International students' enrollment still strong

Surveys in the Institute of International Education’s 2005 “Open Doors” report show hope for increased international student enrollment in American universities, despite another year of falling enrollment rates. Fighting these odds, Carnegie Mellon’s international student population has been steadily on the rise for the past two years.

The annual publication not only details international student enrollment, but the number of American students who study abroad as well. This year’s report, which encompasses activities for the 2004 school year, shows study abroad rates falling for a second consecutive year — not only on the undergraduate level (down 2.9 percent), but for graduate student studies as well (down 3.6 percent). Rates have been declining since the 2003 school year, following increased restrictions on student visas and intensified scrutiny of international student travel following the events of September 11.

“Like any other large university, we value this international population very much. Growth of international student enrollment [at Carnegie Mellon] outpaced national growth for a decade or more before September 11,” said Lisa Krieg, Director of the Office of International Education at Carnegie Mellon, who helps handle international student affairs and orientation. “Now, student growth rates are no longer dropping as they were in 2003, and we are out-trending national trends at CMU. But we’re no longer growing at the breakneck pace as we were before.”

She also explained what many experts on international education hold to be the cause of the decreased number of international students: “Visa problems are significant in part because of the negative perception students have about acquiring them,” she said. “I think the perception on the street of how hard it is to acquire a visa is even worse than the reality.”

A recently published article in The Chronicle of Higher Education cites several reasons for the decline in international student enrollment as well. “Experts in international education are in almost universal agreement over the reasons for the decline,” said Chronicle reporter Eugene McCormack, “with the most common being the real or perceived difficulties in obtaining U.S. student visas, more vigorous recruitment by other English-speaking nations, and the increased ability of countries that send students to the United States to provide a quality education at home.”

Conversely, the amount of American students studying abroad increased by 9.6 percent, a trend that is echoed at Carnegie Mellon. Eva Mergner, senior coordinator for Study Abroad and Exchange Programs, said, “Over the past six years, the number of students here who study abroad has increased by almost 75 percent for what I think is a combination of reasons. One, there is a national trend of more students going abroad in general. There are also many, many opportunities for students in all majors to go places where language is not a barrier.”

Mergner also explained the value of studying abroad, much of which is learned through international studies: “What students report [upon returning] is personal growth, more independence, better focus, and a stronger sense of what they want to do with their lives. They gain a better understanding of the world and an understanding of the U.S.’s role in the world.”

This year at Carnegie Mellon, a total of 2071 international students enrolled: a number that includes 758 doctoral students, 718 master’s students, and 595 undergraduates. The five countries with the most students (both graduate and undergraduate) studying at Carnegie Mellon are India, South Korea, China, Taiwan, and Canada. The Carnegie Institute of Technology receives the greatest number of students, with 295 of a total 694 students taking part in the Electrical and Computer Engineering department.

David Elixmann, an international student from Aachen, Germany, is part of CIT, studying chemical engineering for an entire year. Though he is in his fourth of five years of study back home, he is taking a combination of junior, senior, and graduate level courses.

“Studying abroad was always part of my plans,” Elixmann said. “I chose to go to CMU because of the good scientific reputation it has. There is a lot of freedom in terms of what classes I can take, but there is a big difference in the style in which classes are taught. It was a bit exhausting in the beginning to learn the American style of learning.”

Carnegie Mellon’s reputation for academic prowess is what attracts many foreign students here, but most find more worth to their experiences than academics.

A student of RWTH University in Germany, Elixmann is looking forward to his second semester here in Pittsburgh and appreciates the different academic and social environment that studying internationally provides. He was not completely sure what to expect when he first arrived, though.

“I was surprised by how compact the campus is,” Elixmann said. “Classes are small over here, which was definitely a positive surprise. Also, the center of everyone’s life is activities. There are so many opportunities and activities to choose from.”

International student Fred-erik Stijnen from Flanders, Belgium, agreed: “It’s not common to stay on campus or spend a lot of time at school where I go in Antwerp. Here, there is more of a community. You don’t simply have school and that’s it.”

Stijnen, an industrial design student studying here for a semester, says he’s not ready to leave, despite his initial hesitancy to come to Carnegie Mellon. “I was afraid I would come here and be a foreign kid and be on my own all the time. But everyone is really friendly and helpful.” Both the social life and classes have been really fun,” said Stijnen. “Time has been going way too fast. It feels like I’ve been here not even two months — I’m not excited to go home at all.”

Eleonor Kramarz, a chemical engineering student, is completing her undergraduate studies here at Carnegie Mellon and plans to return to London to begin her master’s studies. Unlike Frederik, this Belgian student said her expectations were not met in coming here, and studying internationally was something which her parents advocated for her. “Here, I feel that the studies are not very interesting or challenging. It’s very different than what I expected. I also have the impression of
living on the edge of a highway. You can’t really walk to get anywhere,” Kramarz said.

Though these three students may not have the same positive perceptions of studying internationally, they do agree to have learned a great deal about themselves and American culture. And if the “Open Doors” report is accurate and enrollment rates are in fact on the upswing, Carnegie Mellon can hope to not only maintain their current steady stream of international guests, but a marked increase of international students in the upcoming years.