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UNM working to increase students’ foreign exposure

Pavlina Peskova, a University of New Mexico graduate student from the Czech Republic, says learning English and dealing with cultural differences were the most difficult aspects of being a foreign student. UNM, under President Bob Frank, has started The Global Initiatives effort to increase the number of foreign exchange students. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Pavlina Peskova, a University of New Mexico graduate student from the Czech Republic, says learning English and dealing with cultural differences were the most difficult aspects of being a foreign student. UNM, under President Bob Frank, has started The Global Initiatives effort to increase the number of foreign exchange students. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Pavlina Peskova was born and bred in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, but today the 27-year-old is a full-time student at the University of New Mexico.

She earned her bachelor’s degree at UNM in 2011 and is now completing a master’s program in linguistics. She has also applied to the university’s Ph.D. program, again in linguistics.

Peskova is one of 3,535 foreign students studying at New Mexico universities. This year, each will spend an average of $23,000 in the local marketplace, for a total of $81 million. It’s fair to say foreign students are a boon to the state and local economies.

Meanwhile, for reasons that are not entirely clear, U.S. university students who study abroad for a semester or two – foreign exchange students – tend to get better grades overall and are considerably more likely to graduate than their stay-at-home peers.

Armed with these intriguing bits of information about international and foreign exchange students, UNM has adopted a program to increase the numbers of both. The Global Initiatives effort was launched soon after UNM President Bob Frank took over last year.

These handprints made by international students at the University of New Mexico mark the old front door stairway at the university’s Global Initiatives office. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

These handprints made by international students at the University of New Mexico mark the old front door stairway at the university’s Global Initiatives office. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

“By 2020, President Frank wants 100 percent of UNM students to have some sort of foreign contact,” says Mary Anne Saunders, head of the Global Initiatives office.

After a year, the program is succeeding. The numbers of students studying abroad and foreign students are up over last year. Last year, 559 UNM students went abroad to study; this year, the number was 604, an 8 percent increase.

The number of students studying English as a Second Language has also risen.

According to the Institute of International Education, more foreign students attend New Mexico State University than UNM. Of the state’s 3,535 foreign students – up from 3,419 last year – 1,244 attend NMSU compared to 1,157 at UNM.

Saunders says NMSU got started first. “They are at least five years ahead of us,” she says.

Among other schools: New Mexico Highlands has 147 foreign students; St. Johns College, 53; and the New Mexico Military Institute has 48.

More foreign students come from China than any other country – 555 or nearly 16 percent of the total. Second is Mexico, with more than 400 or 11.5 percent, and third is India, with nearly 350 or 10 percent. Significant numbers also come from Saudi Arabia and South Korea.

Apparently, very few hail from the Czech Republic. Peskova remembers the difficulties she encountered when she first moved here. She had visited before as a tourist – the first time in 2004 – but still enrolled in the Center for English Language and American Culture, UNM’s ESL program. Because her family was oriented toward Germany, she explains, she had never visited England and thus didn’t speak English as well as some other foreign students.

Language, she recalls, was the hardest aspect of studying abroad. Then, in addition to the new tongue, she encountered other cultural differences. It wasn’t easy to make friends, especially since the international campus community is forever changing.

Peskova didn’t begin feeling comfortable with English until her third semester at UNM. She notes that the few Czechs who live here are so scattered that even the word “community” would be a stretch. But the tall, blue-eyed Czech is fortunate: Her sister, Kristyna, is a fine arts student at UNM, and, for a while, her brother, Dominik, attended school here as well, until he went to Nicaragua on an internship.

She doesn’t consider herself an expert on American culture, but she loves New Mexico – particularly the abundant sunshine and the openness and friendliness of the people.

“The people here smile more,” she says, flashing her own bright smile.

Saunders notes with some irony that the United States hosts more Vietnamese than Mexican students. There are about 14,000 Mexicans studying in this country, a number President Obama would like to see climb to 50,000. At the same time, between 3,000 and 4,000 Americans study at Mexican universities.

New Mexico ranks 39th on the list of states attracting foreign students, but the state is 36th in overall population. Saunders notes that California pulls in $3.595 billion from its 112,000 foreign students. Arizona and Texas have been more aggressive and successful than New Mexico in drawing foreign students.

Last year, UNM opened a recruiting office in Beijing. Discussions are under way for another in Mexico City, but such endeavors are costly. The hope is to find financial partners, such as the city of Albuquerque or Bernalillo County, to share the costs – and benefits – of attracting foreign students.

Businessweek, the influential Bloomberg publication, reporting in June on a Duke University study, said “precious little research has been done on whether a large international population is beneficial,” but it is assumed that “interacting with students from other cultures would prepare graduates better to compete in a global economy.” That is what the researchers at Duke found.

“Not only did graduates who interacted with international students in college go on to acquire the skills you’d expect – speaking a foreign language and relating well to people of different cultures – they also developed a host of cognitive skills that are seemingly unrelated,” Businessweek said.

In each case, graduates who reported high levels of interaction with international students reported ‘significantly higher levels of skill development’ than those who reported little or no interaction.”

A 2010 study from the University of Georgia found that four-year graduation rates for students who stay in the United States was about 42 percent, compared to nearly 50 percent for those who study abroad. Six-year rates showed a similar correlation. The study also found that before going abroad, the average student’s grade point average was 3.2. Afterward, the average GPA rose to 3.3. That may not seem like much, but the average for students who stayed home rose less, from 3.03 to 3.06.

Moreover, students who began college with low SAT scores and stayed in the United States had lower GPAs than their cohort who studied abroad.

“Study abroad helps at-risk students,” Saunders concludes.

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