August and September signify many things: changing seasons, cooler temperatures, and the dawn of a new school year. University campuses across the country fill with new and returning students, some who grew up nearby, but more and more come from far away. Almost 900,000 international students are attending U.S. universities, and that number continues to grow. The economic impact of the 886,000 international students who are studying in the U.S. is estimated to be $26 billion.
While the economic value of our education system is undeniably impressive, the potential goodwill value of our higher education system to both the U.S. and the world is 10 times the current net worth of $26 billion—only if we seize the opportunity.
Despite impressive efforts by a number of schools, many institutions of higher learning continue to struggle to find effective strategies of engaging international students with their American counterparts in deep and meaningful ways. Even more challenging is linking them to local networks of people outside of the campus community, who can serve as longer-term friends, mentors, potential business partners, or collaborators.
A 2012 survey conducted by Dr. Elisabeth Gareis of 454 international students attending 10 public universities in the South and in the Northeast regions of the U.S. found that 55 percent of those interviewed had only one close American friend, or none at all. She discovered that having such friendships gives “international students…stronger language skills, better academic performance, lower levels of stress and better overall adjustment to a new culture.” American students also benefit from these global friendships by breaking down the sense of “otherness” and developing interest in travel and study abroad.
having [close] friendships gives “international students…stronger language skills, better academic performance, lower levels of stress and better overall adjustment to a new culture.”
A more recent study conducted by Jamienne McKee, special programs coordinator for the English Language Institute at Georgia’s Mercer University, demonstrates the problem. While studying for a master’s degree at the University of Findlay in Ohio, she surveyed the attitudes of local business owners, employees, and service providers. McKee’s research demonstrated that interaction between local businesses and international students was largely transactional. Though forty-seven percent of those surveyed said they had regular interaction with international students, their interaction did not change their perceptions. While twenty-eight percent of community business owners agreed with the statement that “international students have many qualities they admire”, only 21 percent admitted that international students make an important contribution to the community. Just 26 percent of those surveyed said they would like to know more international students.
McKee’s research on international students and community business owners has two significant implications: First, the public is unaware of the many benefits international students bring to American towns and cities. Second, schools need to bring together international students and community members in more meaningful ways.
Serving as a bridge between the local communities and international students, colleges and universities are the logical driver of such integration efforts. Colleges and universities do not have to undertake this challenging task alone; partner organizations are available to help.
Global Ties U.S. has a network of over 100 nonprofit organizations involved in international exchange, that engage over 40,000 volunteers in 45 states. Each organizations’ employees and volunteers donate their time and resources to welcome and provide programming for upwards of 15,000 up-and-coming foreign leaders each year. The programming often includes “home hospitality” for foreign visitors, such as a dinner with an American family. Professional programming, “home hospitality” dinners, and similar welcoming experiences are a staple facet of what Global Ties U.S. and its network do successfully.
Global Ties U.S. has a network of over 100 nonprofit organizations involved in international exchange, that engage over 40,000 volunteers in 45 states.
These organizations can be tremendous resources for American colleges and universities. In fact, some can be found based on the campuses of institutions of higher learning. Many of Global Ties U.S. affiliates across the country regularly engage international students in professional networking events, volunteer activities, cultural events, career skill building workshops, and business site visits. Interested Institutions can connect directly with a Global Ties affiliate in their community or with its national office. To further enhance the international student experience in the U.S., Global Ties U.S. recently launched Meet America, an initiative that partners with universities in order to provide international students with opportunities to build strong ties to communities across the U.S. during academic breaks.
Through targeted, personalized programming, international students and community members gain the opportunity to interact and learn about each other’s cultures, ideas, and background, through cultural activities, personal interactions, and professional development programs.
The Meet America program also focuses on teaching professional development skills by providing the participants resume-building tips, mock interviews, and useful networking tips. Working with local professionals, the program facilitates the natural and mutually beneficial interaction between community business members and the international students. Structured around school breaks, each two-week Meet America program gives participants the opportunity not only to interact with their local community, but also the opportunity to travel to other U.S. towns or cities. The result is a broadened perception of the diversity of American culture for the international students, at the same time, these interactions foster deeper understanding of the students’ home culture in the communities they visit.
A unique facet of Meet America is its ability to identify a student’s interest and ensure that the students have opportunities to make contacts in their chosen fields. Program themes include; engineering, global entrepreneurship, arts, and STEM. Programs can be created and tailored to the participants’ professional goals and interests. Based on the program focus, international students develop and expand their professional network. Simultaneously, guided by professional career coaches, the students hone their resume writing skills, interview techniques, and networking ability.
When it comes to personal development, Meet America integrates cultural activities into the program. Home hospitality is key, according to Redden and McKee’s research. A relaxed, friendly setting where residents within the host community offer an opportunity in a personal setting for the sharing of ideas, culture, and cuisine is invaluable. Past Meet America participants have taken part in community sports and tour historic sites.
A unique facet of Meet America is its ability to identify a student’s interest and ensure that the students have opportunities to make contacts in their chosen fields
The number of international students is growing. American communities and international students will continue to benefit from opportunities to connect. With studies showing that not many students or communities choose to do so, we know that unfortunately, many international students return to their home countries having made no local connections at all. Students come to the United States not only to be educated, but to establish lasting relationships. Meet America maximizes international students’ U.S. experience by offering meaningful and beneficial interactions, which will enrich their lives both personally and professionally.
Find out more about a Global Ties affiliate in your area and if your university is interested in teaming up with Global Ties’ Meet America initiative, please contact us via email@example.com or 202-842-1414.
By Kecha Thornton and Jona Elwell, Global Ties U.S.