TAMPA — The first day at the University of South Florida for more than 300 international students began with a roll call.
Pakistan. Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan. Afghanistan.
All these and more were represented Wednesday at a three-day orientation before the students join nearly 42,000 others on the USF Tampa campus for the 2016 spring semester.
USF now boasts about 4,000 international students from 139 countries. In 2010, when it partnered with the United Kingdom-based recruiting company INTO, there were little more than 1,400 foreign students at the university.
Acts of international terrorism and calls to limit interactions overseas helped define 2015, but USF spent the year bridging cultural barriers in ways Glen Besterfield said he has never seen in nearly 30 years at the university.
Besterfield is director of the INTO USF Center and assistant vice president for international admissions and global partnerships at the university.
USF is in good company: International students have been flocking to U.S. universities in record numbers ever since their numbers dipped because of strict student visa restrictions imposed in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
There are now 1.13 million foreign students studying in the U.S. — a 14 percent increase over last year and almost 50 percent more than in 2010, the Department of Homeland Security says.
“The aspiration is to become a global power, and we already are, which is unheard of for a university only 60 years old,” Besterfield said.
Beyond the camaraderie of Wednesday’s orientation, and a welcome-back beach party Friday, international students are changing the mission of the university, he said.
Becoming a campus that produces “global citizens” was a key component of USF’s 2013-18 strategic plan — a goal achieved by recruiting foreign students, forming research partnerships with universities overseas and folding opportunities for foreign travel and research into standard academic courses.
The university’s new Global Citizens Project — a $5 million eight-year initiative — aims to add study-abroad scholarships, professional development workshops and other improvements to help USF’s international and domestic students increase their global awareness, responsibility and participation, Provost Ralph Wilcox said.
This year, with help from millions of dollars in scholarships provided by USF System President Judy Genshaft and her husband, USF hopes to send about 2,000 students to study abroad. For those who can’t afford to travel overseas, Wilcox has a simple solution: “We bring the world to them.”
Many universities, like USF, have turned to outside recruiting companies to help with that mission.
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In 2010, USF became the first Florida school and second in the nation to form a partnership with INTO University Partnerships. The university entered into a 30-year contract with the company to reverse falling foreign enrollment numbers, which had dipped 10 percent in the three years since fall 2007. USF and Oregon State University were INTO’s only U.S. clients in 2010. The company now works with 20 U.S. universities. USF remains its biggest client.
This year, the university will combine its own USF World international student program with INTO to maximize resources for the surging enrollment numbers. INTO helped USF market itself to students overseas and grow an international student population that was 81st largest in the nation in 2010 to 32nd largest for the 2015-2016 school year, according to rankings by Times Higher Education World University.
The INTO program also helps students finish fast, as well as study for admissions tests, Besterfield said.
Last semester, 93 percent of undergraduates and 84.7 percent of graduates successfully completed the yearlong program. Many other universities offer “bridge” programs that can go on for two years or more, while USF students then enter straight into their academic program.
The speed with which he could get his graduate degree in finance was one of the reasons Dimitriy Drozdov, 21, of Russia, chose USF from a list of possible American universities, particularly Florida schools close to the University of Miami where he got his undergraduate degree.
“I didn’t want to waste any time and I knew I wanted to come to Florida and work here or Miami,” Drozdov said. “Other colleges I would waste time, but here the Pathway is five months and then I’m in graduate school. The academics and the graduate program here looked really good.”
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Security also played a role in why Drozdov decided to come to USF instead of choosing a school in a big city like New York or London.
“Tampa doesn’t really seem like a target,” Drozdov said.
USF does, though, have experience with the dangers involved in opening its doors to professors overseas. Former computer-science professor Sami Al-Arian of Palestine was deported to Turkey last year after he was accused of aiding terrorists. His brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, was also an instructor at USF before serving nearly five years in connection with links to Palestinian terrorists. He was deported in 2002.
Tenured Chinese professor Dajin Peng is still teaching at USF but has been suspended twice by the university and, according to a Bloomberg news report, was approached by the FBI to spy on his homeland.
In the six years since INTO USF launched, no homeland security issues have arisen, Besterfield said, but some student visas have been denied.
Denials can come when students can’t prove to the federal government they have the finances necessary to sustain themselves for the time it takes to earn a degree, or if there are questions about their intent to return to their home countries after graduation.
Sometimes, the student simply says the wrong thing in an interview at the U.S. Embassy. Some denials get appealed.
“If they see a relative in the United states they might question whether there is true intent to return to your country after you get your degree,” Besterfield said. “I had one recently where there was an uncle who lived in Sarasota and there was a denial.”
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There is one way a student can stay in the U.S. after graduation — get a job in the STEM field. In 2008, President Barack Obama extended the time international students are allowed to stay in the U.S. after graduation from 12 months to 29 months if they hold a degree in science, technology, engineering or math. If students find work through the Optional Practical Training program, they can then apply for a work visa.
The move was a response to complaints from businesses that American universities don’t produce enough highly skilled graduates in the STEM area — science, technology, engineering and math.
For 22-year-old Renee Munyakazi, the only student from Rwanda at USF, that means her master’s degree in finance will likely take her back home after her two-year program. She’ll be happy to return to her family, Munyakazi said, but she knew she needed more than her undergraduate degree to be competitive in her field.
“I didn’t really know anything about USF, but it was the only school that would allow me to come in January, and I didn’t want to wait until September and really wanted to come to Florida,” Munyakazi said. “I knew it was one of the best schools in Florida.”
Besterfield said the true payoff for bringing more international students to campus is hearing classroom discussions on American government or world religions from multiple points of view. Study-abroad numbers at the university are skyrocketing, and students who can’t afford to make a trip are exposed to the world on their local campus. International students can be found in courses including ballet, engineering and psychology.
“This campus has changed dramatically; the feel and the flavor of this campus has really changed with 75 percent of the world represented on this campus,” Besterfield said. “American students are really starting to understand how important it is as you’re growing up from 18 to 23 years old to start to develop a global perspective, and I have professors call me up and say, ‘Send more international students,’ because they’re engaged and spark conversations.”
In his welcoming speech to new international students Wednesday, Besterfield left the students with a mission: learn about each other.
“There are a lot of problems in the world, and the world isn’t a very pretty place, but the only way we’re going to change that is through education,” he said.