International enrollment up at Carnegie Mellon

International and non-resident alien students compose 28 percent of Carnegie Mellon’s student body, according to university enrollment data. Foreign student enrollment has increased 5.5 percent since 2005, according to statistics released by Carnegie Mellon’s Office of International Education.

The term “international” or “foreign” student has a variety of definitions.

“We see a range of applicants,” said Lisa Krieg, director of the Office of International Education. Among the 22,000 students who applied to Carnegie Mellon this year, there were U.S. citizens who grew up abroad, foreign students on temporary visas who were raised in the U.S., American students who grew up in ethnic “pockets,” and foreign students holding diplomatic passports who grew up in several countries. Complicating the situation, there were international students on F-1/J-1 visas and newly arrived immigrants with green cards.

“Thus, visa status gives only part of the picture of the intellectual and cultural background of the student,” said Krieg, whose office handles visa queries for foreign students.

About 58 percent of international students at American colleges and universities are from South Asian countries, particularly China, India, and Korea, according to the Institute of International Education.

The statistics at Carnegie Mellon mirror this national trend — 75 percent of international students come from Asia, most commonly India, China, and Korea.

The number of Indian undergraduate students has increased 17 percent since fall 2006.

“Several of the senior faculty have ties to India or are of Indian heritage,” Krieg said. “The Indian economy is booming in computer science and software engineering — those are our areas of excellence. Their economy has created a upper class that spends $50,000 an year on foreign education.”

The relationship between China and Carnegie Mellon goes back a long way to when Pittsburgh was a steel city.

“Carnegie Mellon’s first Ph.D. was Dr. Mao, a Chinese engineer, who built suspension bridges. His statue stands outside Baker Hall,” said Indira Nair, vice provost for education.

Korea also has historic ties with Carnegie Mellon.

“Though a small country, Korea is home to many of our students,” Krieg said. “As a nation, Koreans believe in getting American education. I visited Korea and noted that many of the senior faculty were educated in the United States. These personal connections encourage parents to send their children here.”

International students arrive here after taking the TOEFL (Test of English as Foreign Language) exam and steering through arduous visa requirements.

“Though international students are extremely well-prepared, they perform an extra cognitive function,” Nair said. International students must struggle to translate the nuances and expressions of American English into basic English, and then even into their native language, in order to understand them, she said.

“Academic writing is very different from the spoken English. People underestimate the importance of language fluency in understanding the subject matter,” Nair said.

To facilitate international students’ understanding of academic English, Nair said, the university places all international students in an introductory English course, 76–100, called Reading and Writing in a Multicultural Setting.

A reason that the majority of international students wish to study science or business has to do with the complexities of language fluency, American English, and cultural adaptation, according to Karen Schnakenberg, director of the master’s in professional writing. Programs that draw more heavily on these skills, such as professional and technical writing, draw fewer international students.

“Though acceptance for varieties of English is growing, we rarely see international students in writing programs,” Schnakenberg said. “Our programs require a relatively high level of fluency and are challenging enough for native English speakers.”

Nair feels that the cultural exchange is mutually beneficial.

“International students bring their intellectual culture to the university. As students face challenges, they learn positive ideas from each other,” Nair said.

Schnakenberg agrees.

“Foreign students bring a fresh perspective and awareness of other cultures to campus,” she said.