Alibi V.21 No.35 • Aug 30-Sept 5, 2012 

Gene Grant

Abroad in New Mexico

The start of the college school year is upon us. And that means money is being spent—on housing, on electronics, on school books and furniture.

Imagine you are an international student coming in from India, China, Mexico, South Korea or Germany. (Those are, in order, the top five countries sending students to New Mexico.) Preparation for the semester is more complicated and expensive for those families.

Add up all this kind of activity nationwide, and some serious cash is being dropped by international students. The competition to attract them is fierce due to the enormous financial and cultural largesse they bring to campuses and cities.

Incoming University of New Mexico president Dr. Bob Frank gets this. During his initial swing through town, he made sure to mention the need for more international students is at the top of his list. We would be well-served to listen because with a vigorous, strategic and culturally appropriate five- to 10-year plan, this city could see a profound tweak in its makeup inside a generation.

If I told you the economic impact of international students is $55 million statewide, you might think that's pretty hot. Compare that sum to other states, and it starts to look paltry.

Here's the bad news: We are 41st in the nation in snagging international students. There is a lot of room to grow, clearly.

More than $20 billion was added to this nation's economy last year from spending by foreign students and their families, according to the Association of International Educators in its annual Open Doors report. Since no one can seem to agree on a formula, there are estimates out there that suggest $20 billion could be an undercount—a big one.

More than $20 billion was added to this nation's economy last year from spending by foreign students and their families.

Frank has been witness. Ohio, where he worked at Kent State, ranked No. 8 nationwide and took in more than $662 million.

In the last academic year, New Mexico had 2,724 international students statewide, with UNM hosting 1,013 and NMSU hosting 1,162.

By comparison, Kent State had 1,503, but as many as 24,709 went to Ohio.

Inside the numbers is a troubling problem: The Land of Enchantment has been trending downward. Nationally, most states are seeing an increase in international students as their numbers in the U.S. have been rising overall. But New Mexico saw a 6 percent decline last year.

There could be a variety of reasons, but what should be clear is the international marketplace is not buying what we are offering. That's an indictment in a global economy.

I think Frank knows this. In order for UNM to maintain viability as an institution, there's an expectation of a bigger international presence. During my interview with Frank on KNME, he proposed to add 800 more international students, putting us in line with modern trends.

But inside that goal is the ultimate challenge: How a university does or does not serve its visiting student body is fantastically complicated. It's hard for these students. Universities previously thought offering a student volunteer and a counselor would be enough, but the isolation, alienation and depression that can sneak in are often unseen problems.

International students cite a loss of social status as a major contributing factor in surveys. A lot of these visitors were popular back home, and American indifference takes a toll. Those surveys also reveal not nearly as much social interaction with classmates as you might expect. This will need attention.

The good news is there are opportunities for UNM. It's interesting to note that Mexico commands 10 percent of our international student makeup, a stout percentage compared with almost every other state. Arizona, for obvious reasons, has seen that number plummet to 4 percent.

India, UNM's top country for students at 16.7 percent, dropped a percentage point nationwide last year. So what are we doing right? Germany, our No. 5, does not register anywhere else in the Southwest and is only 12th nationally. What are we offering German students?

The number of Chinese students in the United States is climbing, too. Last year, they were nearly a quarter of the international student population. Chinese students make up 15 percent of international students at UNM, second to Indians. This number will surely rise. Are we prepared?

Sure, it will take resources for New Mexico to draw more international students. But if the regents can jump on this opportunity, the return on investment is without question.

This is an opportunity for the city, too. We could see a period soon where some of our immigrant communities that have gained a toehold in the International District suddenly take on a new value. These communities are a critical part of the infrastructure necessary for international students’ social and academic success.

We have the pieces. Some may need work, but if Frank can stitch this together, we will all benefit.

Gene Grant is host of "New Mexico in Focus" on KNME. The International District’s day is coming, people. Be joyful. Be very joyful.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.