Washington colleges and international students have been a good match for years, but tensions are rising. For example, in neighborhoods adjacent to campuses, landlords have turned single-family homes into makeshift dormitories marketed to foreign students, raising the ire of the community.
YENA SEO BEGAN learning English when she was 8 years old. But when she arrived on the University of Washington campus five years ago, the student from South Korea struggled to understand the rules of conversation, and to read American body language.
In Seoul, she’d had few chances to practice her speaking skills with native English speakers. She didn’t like making eye contact with strangers, or spontaneously talking to people she didn’t know.
So when she and her Thai roommate realized how out of their depth they were in Seattle, they devised their own crash course on American idioms: The two sat in their dorm room watching one episode after another of the TV show “Gossip Girl.”
There was so much more. She was shocked to see students raising their hands, asking questions of their professors, even challenging them. She couldn’t believe how noisy the library was — make a sound in a Korean library, she says, and you would be kicked out.
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Language isn’t the only problem for the growing number of international students at Washington colleges.
In neighborhoods adjacent to campuses, landlords have turned single-family homes into makeshift dormitories marketed to foreign students, raising the ire of the community. There have been scandals about test-score cheating, particularly in China, that have fueled speculation that some students are here on false pretenses.
Some professors and others fret that international students take spots from local kids. And, because of the foreign students’ lesser English skills, there are professors who believe it is more difficult to teach a class — although one researcher at the UW thinks it makes professors raise their game.
And, some foreign students resent being treated like cash cows, used to bail out U.S. colleges.
Still, they come because our universities are top-ranked in the world. Meanwhile, many universities and community colleges in Washington have grown increasingly reliant on international student tuition, able to charge as much as three times what local students pay.
So what if that equation were to shift?
After Donald Trump was elected president, UW student Alissa Mustre del Rio received a short, urgent call from her mother and father in Mexico.
Her parents, who had lived and worked for a time in the United States, wanted to know whether she still felt safe in Seattle.
On Nov. 9, phone lines jangled around the world as international parents reached out to their children in the United States.
Are you OK? they asked. Do you want to come home?
THIS YEAR, 1 out of every 7 freshmen on the Seattle campus at the University of Washington is from another country.
For more than a decade, the number of international students has grown steadily in the United States and across Washington. They’re studying not just in Seattle but also in Pullman, Bothell, Tacoma and Spokane, and at community colleges in Auburn, Edmonds and Everett, to name just a few.
If international students feel good about being Huskies — or Cougars, or Vikings — the feeling is mutual. When Oregon State University provost Sabah Randhawa was interviewing for the job of president of Western Washington University, his success at building up an international program at OSU was cited as one of his accomplishments. (Randhawa got the job.)
In 2015, 1 million college students from other nations came to the United States to earn a college degree — and nearly 29,000 of them came to Washington. Our state ranks 14th for the number of international students studying here.
To the rest of the world, there’s nothing more prestigious than an American degree.
It’s not just our Ivy League schools. It’s universities like the UW, which U.S. News & World Report this year ranked 11th among global universities, and Reuters ranked the fifth-most innovative university in the world.
Americans might worry that our colleges are too expensive, or that they aren’t teaching critical-thinking skills, or moral-reasoning skills, or any practical skills at all. International students see the enhanced status of holding an American degree.
“You always hear America has a better education system,” says Lucy Deng, a junior at the UW studying civil engineering. “That’s why we’re here.”
For Deng, the UW has been a kind of garden of intellectual delights. Deng grew up in Yangshuo, China, a resort city ringed by mountains and renowned for its beauty. Her family is middle-class. Her mother is conservative and traditional; her father more of a free thinker who encouraged Deng to study abroad.
Deng recognized that her education in China was limited to a focus on reciting facts. When she came to the United States to study — first to a California high school, then to the UW — she reveled in the chance to stretch herself intellectually and follow her passions.
“If you only know what textbooks tell you, you don’t think much,” she says. In the U.S. system, “You think more. You have your own ideas and perspectives.”
International students marvel at the American research universities’ voracious appetite for knowledge, for answering the big questions even if they appear to lead nowhere and have no practical application.
“This is where the world is being changed,” marvels Domenica Mata, a UW student from Ecuador studying informatics, who worked for one quarter in a research lab investigating worm blood. When she first heard about the worm project, she couldn’t imagine what the practical application might be. She’s come to believe, “When you get too practical, you don’t have the inquisitiveness, the knowledge.”
Many see a college degree earned in America as the ultimate business pedigree in their own countries. And a fluent, easy command of English opens the door to business opportunities elsewhere. “In Ecuador, having a degree from the U.S. really sets you apart,” Mata says.
It’s also a way to escape cultures where high-stakes exams chart your destiny. Seo, who earned her UW degree in international studies, says high school in South Korea is, “exam, exam, exam. That’s why Asian students are so strong in testing.”
MOST COLLEGE ADMINISTRATORS say international students are a huge plus for the schools, allowing local students to study with and learn from people from around the world without ever leaving home.
John Webster has been teaching an introductory English class to international students at the UW for 12 years. He’s often one of the first professors to get to know foreign freshmen, and he has grown to admire them.
“They are simultaneously extraordinarily brave, and extraordinarily naive,” he says.
The United States has become a relief valve for Asia’s overcrowded higher-education system, Webster says. Especially in China, it’s difficult for even top-scoring students to gain entry into college, and the national higher-education entrance examination (known as Gaokao) also determines a student’s career path — whether he or she likes it or not.
Many students who come to the United States come for the same reasons that people have always come to America — because they don’t want to be pigeonholed in a system that takes no interest in their specific dreams and wishes.
“And for students who are adventurous, it sounds exciting and romantic to go away,” Webster says.
But it’s also hard to overstate how difficult it is for non-English-speaking people to master college material in another language, to write papers in another language, to make friends and find a home in a place where the rules of social engagement are different from the ones they grew up with, he says.
Webster says it’s a very good thing for the United States to play host to these brave young people. It exposes them — and us — to a wide diversity of opinions, ideas, ways of living.
Sandra Silberstein, who as UW coordinator of international student academic support has surveyed professors and their teaching assistants, says faculty members also see international students as a big plus for the university because they bring a variety of perspectives to the classroom.
Webster and Silberstein say international students challenge faculty to do a better job of teaching all students. For example, students can get lost in a big lecture class if the professor rambles. That forces professors to focus their lectures, and use techniques such as slides to emphasize the take-away points. And more-focused lectures help American students learn better, too, they say.
The flip side of that is the student who seems lost in the English-speaking world. Ask almost any faculty member at the UW, and you’ll hear stories of students who were utterly out of their depth.
Cliff Mass, the outspoken UW atmospheric sciences professor, puts it bluntly: “There are clearly people getting in here that don’t belong here.”
Mass says some of the top students in his department have been from other countries. But he’s also had international students who slept through class, spent all their time texting, didn’t hand in any of the homework, didn’t do the quizzes, didn’t seem the least bit interested in atmospheric sciences.
Mass raised the issue in an electronic mailing list for UW professors last year, and struck a nerve. Many recounted similar stories.
“Let’s face it: These are seats that could go to Washington state students,” he says.
A few years ago, the UW’s admissions chief, Philip Ballinger, fielded complaints from faculty about students who didn’t understand the language. Ballinger checked it out. Turns out they were American citizens — students who had been here most of their lives, but came from families where English wasn’t spoken at home.
Ballinger says UW’s admissions office does a good job catching signs that a student’s application was filled out by somebody else. And that includes U.S. students; it’s not uncommon to find a parent’s fingerprints all over the obligatory essays.
But Ballinger also says the validation is in the results. Silberstein’s research shows that international students do very well at the UW, with high retention and graduation rates. Their final GPA is virtually identical to that of domestic students, she says; that’s proof they belong.
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THE UW HAS the 10th-largest international-student enrollment among U.S. colleges and universities. That makes sense — the school has been appearing on top lists of national universities for years.
And it’s a good place to be. Last year, international undergraduates wrote $479 million worth of tuition checks to the UW’s three campuses. Although they made up about 13 percent of all undergraduates, they paid 29 percent of the tuition money the UW collected.
What you might not know is that this state’s community colleges are also among the top destinations for international students.
In the late 1980s, Thomas Nielsen, president of Edmonds Community College, was widely regarded as a visionary for forging bonds with educators in Japan and bringing students here to study.
Nielsen even struck deals to build two Edmonds CC branch campuses in Japan. His work showed there was international demand for what the state’s perennially underfunded community colleges could offer to students from other countries.
But it didn’t go so well for Nielsen.
In 1995, he pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to a charge of conspiring to violate federal bribery, mail-fraud and income-tax laws. Nielsen admitted to accepting bribes and kickbacks totaling $97,570, plus an additional $108,064 worth of payments he never reported on his income-tax returns.
The Edmonds branch campuses in Japan closed in 1997. Nielsen spent about two years in a federal penitentiary.
But the international student rush to Washington’s community colleges was on.
Today, schools like Green River College, in Auburn, send recruiters to China every year, extolling the virtues of starting with an American college degree in a less-expensive, less-stressful community-college setting, and then transferring to a four-year school. And some colleges, including Green River, offer college admission to international students as young as 16, even if they haven’t finished high school.
There’s no such thing as a community college in China. So some unscrupulous companies overseas promise guaranteed admission to a four-year school to students who maintain a certain GPA at a community college, says Jessie Chen, general manager of Pike International Education — a service with offices in Seattle and Beijing that helps Chinese navigate the U.S. higher-education landscape.
Chen, who grew up in Shanghai and went to Shoreline Community College before transferring to Seattle University, says many Chinese students don’t understand what types of courses they need to take to qualify for a four-year program.
And because of China’s one-child policy, many Chinese students have been lavished with parental attention all their lives; Chen says when they come to the United States, their newfound freedom can result in reckless behavior — skipping classes, using drugs and alcohol, driving cars too fast.
That has played out at Green River, sometimes with tragic results.
Auburn resident Russ Campbell, who lives in the neighborhood adjoining Green River’s campus, is dismayed at the way local property owners skirted common-sense housing rules by cutting up single-family homes and turning them into makeshift dormitories.
Campbell is quick to point out he has no objection to international students. But he didn’t think they should be living packed together like sardines. And he questions whether they were adequately supervised.
In February 2016, a 17-year-old Green River international student living off-campus died of suspected alcohol poisoning. In 2014, a foreign student committed suicide on campus. A few years earlier, two international students died in separate car crashes near the Green River campus.
Campbell and others persuaded the Auburn City Council to amend the zoning laws, preventing the cutting up of single-family homes into rooming houses. It’s a start.
But Campbell says enforcement is lax, and landlords continue to take advantage of the students who come here.
FROM A FINANCIAL standpoint, international students have been one of the bright spots in American higher education the past 10 years, a time when state money for higher education has fallen precipitously.
At the UW, international students pay an average $34,278 in tuition and fees this school year, more than three times as much as in-state students.
In short, they’re subsidizing local students.
Shortly after the presidential election, Moody’s Investors Service — which tracks the creditworthiness of universities to help investors decide whether bonds issued by higher education are financially stable — described international students as “an important but potentially volatile revenue stream,” noting that Trump’s policies could quickly dissuade them from coming here.
So far for the 2017-18 school year, UW freshman applications from China are down almost 7 percent. Overall, international applications to the UW are down about 4 percent.
That could be because the UW cut freshman enrollment in 2016, making it more difficult for international students to gain admission, Ballinger says.
Still, it’s the first time in years that international-student applications actually have fallen.
Trump largely has railed against illegal immigrants, and international students aren’t in that category; they must get a student visa to study here. But Trump’s election appears to have unleashed an anti-foreigner sentiment.
Many international students hope to work in America after they graduate, by seeking H-1B visas; indeed, two former presidential candidates — Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney — promoted the idea of stapling green cards to the diplomas of every international student who graduated from a U.S. college with a tech or advanced degree.
Trump hasn’t addressed college graduates specifically, but on the campaign trail, he talked about sharply curbing the number of H-1B guest-worker visas.
“What they are concerned about is the environment,” says Chen, who has heard stories of students called names because they weren’t speaking English. “International students don’t feel very safe.”
Mata, the UW student from Ecuador, was shopping with her brother at an outlet store in Tulalip shortly after the election. The two were speaking Spanish. One of the clerks whispered something under her breath. But Mata heard what she said:
“Build the wall.”