Washington — The United States is “working energetically across the globe to increase the numbers” of international students who come to the United States as well as U.S. students who study overseas, says the top State Department official in charge of exchange programs.
“We want people from all different backgrounds and countries to study here,” acting Assistant Secretary of State Adam Ereli said during a November 14 round-table discussion that kicked off International Education Week 2011, which runs November 14–18. He praised Saudi Arabia for the number of students it sends abroad — “an investment in its future generations” — and noted that the president of Chile and five members of the Chilean Cabinet are alumni of the Fulbright exchange program.
Along with Ereli, five students currently or recently enrolled in study-abroad programs spoke at the Foreign Press Center in Washington.
International students are essential to the United States, said Ereli. People-to-people exchanges help create bonds between countries, and “there’s not one country in the world we don’t want stronger bonds with.” Besides, “foreign students enrich our universities. They expose Americans to new ideas, new ways of seeing things — offering new perspectives to professors and other students.”
According to the Institute of International Education, the number of international students in the United States increased to a record high of 723,277 during the 2010–2011 academic year.
One of the student panelists, Singmila Shimrah from India, is pursuing a master’s degree in international relations at George Mason University in Virginia through a Fulbright scholarship. “I’ve been working in northern India with women and youth in conflict-torn areas,” she said. Focusing her U.S. studies on conflict analysis and resolution, she said she hopes “to be a voice for the voiceless; to bring change from the bottom up” in India.
Asked what surprised her about the United States, Shimrah said: “American individualism.” In America, “they see me for who I am, not for my background or for who my parents are.” Also, “I love my professors,” she added. “They’re so open.”
Zvikomborero Zimunya, a Humphrey fellow from Zimbabwe, said U.S. teaching methods were a revelation to her. Zimunya is at the University of Maryland at College Park, studying political communication and new media. “Here, there is greater interaction between student and professor,” she said. “There’s a transfer of knowledge, [but] you’re encouraged to state your views, to think broadly.”
Iraq’s Wisam Waleed Al-Qaisi, a Fulbright scholar working on a master’s degree in international politics at American University, in Washington, said that although many Iraqis studied abroad in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Iraq had been isolated in recent years, until about 2003. Now, young Iraqis who want to rebuild their country are seizing the chance to study overseas, he said.
“Each student stands as an ambassador to the United States,” said Al-Qaisi, who has been asked by U.S. professors to guest lecture about Iraq. He rated his U.S. experience as “very positive,” adding: “I’ve been surprised by friendly people who are eager to learn about Iraq and other countries.”
Ye Feng, a Fulbright scholar from China, is a doctoral candidate and college English teacher there. Now studying linguistics at the University of Delaware, he said his U.S. professors “encourage students to be skeptical and critical.” Ye said he hopes to adopt a similar approach with his students in China.
American Sheena Hall, who is a Maryland native studying political science at Howard University in Washington, studied in Hyderabad, India, for six months last spring as a Benjamin A. Gilman scholar. Hall said she greatly enjoyed India, but tried to dispel misconceptions about the United States — and particularly about African Americans, who often were assumed to be “very tough, violent and ‘hip-hop-ish’” because of distorted media portrayals.
Zimunya, of Zimbabwe, said she also encounters misconceptions. Many Americans, she said, believe Zimbabweans are “not very well-educated.” In fact, Zimbabwe has a strong school system “and a literacy rate of close to 99 percent.” She was interested, however, to discover Americans questioning their own value systems and beliefs, and worrying about the economy. She said she has learned that “regardless of which part of the world we come from, we are all people with the same concerns and worries.”
The U.S. State Department website says all U.S. embassies and consulates are expediting visa processing for foreign students.