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Like other top American research institutions, Johns Hopkins has become an academic destination for the world. This year’s freshman class is the most international ever.
The crowd of about 70 parents who mingled and chatted in the gleaming lobby of Mason Hall one afternoon in August could have been any other gathering of mothers and fathers of new Johns Hopkins students.
But this event was different in one important way: The people in Mason Hall were all the proud parents of international students, a group of young people numbering 150 in the class of 2013, hailing from 34 different countries.
While the gathering itself wasn't a new idea, previous receptions had been informal affairs. This was the first international parents reception held on campus, and the first formally addressed by university senior administration. "There were parents from Thailand, Canada, France, Sri Lanka, Poland, and several African nations," says Nick Arrindell, director of the Office of International Student and Scholar Services (OISSS). "They asked questions about everything from advising, to Baltimore, to how the Bursar's Office worked."
Perhaps the highlight of the afternoon was when the university's new president took the podium. Ronald J. Daniels, the university's recently installed 14th president, was able to offer a very personal perspective: He himself is a native of Toronto, Canada.
The Class of 2013 is not only the largest (1,350 students) in the 133-year history of Johns Hopkins University, it's also the most geographically and culturally diverse, both in terms of international students (non-U.S.-naturalized students) and first-generation Americans. According to the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, a significant one-quarter of incoming freshmen reported speaking a language other than English at home.
While freshman applications to Johns Hopkins have risen across the board by 207 percent since 1990, applications from international students have jumped 883 percent in that time--and most of that increase has occurred in the past six years. This year's incoming class includes nearly 60 more international students than last year's.
Hopkins is not unique among elite institutions in seeing such an increase in interest from outside U.S. borders, according to Peggy Blumenthal, chief operating officer and executive vice president of the Institute of International Education (IIE), a non-profit organization that studies college enrollment patterns and other statistics.
The major American research university, she notes, continues to be the gold standard of the global education system, regardless of national identity or politics. "Surveys of American and foreign students show that the U.S. is still the academic destination for the world," says Blumenthal. "Other countries are making great progress in improving access to primary and secondary education, but they're now facing the problem of not having enough outstanding universities to accommodate those new students. Students [in those countries] are looking to the U.S., and for the kind of teaching that American universities offer. It's not rote learning; it's much more interdisciplinary, participatory, and it stresses critical thinking."
According to the IIE's annual Open Doors study, the 2007-2008 academic year saw a 7 percent increase in international students in American universities over the previous academic year, a trend (at least at the undergraduate level) that appears to be continuing. "In general, it seems that the numbers of international undergraduate students are rising again this year," she says, noting that the increase is coming even as overall numbers of applications by foreign students to U.S. graduate schools are declining.
At Hopkins, the growth in international undergraduates coincides with the arrival of Dean of Undergraduate Admissions John Latting, who came to Homewood from the California Institute of Technology in 2001.
Soon after arriving, Latting suggested a change in Homewood's financial aid policy. Starting in 2002, Johns Hopkins began to offer very limited in-house financial aid to undergraduate international students, a move that sparked significantly more international applications. This year, 4 percent of those students received support.
Though it's an increase, it's still a tiny amount compared to what many other institutions offer: Cornell gave 5 percent of its international freshmen university aid; at Duke, it's 15 percent; and at schools such as Princeton, Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth, and MIT, more than 70 percent of international students receive university-based aid. (Foreign students do not qualify for financial aid from the U.S. government, and must prove they can pay for their American education before they are granted their visas.)
In the years since then, says Latting, "We've been stepping up our international recruiting to keep up with comparable institutions." He's pleased that, on the global stage, Johns Hopkins continues to expand its reputation. "We want the best students," Latting notes, "and just by virtue of scale, many of the world's most talented students" are going to be found outside American borders.
The increase brings many positive effects to the student body, according to Paula Burger, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education for the School of Arts and Sciences. "If we put together a group of extremely talented and interesting students, those students who leave themselves open to learning about their classmates will have, by far, the richest experience. To see the Multicultural Center filled at Diwali [a major holiday for Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists] with exceptionally well-done dances and activities...everyone's Hopkins experience is enriched by that."
For the international students who come to Homewood, the personal voyages that bring them here are as unique as the countries from which they come.
In 2007, Jack Harman had been set to attend Oxford University and study history in his native England. Instead, he took a "gap" year, and spent much of it in New York City, working for Human Rights Watch. His experiences there, along with his history of global travels (including a recent trip to Iran with his mother, an editor at The Economist) and discussions with other college-age Americans got him thinking about his earlier plans.
"In Britain, you study one subject for three years," he explains. "It's not flexible. I went to private school in London, and if I went to university there, it would be with the exact same kind of people. You don't really grow if you spend your time with the same old people. So I decided to come to the U.S."
Harman applied to three other universities (all Ivy League schools) as well as Johns Hopkins, a school attended (and raved about) by a friend of his best friend. Now a freshman at Arts and Sciences, he is leaning strongly toward majoring in physics or economics.
Few of Harman's classmates from high school followed him across the Atlantic ("Maybe three or four out of 150," he estimates). But Harman seems to have made the right decision for himself. "On my first day in the dorm, I was walking down the hall and saw this huge Union Jack [the flag of the United Kingdom] on the wall of a room," he says. "The guy is actually from Belize, but he's a big fan of England. So many people here have a connection to London and the United Kingdom, more than I was expecting. I really like being in another culture--for a few years, anyway."
Freshman classmate DaYe Kim, a South Korean, had a seemingly unexpected reaction when she arrived at Homewood this summer: She says she was surprised to see so many Korean students in her dorm when she arrived. (In fact, students with Korean citizenship comprise the largest percentage of international freshmen this year--41 percent.)
"I'm not used to seeing so many Koreans," says Kim. That's because, like many South Korean teenagers, Kim went to high school in the U.S. She studied in the predominantly Caucasian town of Winchester, Mass., where she was the only Korean in the town's public high school. Kim moved with her father, Dong-Won Kim (a former visiting professor at Johns Hopkins), and her younger sister to Winchester four years ago to attend an American high school (their mother remained at their home in Seoul). It's a decision that Kim says is very popular among Korean families. "Most of the Korean students I've met here [at Hopkins] went to high school in America," she says.
Why the cross-global migration? "The goal in Korean high schools is just to get into college," Kim explains. "According to my friends, high school there is all about memorization and problem solving, and getting ahead. In the U.S., it's about improving yourself, and freedom to do more than just study." She adds, "I'd guess that one-quarter of my friends are in a U.S. or Canadian college."
Manayer Al-Mujalhem, who is the only Kuwaiti in the freshman class, says she planned to attend an American university even before starting high school in Kuwait City. "I have always been dependent on those around me in one way or another," she explains. "Living on my own halfway across the globe ensures that I get to experience life as it is in reality."
Evan Lazerowitz '10, vice president of the Student Government Association and an international studies major, says his Hopkins experience has been vastly broadened by the perspectives shared by international classmates.
"I have a friend who's from Dubai, and let's say we read an article about the Gulf War for class—we're able to talk about it directly, with him adding personal aspects to the discussion," he says. "And I recently took a class on India; there were a lot of Indian students there adding their personal views and opinions about what's going on there now. It adds a very important aspect to class and to campus life. It puts a human face on learning about international topics."
Dean Burger isn't surprised by Lazerowitz's sentiments. "We have the privilege of being able to select the most talented students from the world," she says. "That can only enrich the experience of all of our students. Several decades ago, I read a statement from another university's admissions dean. It said, 'When trying to put together a class, create one that will have the maximum educational impact on itself.'"
For Alena Geffner-Mihlsten '09, who is now attending law school at the University of Southern California, that impact began her sophomore year, when she developed a passion for Asian culture while rooming with Gayatri Patel '07. Their shared love of Bollywood films and other Asian cinema led Patel to suggest that Geffner-Mihlsten join the Inter-Asian Council (IAC).
Geffner-Mihlsten ran for a position on the board, and won. "I think I was the only non-Asian on the board," she recalls. "When I would meet people and tell them I was on the board, they would say, 'Oh, that's so...interesting.' My parents even jokingly said, 'You know you're white, right?'"
She continues, "My first position on the board was actually the diversity chair because I was interested in promoting diversity within both the Hopkins Asian community and the community at large. I said, 'Hey, wouldn't it be great to do activities with other Asian student groups?' There's so much diversity just within the Asian community. I tried to align events to be more enticing to other groups. It's very intimidating to go to another ethnic group's events."
Geffner-Mihlsten says her upbringing primed her to make the most of her Hopkins experience. "I grew up in Southern California, which has a large multicultural population," she says. "Having grown up in that environment, I loved having a campus with students from all over the world. It's a really big boon to have students from different countries. One of the girls I roomed with was from Venezuela, and she had a completely different outlook on everything, from studying to what to do on weekends. It was fascinating."
At Hopkins, the Office of International Student and Scholar Services is the first stop for most international students, whether it's for visa or paperwork assistance, help in finding someone else who speaks Ukrainian, or aid in locating a halal butcher in Baltimore.
Located in Garland Hall, Arrindell and his OISSS staff handle the labyrinthine paperwork paths and visa processing the students need from the moment they're offered admission. They also provide a place for academic advising and information for students, and help in understanding and working with international education accreditation standards and degrees. As if that's not enough, the office also assists students who might find themselves feeling adrift in a strange land, culture, and city.
Some students come in "totally unfamiliar with the American system of education. They may not realize how unique and competitive our environment is," says Arrindell. "We have to talk to them about time management, and respect for original research."
The language barrier can present other challenges, even if the student is fluent in English (and almost all incoming freshmen are, according to administrators). The issue is that many students "speak their own countries' forms of English," Arrindell says. That means that a student from Beijing and a student from Islamabad may both speak English, but have a difficult time understanding each other's variations of it.
"By winter vacation, many of the international students are excited to go home," Arrindell says. "They may be feeling a little lost for food, for conversation. When there are only one or two students from a particular place, we want to spend a little more time with them, and let them know our staff is available to encourage and help them.
"For all of our students, we're here to help with the basic issues like cell phones, bank accounts, and even assisting them to find pillows and other things necessary to make one feel comfortable in a new environment. But most of these students realize that Hopkins is a very serious institution, and are very self-directed and ready to go from the moment they arrive."
After her first week of classes, DaYe Kim was settling into freshman life relatively easily. "My roommate was born in China, but she has been in America for a long time, and went to high school with a lot of Koreans, so we get along really well." Though Kim plays the clarinet, she says she left it home to focus on her first semester—but she'll bring it back after the winter holiday. As for her classes, "My Introduction to Psychology class has about 370 people," she laughs, "which is what I'd always imagined a big college class is like. But my Beginning Chinese class only has about 12 people, which is good, too."
Still, Kim knows that it's not all about classwork. "I noticed that Hopkins has a lot of theater, film, and dance programs, which I'm also interested in," she says. "My dad and mom want me to explore more than school subjects. I can do that here."■
Geoff Brown is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
South Korea 61
New Zealand 2
Sri Lanka 1