Foreign Students Find Their Niche

Boston University leads US colleges in hosting a lively blend of different cultures

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

MIHO Nakya laughs when she says that many American students in her Boston University (BU) classes talk like machine guns. ''In Japan, silence is a sign of respect for the teacher,'' she says. ''Questions are seen as interruptions.''

Welcome to garrulous BU, the leader among American universities for encouraging a lively blend of cultural differences in and out of classrooms. Some 4,700 international students are now enrolled at BU -- the highest number at any college or university in the country, according to a report from the Institute for International Education.

''International students have been an essential component of BU for decades,'' says Donald Ross, director of the international students and scholars office at BU, where total university enrollment is about 28,000.

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Second to BU is the University of Southern California, with about 4,200 international students. The University of Wisconsin at Madison and the University of Texas at Austin are next, with foreign enrollments of around 4,000 each.

What continues to draw foreign students to the United States, Mr. Ross says, is the undiminished reputation of US higher education, particularly in business and science. Add the lure of experiencing Western culture firsthand and a cosmopolitan, urban campus like BU, with a proven interest in foreign students, and it is not a hard sell to qualified students.

''The magic lure of the US is still there among foreign students,'' Ross says, ''and because English is the lingua franca of the world, people want to come to the US to study.''

Unlike any other American university, BU aggressively recruits students through recruitment offices in eight regions: Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates, Spain, and Britain. BU undergraduate admissions representatives also tour the world seeking students.

Other major universities, avoiding the costs of offices in foreign lands, regularly send recruiters abroad. Or they use an informal alumni network in countries for recruitment.

''Most of the foreign students that come to BU,'' says Ross, ''are from personal referrals, from alumni who had a good experience here and make recommendations to sons and daughters of friends.'' Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and India send the most students to BU. ''More Asian students are coming now because business is doing well there now,'' he says.

These undergraduate sons and daughters are usually from wealthy families. Tuition at BU is $19,000, and room and board is $7,000. Add travel costs, living expenses, clothing, etc., and total costs for a year can be $30,000 and above. Only four undergraduate foreign students receive financial aid, but 600 graduate students have financial support.

In compliance with US immigration policy, BU and other universities require documentation from students that they have the resources to complete a year.

BU faces an $8.5 million deficit in its fiscal budget for 1996. ''Almost all international undergraduate students pay full tuition,'' Ross says, ''and this helps BU's budget and the Massachusetts economy.''

Some 500 international graduate students at BU, many from Asian countries, are funded by agencies, the World Bank, or businesses.

Issam Benabdelarim from Morocco, currently studying English at International Students of English (ISE) in Boston, is waiting for acceptance to one of three universities here. ''When I am accepted,'' he says, ''then my country will pay for my education as an electrical engineer.''

At the University of Texas, Margaret Kidd, director of the international office in admissions, says, ''We have a long tradition of welcoming foreign students. Because our academic programs are highly ranked, and our $14,000 tuition is a little lower than others, we are attractive to foreign students.''

Elizabeth Sutton, manager of research at the Institute for International Education, says foreign students make up about 3 percent of all college students in the US. ''The number has remained fairly constant over the last 20 years,'' she says.

What has also remained constant are the thousands of foreign students suddenly faced with the reality of living in American culture and knowing English with enough competence to attend classes.

At BU's Center for English Language and Orientation Programs, intensive, noncredit English classes are offered to students, scholars, and visitors. All foreign students at any college must pass a test of English-skills.

''A lot of self-reflection goes on for the students,'' says Leah Fygetakis, director of the counseling center at BU. ''Cooperation is more common in other cultures, and here individual competition is stressed. So, many students are trying to find a balance between the two, and that adds to the normal stress in their lives.''

Some 40 intercultural clubs offer friendship and support for foreign students. ''People tend to stick to their own culture,'' Ross says, ''and getting American students to mingle with them is a big challenge.''

But a big negative among foreign students, and their parents, is the fear of crime in the United States. ''I was concerned about my safety before I came to BU,'' says Ms. Nakya, a graduate student in education, ''and I'm still not too comfortable.''

Living off-campus in an apartment, Nakya was surprised one afternoon when her landlord barged in and wouldn't take his shoes off. ''In Japan we don't wear shoes inside, and I had just vacuumed the rug,'' she says with laughter. ''But he said it was his rug. In Japan a landlord is more like family. Here he is a businessman.''

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