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Sharing the world
Author: Stephanie Argy
Posted: September 15, 2017

International students bring a fresh perspective to their American peers

BHAVANA RAMESH grew up and went to college in India. Seven years after graduating, she decided to get a master’s degree from Portland State University’s Engineering and Technology Management program.

She wanted to experience firsthand the differences between developing and developed countries. “How do we collaborate?” she asks. “We have to understand both sides.” And while the experience helped educate her about Americans, Ramesh also enlightened her American classmates about India. 

This past year’s controversies about immigration and travel bans raise an important question: What do Portland State’s 2,100 international students, like Ramesh, bring to their American-born classmates, to the University, to Portland, and to the nation as a whole?

In an increasingly globalized world, a university has a responsibility to prepare its students to work with people from other nations. Studying overseas is one way for American students to develop that ability. But a long stay abroad can be hard or impossible for many Portland State students, according to Shawn Smallman, chair of International and Global Studies.

“A lot of our students are a little bit older, and they may have jobs or families already,” he says. “As a university, we’ve tried to focus on short-term study-abroads, but the reality is that most students aren’t going to do a study-abroad.”

The presence of international students on campus can awaken some of the same cultural awareness as a study-abroad experience. “They help to internationalize the curriculum in a different way,” says Smallman. 

American-born students who are studying with international classmates have discussions and strike up friendships with people who have very different backgrounds and perspectives. Stories in the news take on new context, and religious and political viewpoints can be explained by those with a firsthand understanding.

At Portland State, Ramesh found herself on project teams with Americans, as well as with students from all over the world. In the past two years, international students in the Engineering and Technology Management program represented 24 countries and made up 57 percent of the enrollment. “It was about respecting mutual ideas, and brainstorming,” says Ramesh.

Those sorts of interactions and collaborations help students overcome some of their prejudices and judgments, and that influence goes far beyond classroom encounters. “These students are also in the residence halls, they’re in the rec center, they’re on sports teams,” says Smallman. “That’s a different way of getting to know people and forming relationships.”

AS PART of a research project on how international students affect their domestic peers, Alex Accetta EdD ’17, assistant vice president of Campus Recreation and Student Union Services, asked students in PSU’s intramural soccer program to confront their own preconceptions about others. For six weeks, before each game, players from the United States and other countries talked openly about times when they felt they had been stereotyped. Accetta recalled one student from Ukraine who complained how everybody thought he was from Russia. This alone surprised some of his fellow players, who asked, “Oh, there’s a difference?” The student then added, “And because they think I’m Russian, they think I’m anti-gay.”

Carlos Shay, a social science major in his senior year who played in the soccer league, says the pre-game conversations opened students’ eyes to the humanity of the other players. 

“They realized, ‘This is more than soccer, these are actual people I’m playing against.’” In the past, some American players had resented their international peers for playing too aggressively, but the Americans came to understand that for the international students, soccer was the equivalent of football in Texas, almost a religion. “There’s food, work, family ... and soccer,” says Shay.

THE PERSPECTIVES offered by international students can also help Americans learn to navigate situations differently. Thitisak Duadsuntia, a student from Thailand pursuing a doctorate in public administration, taught his colleagues in PSU student government about how to work within bureaucracies. “In Thailand, we are quite hierarchical, more hierarchical than in the United States. I can show how we can collaborate with other entities to accomplish a goal. How do we negotiate for resources within bureaucracies? How can we improve student government as a unit of bureaucracy?”

Many international students reach out beyond the University while they’re in Portland. Ramesh, for example, visited schools and other institutions, did cultural presentations and performed volunteer work as part of the International Cultural Service Program. International students also do internships, take on outside jobs, and, like many other Portland State students, find ways to make their education serve the needs of Portland and beyond. 

Masami Nishishiba, chair of the Department of Public Administration, enlisted students from China, Japan and Thailand to help the Oregon Board of Massage Therapists conduct interviews to find out why so many unlicensed massage therapists came from Asian Pacific nations. The students, in addition to being skilled researchers, had the cultural fluency to win the confidence of the massage therapists. They found that the Asian men and women didn’t think the job warranted licensing and had a hard time understanding and completing the process. 

There are also financial benefits to having international students at Portland State. They pay out-of-state tuition, which helps fund programs and classes at the University, and according to a national report, they contributed $71.1 million to the Oregon economy in 2015-16, which directly and indirectly created or supported 877 jobs.

EVEN AFTER international students finish their degrees at Portland State, many of them stay involved and contribute to the University and its worldwide presence. “There really is this network of people in the world who love Portland and Portland State and are grateful for their education here,” says Margaret Everett, interim provost and vice president for Academic Affairs.

Out of that passion, some of those students have gone on to make enormous contributions to PSU. “The college of engineering is named after an international student,” says Tim Anderson, chair of the Department of Engineering and Technology Management. “Dr. Fariborz Maseeh arrived at PSU as a freshman from Iran in 1977.” In the decades since, Maseeh pioneered micro-technology and has been a generous supporter of the University, most recently pledging $5 million to renovate Neuberger Hall (see story on page 28).

But the current political climate is taking a toll on international enrollment. As of August, total applications from international graduate students for 2017-18 were down 7 percent, according to Everett. For international freshmen, applications were down 10 percent, and the number of freshmen who had confirmed their intention to enroll was down a startling 40 percent. The decreases can also be attributed to events and policies in the students’ home countries, says Everett.

The potential loss of all those international students would cost the University an enormous amount on many levels. But perhaps the greatest loss would be the large-scale impacts those students make. 

“The importance of having international students goes beyond just the classroom, or even a single university,” says Smallman. “It’s about who the United States is as a nation and a society, and how we’re perceived abroad. If we have students who come here, who learn about the United States, and they go back to their home countries as advocates, having had a wonderful experience here, then that’s a really positive outcome, not just for Portland State University, but for the country as a whole.”

International students at PSU

7.5% of the student body

Top nations

  1. China
  2. India
  3. Saudi Arabia
  4. Kuwait
  5. Japan

Stephanie Argy is a graduate assistant in the Office of University Communications.

Photo captions: Bhavana Ramesh shared her Indian culture with students while enrolled in PSU's Technology Management master’s program.

 

International students on campus can awaken some of the same cultural awareness as a study-abroad experience.