International Treasure

By Chuck Benda

An ever-growing group of international students is helping to transform Carleton—and boosting its efforts to remain one of the nation’s premier liberal arts colleges

IN TUNE

Fadi Hakim '13

Fadi Hakim ‘13
Hometown: Tangerang, Indonesia
9,537 miles from home

Plans to major in: Anthropology with a concentration in archaeology, but during his first term on campus, he “unexpectedly” became interested in German literature as well

Plays: Violin, piano

Why the liberal arts? “The courses help you view everything as interconnected. To solve the world’s problems, we have to understand how systems overlap. Also, I think it’s cool to make friends who have different interests.”

Why Carleton? “Carleton’s strong alumni network influenced my decision, and I imagined the Midwest to be less pretentious than the East.”

Biggest adjustment? “The bland food. My aunt gave me a big bottle of chili sauce, but I used so much of it during the first few weeks here that I’m running out of it.”

Nicest thing about Carleton? “In Indonesia, if you’re in an orchestra, it’s rare and prestigious. Here, it’s not a big deal. It’s a pleasant experience to be part of the community, not to be an exception.”

Biggest surprise? “The professors are approachable and down to earth. And I talked to President Oden for a few minutes during his office hours. That would be unimaginable for my friends who go to a large university.”

Advice for international students? “Don’t be afraid to ask questions in class. Where I come from, if you raise your hand too often, they think you’re seeking attention. Here, the professors will interrupt a lecture to answer questions.”

Things to try? “I’d like to play the chapel organ, because it sounds magnificent. I’ll probably try to play ice hockey, although I’ve never skated. And I’d like to study different faith traditions from an objective perspective. In Indonesia, your identity card lists you as Muslim or Christian, and in school you have to study according to your religion.”

About three years ago, stormy weather stranded Carleton President Robert Oden Jr. in the Detroit airport. Although his 37-hour delay was both regrettable and forgettable, he came across a magazine article that wasn’t. On the subject of global leadership, the writer had interviewed more than 20 leaders in business, industry, the arts, and government from around the world.

“When they were asked how future leaders should be educated, their answers were remarkably similar,” recalls President Oden. “Almost all of them said something like: ‘Become fluent in at least two, preferably three languages—and spend as much time as you possibly can with people from other countries.’ ” A number of the leaders went on to describe the importance of developing the knowledge, understanding, and skills required to effectively communicate and negotiate with people from anywhere in the world.

In many ways, those leaders might have been talking about how Carleton is preparing its graduates for success at a time when it is increasingly important to function as a world citizen. During the past several years, the College has made a number of moves to prepare for a future in which internationalism is at the fore: bolstering the curriculum with world citizenship requirements, hiring international faculty members, and developing a robust off-campus studies program that has 67 percent of Carleton students studying abroad while they are undergraduates.

The heart of these recent efforts may be the expansion of the international student programs. Although Carleton has had a smattering of international students for decades, it wasn’t until the College established international student programs in 2000 that the number of students began to grow significantly. Nine years later, the incoming Class of 2013—with its 49 international students—brought the total number of full-time international students on campus to a record-breaking 149. These students, who speak 38 languages, represent 32 countries spanning the globe. More importantly, they represent the future of liberal arts education at Carleton. Ironically, that future began much further in the past than you might imagine.

Finding the future in the past

President Oden credits Carleton’s emphasis on internationalism to the forward-looking ideas of one of his predecessors, Donald Cowling—who was Carleton’s third and longest-serving president, holding office from 1909 to 1945. “After World War I and throughout his tenure Cowling pushed for Carleton to become more knowledgeable about—and to develop more contacts with—the entire world,” says Oden. “Everyone is saying that today, but nobody was saying it when he first recognized the need.”

Although Carleton has been expanding its international horizons in a multitude of ways in the years since, the number of international students on campus remained low prior to 2000, when a series of grants, including a crucial grant from the Starr Foundation in 1999, provided the resources to expand efforts to attract international students. President Stephen R. Lewis Jr., who held office from 1987 to 2002, was also a strong advocate for bringing international students to the campus and was instrumental in securing the Starr funding. During his presidency, Petra Crosby was hired in 2000 as Carleton’s first director of international student programs.

“The first year I was here, Carleton graduated two international students,” says Crosby, who retired in 2009. “The Starr grant gave us some money to provide financial support to qualified Asian students, so we began spreading the word.”

Helping spread the word was Charlie Cogan ’82, currently associate dean of admissions, who also came to Carleton in 2000, as senior assistant dean of admissions and director of international recruitment. oon after Cogan arrived, he headed to Japan, China, and Hong Kong—and to Singapore and India the next spring.

“Initially, it was pretty tough going,” says Cogan, who, in addition to working as an admissions officer at Northwestern University for five years, had also served for three years with the Peace Corps in Togo, for two years as a Fulbright Scholar, and for nine years as a part-time lecturer in world history at various colleges and universities. “Many families, especially in Asia, want their children to be doctors or engineers or business leaders. The idea of attending a liberal arts college for several years before getting specialized training wasn’t a familiar track in that part of the world. And Carleton, while it is a top liberal arts college, wasn’t as widely known as larger Ivy League colleges and research universities. There were, however, some students in each country who were becoming aware of small colleges.”

LOOKING UP

Gnagna Lam '12

Gnagna Lam ‘12
Hometown: Dakar, Senegal
4,804 miles from home

Plans to major in: Economics

On campus: Co-president of the African Student Association, organized a panel discussion on education in Africa during fall term, participated in the International Festival, planned events that focus on microfinance for International Education Week, and worked in the summer for the international student programs as the main liaison for incoming students

Why Carleton? “A friend of mine was going to Carleton and I talked with her about it. [Carleton’s international recruitment director] Charlie Cogan visited our school, and I had an interview with him.”

Any homesickness? “Last year was actually my third year away from home (I attended high school for two years at the United World College in New Mexico), so I was kind of used to it. There are a lot of international students here; we’re a tight community.”

Who is your role model? “I admire [recently retired director of inter­national student programs] Petra Crosby’s strength, motivation, perseverance, discipline, and blunt sarcasm. Working for her last summer was one of the richest experiences I’ve had in my short life. I will always try to work up to the standard that she set for us—doing our best.”

Best thing about Carleton? “Going from feeling overwhelmed to staying on top of things is something I’m proud of. And I’ve enjoyed the friendships I’ve made with students and professors.”

Future plans? “My plans are somewhat conflicting. I’d like to [continue] my education, but I also want to go back to Senegal as soon as possible. I want to do something in economic and human development, education, and female empowerment.”

Cogan began visiting top high schools, establishing relationships with counselors and meeting with students. He also began working with a variety of nonprofit and professional higher education organizations. “Having financial aid to offer gave us an edge over a lot of other colleges,” says Cogan. “It showed that we’re committed to enrolling talented students from diverse economic backgrounds and not just interested in skimming off wealthy students. This means a lot to the high school counselors who want to find good colleges for their students and often struggle to help those from middle-to-low-income families.”

The first incoming Starr Scholars enrolled in 2000. Out of a total of 350 international applicants, 14 international students enrolled, and 8 received Starr Scholarships that year. By 2003 the number of international applications had grown to 1,000. As time—and the recruitment process—went on, the College began to establish a reputation abroad, and the students themselves began to spread the word about this place called Carleton.

That would never have happened had the students simply been brought to campus and then cut loose to sink or swim. As the number of international students at Carleton grew, so did the number of campus events, activities, and resources available to help them succeed.

Creating a home away from home

“The snow and cold just seemed to go on forever and ever,” says Gnagna Lam ’12 (Dakar, Senegal), recalling her first year at Carleton. “Whenever I went to classes, by the time I got to the building, my feet were frozen.”

Lam can laugh and joke about the cold weather almost as readily as a native Minnesotan now—in part because it was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it came to the challenges she had to tackle her first year. “Doing three classes a term sounded reasonable,” says Lam. “But the expectations and the workload are so much higher than in high school. I got pretty overwhelmed at some points last year.”

From homesickness and cold weather, to language and cultural barriers, to obtaining a driver’s license, international students have a lot to get used to. But from the moment they first step on campus, the students find a helpful community of staff members and volunteers who provide the resources that they need to adjust to their new lives—starting with a one-week-plus orientation. Along with the typical campus tours and a bonfire on the Hill of Three Oaks, orientation includes events like “A Trip to Target” and a walk to a local bank to open an account. A contingent of sophomore, junior, and senior international students serve as orientation leaders.

“Orientation is the cornerstone,” says Crosby. “It builds community among the international students and helps build friendships that provide them with a fallback position.” Lam couldn’t agree more. “The orientation leaders were not only mentors, but more like friends,” she says. “They prepared us for the fact that the adjustments were going to be tough—but showed us that we had lots of resources to turn to.”

Luyen Phan“The whole orientation model works pretty well,” says Luyen Phan, who is currently responsible for working with the international students. “Before orientation was over this year, more than a dozen first-year students asked about being leaders for next year’s orientation.”

As of August, “the international student programs have been integrated back into the student life division under the Office of Intercultural and International Life (OIIL),” says Joy Kluttz, director of OIIL. Phan, who became associate director of OIIL just before the start of the 2009–10 academic year, had spent nearly 10 years at St. Olaf working in admissions and as an international student adviser. A Vietnamese refugee who came to Minnesota with his parents near the end of the Vietnam War, Phan majored in Asian studies at St. Olaf. Before beginning his career in higher education, he completed a Fulbright scholarship at the National University of Singapore, taught English for WorldTeach and managed its Thailand office, and worked on international development projects in Southeast Asia with Population and Development International. In the tradition established by Crosby, Phan sees himself as a tireless advocate for international students.

BALANCING ACT

Inara Mahkmudova '11 

Inara Makhmudova ‘11
Hometown: Tashkent, Uzbekistan
6,427 miles from home

Major: Sociology/anthropology with political economy concentration

On campus: Resident assistant at Parish House (and last year at Goodhue); leads three organizations: Carleton Juggling F.I.S.H., Red Cross Blood Drive, and Books for Africa; has worked summers for the Russian department and the registrar’s office

Why Carleton? “I loved growing up in a big city, but I felt my undergrad education was an opportunity to live in a small town where everyone smiles at you and it feels safe.”

Family concerns? “My mother, who is my best friend, said, ‘I don’t want to cut your wings. If that’s what you want to do, just go for it.’ ”

Biggest adjustment academically? “Writing my first research paper, with all the standards and structure, was a challenge. It was like, ‘How can I put all of that into just 10 pages? Can you please give me 30?’ ”

Campus climate? “People in general are open and supportive. I have a mixture of international and American friends—I think it’s a good balance.”

What do you do for fun? “I love dancing! My first year I went to every single dance club—Latin Dance, Swing, Social Dance. I knew that I had liked dancing, but I didn’t know that I was capable of so much.”

Has Carleton changed you? “Being around people who question their gender identities was new for me. I became more open-minded and gave up my prejudices.”

Future plans? “I want to get a master’s degree and then, ideally, I want to go back to Central Asia and work for an organization that is focused on development. As long as I can give back, I will be happy to do anything.”

“My job is to protect and assist them during their time at Carleton,” says Phan. “That extends to everything from making sure they get the help they need to succeed in class, to explaining what they need to do to maintain their legal status and meet their tax obligations in the United States, to helping them experience the broad dimensions of life in America.”

Along with familiarizing international students with the support services available to all Carleton students, Phan coordinates an extensive year-round series of events and programming. Activities range from tax help sessions, to cricket games, to Bubble Tea Night (an event held once a term to help students discuss and understand their various points of view), to the popular spring International Festival. The festival features foods, songs, dances, and other displays of culture and art from around the world—and attracts a fairly large contingent from the Northfield community. 

Faculty members have helped, too, says Lam, who was impressed with their commitment and willingness to build relationships that extend beyond the classroom. “The professors are thoughtful and always available to help,” she says.

The combination of programs, support services, and general hospitality has helped Carleton’s international students succeed at a remarkable rate. Of the 279 international students who have enrolled since 2000, only six have left campus without earning a degree. (Four of the six transferred to other colleges for personal or financial reasons; two withdrew for academic reasons.) At the same time, the success of the international student programs has helped Carleton elevate the quality of the undergraduate education it provides to all students, preparing them to thrive in an increasingly international world. 

A campus transformed

“In my time at Carleton, the single biggest change I’ve seen has been the growth of the number of international students,” says Mike Hemesath, professor of economics and president of the faculty, who has been at Carleton since 1989. “Their presence gives domestic students different perspectives on the United States and the rest of the world. And they add a measure of credibility to classroom discussions that no faculty member can provide.”

Hemesath’s course on international trade is an example. Typically the class includes discussions of topics such as “sweatshops” and child labor. Domestic students are quick to condemn both, he says. The international students are equally quick to complicate that view by pointing out that in many countries, if the sweatshops didn’t exist, thousands of people would have no jobs. If children weren’t working, they probably would be begging in the streets. “Being exposed to a variety of perspectives is what a great liberal arts education is all about,” says Hemesath. 

Having spent time at Carleton as a visiting Benedict Professor in 2004, Brad Lewis ’69, who is currently a professor of economics at Union College in Schenectady, New York, says, “Of the 48 students enrolled in my two economics courses, 16 were international students. In terms of both their academic abilities and their diversity, it was great to have them at Carleton. Other faculty members expressed the same sentiment—that the arrival of this larger group of talented international students had been an invigorating experience.”

International students also bring challenges to the classroom, according to Hemesath. Early in their time here, some struggle with language and writing, and often they’re unfamiliar with the liberal arts model, which promotes classroom interaction and expects students to challenge ideas and points of view. Many international students are used to merely listening to a lecture and taking notes. “Fortunately, most of these issues get resolved within the first year,” says Hemesath.

“Campus life in general is enriched by the presence of our international students,” says Hemesath. Because they’re here, “we have more diverse programming, which exposes all of our students to international speakers, foods, cultural events, and more.”

NO WORRIES

Daniel Rath '10 

Daniel Rath ‘10
Hometown: Dangriga, Belize
1,915 miles from home

Major: Biology

Practices: Aikido, the Japanese art of self-defense

At Carleton: Studied the conflict between lions and herders in Tanzania and animal behavior in the Galapagos Islands, formerly head of the international student organization and a student worker in the Arb, currently a resident assistant at Evans Hall

Why Carleton? “My grandparents and aunt live in Minnesota, so I was looking for a college here. I didn’t get a chance to visit, so I scoured the Internet for all the information I could find. From what I read, it sounded like Carleton was a good fit, and it has been.”

Biggest adjustment? “Life is a lot more hectic here. It’s more laid back in Belize. Here people expect you to be right on time. That took a little getting used to.”

Friends? “I can still rattle off the names of all 50 of the international students who entered Carleton when I did, and some of my best friends are from that group.”

Biggest surprise? “There are so many opportunities for hands-on experience. Back home we didn’t have good [lab] facilities, so a lot of what I learned was theoretical. In my first biology lab here, I got to run a gel and separate DNA—not just read about it.”

Has Carleton changed you? “I’m happier now. In Belize, I didn’t know anyone else who loved the things I did, so I always felt weird. At Carleton, people won’t make fun of you for being passionate about something. I’m more comfortable just being myself and not worrying about what other people think.”

Advice for new international students? “Do what you like to do and not what you feel you have to do. My first year I joined a lot of clubs and all the responsibilities just became a chore. I kept the stuff I wanted to do and dropped the rest. Life is short. Why stress yourself out?”

 

Of course the international students grow and learn from their interactions with domestic students—but also from their interactions with one another. “You’ve got to remember that ‘international’ isn’t a country,” says Crosby. “Sometimes we have students from countries that don’t particularly love each other. We’ve had students from Bangladesh, Nepal, India, and Pakistan, for example, sitting down to dinner together. These interactions, and the friendships that grow out of them, change their lives and our lives—and I believe they can change the world.” Luyen Phan agrees: “As a Vietnamese refugee, as a child of war, I still hope and dream that these kinds of connections can be made so that someday there may be peace.”

Carleton’s international students are making their mark on the world—and bolstering Carleton’s reputation, just as domestic students have always done. For example, Sadao Asada ’58, from Japan, is a professor emeritus at Doshisha University; Karl Kwok ’71, from Hong Kong, is chairman of Wing On International Holdings and is on the Hong Kong Olympic committee; Kgomotso Matsunyane ’95, from South Africa, was recently awarded the Gauteng Women in Film Award; Geoffrey Yu ’06, from Beijing, is a fast-rising star for global financial services leader UBS in London; Admire Kuchena ’07, from Zimbabwe, is studying at Mayo Medical School in Rochester, Minnesota—and the list goes on (see go.carleton.edu/intl for more).

Staying the course

The challenge facing Carleton and its many stakeholders is to keep the momentum going. The Office of Intercultural and International Life has talented and committed staff members, and the greater Carleton community has embraced both its international students and the College’s need for and commitment to maintaining a high level of international engagement. The key issue is financial resources to ensure continued success.

To date, the international student programs have relied mainly on a series of external grants that have provided funds for programs, for support services development, and, more importantly, for financial aid to international students. The largest amount of funding, according to Mark Gleason, director of corporate and foundation relations, has come from three successive Starr Foundation grants that provided $1 million annually to fund scholarships for Asian students.

“Those grants helped us become successful in making international engagement a part of our mission,” says Gleason. “Unfortunately, the last of the Starr Foundation grants is about to run out. The question is: What comes next?”

In addition to the Starr Scholarships, other funding sources for international students include Kellogg Scholarships, merit-based aid for students who are neither U.S. citizens nor permanent residents here; George International Fellowships, aid to students from developing nations who demonstrate economic need and exceptional academic promise; and the George Lamson Scholarship for international students. Carleton also has some partnerships with external foundations: Davis United World College Scholarships, supplemental aid for UWC graduates; and Grew-Bancroft Scholarships, matching funds to cover the cost of tuition and room and board for select Japanese students.

“We’re beginning to get some students from an agency in Singapore that provides full funding for excellent students to attend Carleton,” says Cogan. “There will likely be other agencies that begin to do the same.”

More funding is needed, says Gleason. Carleton’s capital campaign, Breaking Barriers, Creating Connections, includes a goal of $30 million for financial aid to international students. In addition to supporting student programs, an endowment to fund aid to international students will help ensure that Carleton can recruit economically diverse students. 

Gleason notes that a number of international alumni have begun to fund a scholarship that will be named after Petra Crosby. “We’re also planning to apply for [another] grant from the Starr Foundation to provide matching funds to help us leverage alumni donations,” he says.

“It’s kind of amazing that a liberal arts college like Carleton—located in the middle of the snow belt—has been able to develop such dynamic international student programs,” says Gleason. He believes that the programs’ success has helped grow interest in supporting the endowment among other groups of alumni. 

“We at Carleton have to keep changing if we want to remain one of this country’s premier liberal arts colleges,” says President Oden. “We must ensure that our international student programs continue to thrive.”

When it comes to changes, Gnagna Lam has been through her share in the past year—and has learned how to thrive in the midst of them. “The high school I went to [United World College in New Mexico] wasn’t representative of the United States—we were a bunch of international students in the middle of nowhere,” she says. Making the transition from what Lam calls a “utopian bubble” to an American college was challenging, she says, but it taught her two main things: “You’ve got to make a place for yourself wherever you go. And keeping your hopes and dreams is all you need to make it through rough times.”

As the saying goes, “By your students you’ll be taught.”

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