ working lives.
And Western students are well primed to study overseas because so many already study languages other than English. Yet only about 600 WWU students, or about 4 percent of the student body, go abroad each year. That’s the national average, but Randhawa wants it to go up.
Randhawa was provost at Oregon State University for 11 years before coming to Western, and he said OSU students who studied abroad call the experience one of the most meaningful things they did in their college careers.
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Randhawa also wants to expand the number of students from other countries who come to Western. Only about 1 percent of Western’s enrollment — 170 students this year — are international students.
Having a greater diversity of enrollment is another way WWU students can learn to be more comfortable with people of different backgrounds, Randhawa said.
While at OSU, Randhawa helped build that university’s international program. When he began, only about 3 percent of OSU’s students were international students. Now it’s more than 11 percent.
OSU hired a British consulting firm to work on marketing and recruitment, he said. The university also built English skills classes into the first year of courses for international students, so they were able to advance academically while improving their mastery of the language.
Randhawa says Western will never become another University of Washington, which has an international reputation and this year has an international student enrollment of about 900 in the freshman class, or about 14 percent. And Western is not a research university, so it’s unlikely to attract as many international students as Oregon State’s Corvallis campus.
Randhawa said he’s still learning about the culture at Western, and hasn’t yet formed his goals as president. But one issue on his radar is improving race relations on campus.
Last year, WWU made headlines across the country when racial threats against students of color were made on social media, and Shepard suspended classes for a day. Some of the students who were the target of threats were critical of Shepard’s response, saying he didn’t do enough to ensure their safety.
Randhawa said the university is continuing to have conversations and training on issues of diversity.
He said he also wants to tackle the achievement gap at Western. Like most schools, underserved minority students — Hispanic/Latino, Native American and African American — graduate at lower levels. While about 72 percent of all students graduate from Western in six years, the numbers are lower, between 57 and 66 percent, for underserved minorities. The national average six-year graduation rate is 60 percent.
Randhawa said he’s been impressed with the university’s focus on student success and engagement since he and his wife, Uzma Ahmad, moved to Bellingham over the summer.
“To see a public institution do so well in student success, in many ways, sold me on the institution,” he said.