Some blame political climate and issues with student visas for the dip in enrollment.
On a yearly basis, the International Student Programs that Whatcom Community College offers bring new students from
different parts of the world to the campus. These foreign students do not only represent a financial benefit for Whatcom as an institution, they also help increase campus diversity and multiculturalism.
This year, the enrollment for international
students has been low in comparison
to previous years. Kelly Kester, director of the international student programs, said “from our top numbers a few years ago we’re down about a third of our students, this year alone we’re down a little more than 15% from last year.”
Kester explained this decline as a national issue that colleges and universities around the country have been facing since 2016.
Many news outlets, including the New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly have reported that policies imposed by President Donald Trump’s administration appear to represent an obstacle for students attempting to study in the U.S.
“Uncertainty about foreign policy is problematic,” Kester said, affirming that there is an important impact coming from current U.S. policies.
Kester explained there are other variables contributing to this issue. One is the competition between countries that offer their international programs within the same markets as the U.S. Kester said the U.S.’s main competitors are Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and China. These countries maintain strong marketing strategies and are becoming more open with their immgration policies, in comparison to the US.
The problematic relationship between the US and certain countries makes it harder for students from those countries to come here. Countries like Vietnam and China are a good example of this as their numbers decrease.
“Normally in fall we would get anywhere between 20 to 30 new students from China, this year we’ve got three,” said Kester. He also remembered that during an economic recession in 2008, the US saw its biggest growth of international student enrollment.
“Our strong economy makes the dollar pretty strong so it’s more expensive to study in the United States right now,” he said, suggesting another possible influential factor.
Kester said another variable could be the “perception of safety issues” that originates from gun violence and other national controversies. These uncertainties surrounding the U.S. policies combined with national instability is making people from other countries doubt their access to the American dream, said Kester.
The number of new international students Whatcom welcomed this year is 75. Ulli Schraml, an associate director for internationalization, is responsible for planning the orientation process for new international students.
Schraml works closely with both international and American students, as he is in charge of the study abroad program.
“Billions of dollars are lost for the U.S. economy because there is less international students coming,” Schraml said, commenting on the international student downfall.
“It’s also a loss of having a little bit more influence of culture” said Schraml about the consequences of the issue. Schraml was an international student from Germany, so he understands that the international student body brings new perspectives to campus that many local students are not exposed to.
“Less than half of all Americans have a passport, that tells you that they don’t necessarily travel internationally. This means they don’t get the experience of being in a foreign country and learning about other people and dealing with situations you don’t have to deal with in the US.” said Schraml.
He also mentioned the international student involvement on campus.
“Almost every year there are at least five or six international students either on the Programming and Diversity Board or student government and so they are involved,” he said, adding that there is also a number of international clubs, where international and American students come together to learn about each other.
One of Schraml’s main duties consists of encouraging faculty to include international subjects and global issues in their classes through financial incentives provided by an organization called Northwest International Education Association.
“We try to encourage instructors to integrate international students more,” he said about their efforts for increasing awareness of diverse topics.
Some of the new international students shared their experiences about obtaining their student visa and their academic and personal hopes in the U.S.
Arthur Yoshimoto, from Brazil, came to Bellingham as a high school exchange student.
“I fell in love with Bellingham and I decided that I wanted to come back for college,” he said. To obtain his student visa, Yoshimoto said his family and an agency that specializes in assisting people with paperwork and other visa related business, helped him with the process.
“It takes time, it’s like a project or working on something but it isn’t too hard,” he said about the visa application process.
Alys Lam, a student from Hong Kong, said she chose Whatcom for its peaceful environment and the friendly people. She hopes to transfer to a university to study psychology.
“It wasn’t hard because an agency helped with the process,” she said about obtaining her visa, adding that most people she knows that apply have obtained their visa.
Son Nguyen, from Vietnam, hopes to learn about American culture, make new friends and improve his English skills. Nguyen is getting a high school diploma at Whatcom, and said to also have hired a visa agency to take care of his application.
Nguyen said he was nervous about the application interviewees have to go through when applying.
“The agency sent us an email with several questions that may be asked when interviewing for the visa and I just practiced, practiced, practiced,” he said.
The international student office usually offers partial help in this process by helping students with some of the paperwork and advice.
“We wish we’d get more feedback from the students who didn’t come,” said Kester, as he explained that once student visas are denied, they typically lose contact.
“If students aren’t able to get visas in certain countries we also have to limit our investment, time and effort,” he said about marketing strategies.
Kester said he and his colleagues will keep approaching the core areas international students come from, but they will also invest more time in the smaller markets, and establish more partnerships with educational institutions in other countries.
In the future, “a lot would depend on what happens in the following years within the US political leadership,” said Kester, adding that there is reason for hope.
The international student office program hopes the student success rates and the new student housing will attract more students from other countries.