Faces of Conflict: International enrollment on the rise

Monzer Shakally
Monzer Shakally, 20, studies for a biology exam in the Iowa Memorial Union on University of Iowa's campus on March 23, 2016. Shakally is from Syria, but fled to the United States during the revolution to escape the violence and to pursue an education in America. He's applied for political asylum and hopes to become a dentist. (Liz Zabel/The Gazette)


By Vanessa Miller, The Gazette

The world is shrinking as technology makes it easier to move from country to country, communicate overseas, and share life experiences — via blogs, photos and videos — with friends around the globe.

That, among other things, has driven up international enrollment across Iowa’s colleges and universities. International student enrollment at the University of Iowa, for example, has more than doubled in the past decade — going from 2,189 in 2006 to 4,540 in fall 2015.

Iowa State University also has seen its international enrollment nearly double in a decade, jumping from 2,113 in fall 2006 to 4,041 in fall 2015. And University of Northern Iowa numbers jumped 78 percent in 10 years — reaching 626 in fall 2014, compared with 351 in fall 2004.

Related Coverage: Meet Monzer, a Syrian student who has no intention of going home.

International programs experts credit the United States’ top quality higher education system, in part, for the rise in global applications. And Downing Thomas, associate provost and dean of UI International Programs, said students who come to Iowa from abroad gain valuable exposure to the U.S. educational system, culture and post-graduation opportunities.

The universities benefit from the diversity international students bring to campus, exposing domestic students to different cultures, experiences and ways of thinking, Thomas said. That, he said, is becoming more important and relevant in an increasingly international job market.

“Research shows that diverse teams in the workplace perform at a higher level,” Thomas said. “Assumptions are challenged. Thinking comes from a variety of perspectives. And you can solve problems more broadly.”

International students also pay out-of-state tuition, which this year is $26,464 at the UI — nearly four times more than the in-state rate of $6,678. The steep price, in part, is why so many of Iowa’s international students come from more affluent countries or those with government programs supporting international study — such as China, India, South Korea and Saudi Arabia.

“Not every student can afford to come halfway around the world to study,” Thomas said. “So that’s a challenge.”

The universities are taking steps to diversify their international student populations, scheduling recruiting events in places such as Vietnam and Norway. And, Thomas said, another of the university’s big selling points — especially during this time of rising terrorism threats and civil conflicts — is Iowa’s relative safety.

“It’s a place you can focus on your studies,” Thomas said. “You aren’t too distracted by the distractions of a big city.”

Some of the university’s international students are open about wanting to leave their countries because of safety concerns — including wars and terrorism threats. And although most cite educational opportunities as their main reason for coming to Iowa City, many arrive from nations experiencing conflict of some kind.

In fact, the UI this year has 481 international students from nations experiencing critical or significant land-based conflict, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. That list includes countries such as Syria, Libya, Iraq, Pakistan, India, Mexico and Nigeria.

Iowa State has 749 students from those nations, and UNI has 52 students from the countries on that list.

“When there are events abroad that force migration, we do see some effect of that on our campus,” Thomas said. “But we are not seeing the flood of refugees that Europe is seeing in our educational system simply because the cost is a barrier.”

Cedar Rapids’s Kirkwood Community College also has seen international student growth year after year — largely in students from Asian nations such as China and South Korea looking for a foothold into the U.S. education system. But International Programs Director Dawn Wood said in addition to its educational offerings, Kirkwood is attractive for its security.

“They come here a lot of times because Cedar Rapids is a safe environment,” she said. “We have a lot of immigrant students coming to permanently move here.”

The college, for example, has seen a rise in students from places such as South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“World events impact where the students are coming from,” Wood said.

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