The start of the fall semester is still a week away for Baylor University, but officials already are starting recruitment campaigns in search of next year’s international student prospects.
Staff members in the office for admissions and recruitment last week kicked off a series of visits to 21 countries to encourage prospective undergraduates to consider applying to Baylor. Planned stops this fall include countries like Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong in Southeast Asia, as well as Latin American countries like Mexico, Colombia and Ecuador.
Baylor’s overall international student enrollment has grown 39 percent in the past five years from 390 students in fall 2007 to 543 in fall 2012. And the university has placed greater priority on recruiting international graduate students to expand its science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) degree programs, one of the goals outlined in Baylor’s Pro Futuris strategic plan.
“For a variety of reasons, the more graduate programs you get in the STEM fields, the more international students you’re going to attract,” said Larry Lyon, dean of graduate studies. “In reality, the language of STEM is mathematics, and so not growing up speaking English is not nearly as much of a problem for physicists as it is for a philosopher.”
International students account for about 10 percent of Baylor’s 1,531 graduate students. But, just less than 4 percent of Baylor’s entire student body are international students.
Lyon said the percentage of American students pursuing master’s and doctoral degrees in STEM fields is much smaller than the percentage of international graduate students interested in science and engineering.
A report published last month by the National Foundation for American Policy showed that 87 percent of graduate electrical engineering programs in the U.S. were primarily composed of international students. About 76 percent of U.S. computer science graduate programs have a majority of international students.
Jessica King Gereghty, director of admissions and recruitment at Baylor, said one factor driving international students to STEM fields is the higher probability of earning well-paying jobs when they complete their studies. Gereghty said many international students have to prove that they have a full year’s tuition saved up in order to qualify for a student visa.
“Typically, international students — for the amount of investment they’re going to make — they’re looking for careers that really provide a return on their investment,” Gereghty said. “So business, engineering, the science/technology majors. There’s also a lot of international music students here at Baylor.”
Lyon would like to see international students take up 15 to 20 percent of Baylor’s graduate study slots in the next five years.
“It’s a little harder because we’re smaller, and we’re especially small in STEM. We’re not as visible internationally as the University of Texas might be,” Lyon said. “But once we get them here, because we’re smaller, we can do a much better job of integrating them into American culture.”
For example, Baylor has been working with faculty at McLennan Community College to develop an accent reduction class designed to help international students overcome speech issues in advance of research and business dealings in America. Lyon said the university plans to offer it to all international students next fall.
Transition to Waco
Baylor’s Center for International Education also has developed a variety of programs to help international students transition to Waco, including weekly shuttles to Walmart, a new support group to air issues like homesickness and overcoming culture shock, “play groups” for spouses and children, and social activities with designated students and local families through Baylor’s long-standing People Around the World Sharing Program.
The center is also the first line of aid guiding international students through making travel plans to Waco and obtaining required documentation and visas from their home countries. Staff members have been in contact with some students from Turkey who may not be able to get visas because of recent U.S. Embassy closures due to threats from al-Qaeda, Baylor officials said.
“We’re really going out of the way to make them feel welcome,” said Melanie Smith, international student relations coordinator. “They go through so much to get here — so much paperwork, so much waiting, that it’s not just a simple application process like it is for a U.S. student.”
Lyon said about half of Baylor’s international students opt to return home when they finish their degrees, either to help improve their communities or because of thriving economies, especially in Hong Kong or South Korea. But he hopes employment opportunities at places like L-3 Communications and the public-private Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative will entice some to remain in the Waco area, contributing to the local economy.
Either way, Lyon said simply having international students on campus creates a more diverse educational and cultural exchange experience for its U.S. students.
“We wouldn’t be doing right by our students without giving them a chance to be in an international venue (through study abroad options) and also bringing international students here,” Lyon said. “It definitely improves the Baylor education and the chances for a meaningful life and meaningful employment after graduation.”