“Education is all a matter of building bridges,” said the novelist Ralph Ellison.
As the president of Franklin & Marshall College (F&M), I see such construction happening every day. More than one-third of our current first-year class comes from at least 1,000 miles away—and 14 percent of our entire student body is made up of international students, hailing from 55 countries.
Such international reach reflects the increasingly global character of today’s American campuses. In the past five years, the enrollment of international students in undergraduate programs has risen 37 percent, approaching 400,000 students.
Each year, I get to see hundreds of international students growing from the high-impact resources of my liberal arts campus: Small classes with faculty scholars who mentor students personally; an ethos of discovery; interactive residential communities; opportunities to integrate knowledge and experience; serious preparation for life after college; and participation in powerful networks of professionally-successful alumni.
How do I see today’s international students growing and empowering themselves from their bold choice to study in the United States?
Consider Felipe Storch De Oliveira, a senior from Brazil with a double major in environmental studies and economics, who pursued the liberal arts as a way of engaging with diverse minds, backgrounds, and cultures. During his first summer in college, Felipe took a course through which he advised rural Ecuadorian communities about sustainable products and business strategies. Through such opportunities to learn while doing, he has seen how global collaboration can produce solutions for problems like persistent deforestation, climate change, and shortage of capacity for electricity generation. That’s why his senior thesis with economics professor Eiman Zein-Elabdin focuses on developing a holistic understanding of development in his native Amazonia, so that he can be an advocate for preservation of the rainforest and its people.
There’s also Tekla Iashagashvili, a junior from the Republic of Georgia, who is double majoring in sociology and our integrated business program, Business, Organizations, and Society (BOS). She brought to her liberal arts education a deep curiosity and a yearning to get to know her own abilities, but what she couldn’t have known was how she would develop her voice as an intellectual leader. She serves on a College committee that hosts 25 campus lectures a year. She mentors younger foreign students to help evoke their best talents in college. And, guided by professors in sociology, she has developed her own research project on national identity in European cultural institutions like museums. This is the kind of well-rounded education that prepares students to work in multinational organizations and to influence our collective global future.
Then there’s Mawupemor Kofi Alorzuke, a senior from Ghana who chose Franklin & Marshall because he sensed that integrating economics, business, and applied mathematics would prepare him to promote sustainable economic development at home. Last summer, Kofi held an internship for credit that grew out of his studies in F&M’s local community of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a small city that has embraced the knowledge economy. His job was to catalogue promising practices for creating affordable housing and strong communities—experiential learning he’ll bring back to Ghana to make life better for others.
And finally, there’s Xinyu Zong, who goes by Winniebell, a sophomore from China whose education is awakening new passions and opening doors of opportunity. Studying an array of subjects—from French to sociology, and from British literature to earth science—she loves contemplating the interrelationship of fields and cultures. The diversity of our campus led her to learn about African music and even to incorporate a traditional Chinese song into the beats of a Guinean drumming piece. This summer she’ll take her growing curiosity about global cultures to a bigger stage with a class on post-apartheid South Africa, taught by government professor Jennifer Kibbe, that will meet both in Lancaster and in Khayelitsha.
Each of these students crossed oceans, borders, and cultures—infused with the belief that studying in an American college would be the very finest way to develop their talent. They are proud to be challenging themselves to grow in the intellectual greenhouse of an American campus.
Each is making friendships with U.S. students—teaming up for research projects, traveling to their homes for vacations, exploring Lancaster’s neighborhoods together, and learning about American culture and society. These friendships will be a lifelong resource and source of joy.
Of course, some families worry that although a liberal education provides meaningful intellectual enrichment, it may not catalyze students’ career opportunities in their home countries. This is an understandable concern, but I see excellent returns for young job seekers. Every study of employers shows that intellectual agility, research skills, cross-cultural communications ability, and a strong work ethic are the qualities needed most in today’s global knowledge economy, with its emphasis on creativity, innovation, and advanced ideas.
Indeed, at my institution, six months after graduation, 99 percent of our 2015 graduates were employed or in full-time graduate school, including international students. There’s Amer Suljendic from Bosnia, who secured a position as a financial analyst with Barclays in New York City. There’s Hormuz Masani from India working for Africair as an Aviation Consultant. There’s Xinnong Li from China, who earned a Master of Science degree in Luxury Management and Marketing from EMLYON Business School in France before returning home to work for Christie’s. There’s Arya Bhattarai from Nepal working for Citigroup. And there’s Zenia Tangri, a senior from India who studied economics at F&M and will soon begin in New York City with the brand consulting firm Vivaldi Partners.
These outcomes—for recent international and domestic students alike—are deeply empowering. And, as I’ve written elsewhere, a liberal arts education possesses an appreciating value that allows young graduates to make the most of each early professional opportunity and thus build rapid trajectories of professional success.
Looking forward, it also benefits American students to attend colleges with global student bodies. Again and again, U.S.-born students describe the transformational value of learning with and from peers from around the world. Whatever their nationalities, all our students find meaning in each other’s perspectives and life stories. That’s the basis of the cross-cultural collaboration and diplomacy the global community will need to address global threats ranging from climate change to terrorism and from forced migration to severe poverty.
Everyone wins when tomorrow’s global leaders spend their formative years learning intensively, sharing cultures, solving problems and building bridges, together.