COLUMBIA — As the beat of the guitar and fiddle filled Stotler Lounge in MU's Memorial Student Union with upbeat folk music Tuesday night, Jim Thaxter, the dance caller, coaxed the students to square dance.
"Grab your partner and promenade," he told them.
Square dancing and a pot luck meal were among the activities at the welcome party for new international students who arrived at MU for the spring semester. About 70 people, including international students and volunteers, sampled a variety of food, such as Thai noodles, curry, pizza, potato chips and granola bars.
Thaxter has called dances at MU’s international student orientation three or four times. This year, he taught 40 students and volunteers three dances — a simple circle, the Cumberland Reel and the Virginia Reel — that have been around for more than 200 years. Thaxter said he chose easy dances.
"Once you hear the fiddle, you can’t stand still. You have to dance," he said.
About 100 new international students started their lives in Columbia this week. International student enrollment at MU has reached a record high this academic year.
In fall 2012, there were 2,135 international students at MU, according to the registrar. That's up more than 9 percent from the 1,943 international students enrolled last year. MU officials are ramping up their international recruiting efforts, saying students from other countries bring untold economic and cultural benefits.
Orientation started Monday for international students beginning their studies this semester. David Currey, director of international student and scholar services, makes it a rule to ask all the international students which country they're from when he closes his greeting speech on the first day of orientation.
This year, students from China, South Korea and India made up about half the crowd. That's no surprise. In the fall, 1,021 of MU's international students, or nearly half, were from China. There were 188 from South Korea and 152 from India.
Currey said that's a common trend across the country. He cited the size of China's population, the country's economic growth and the value it places on higher education as factors.
MU has 150 to 200 active or pending international agreements and programs, Currey said. Within the last two to three years, many agreements have been developed with Chinese or Indian universities, he said.
Students at the orientation came from all over the globe, including Iraq, Yemen, France and Germany, Currey said.
"It's always encouraging to see students from every corner of the world," he said.
International recruitment initiative
MU's admissions office started a new international recruiting initiative in fall 2011.
"The goal is to increase international student enrollment to 3 percent of the overall undergraduate population," John Wilkerson, assistant director of admissions and the international recruiter, said. International enrollment among first-time college students stands at 2 percent now, he said.
Wilkerson hopes for a "marked sustainable growth" in international enrollment.
Under the new initiative, members of the admissions office developed social media and a video that introduces MU to prospective students. Wilkerson and other staff members have visited high schools around the world to talk to students, parents and guidance counselors.
Wilkerson has visited 28 countries in the past several months and has overseen visits to 40 countries.
The admissions office considers three criteria when deciding which countries to visit:
- Whether the education system prepares students for success at MU.
- Whether the country's economy is growing and makes funding available to students.
- Whether the country fosters a culture that encourages studying abroad.
Wilkerson said he's exploring possibilities in Latin America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
When he visits foreign high schools, Wilkerson works in collaboration with EducationUSA, a division of the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, that helps identify students who might be a good fit for U.S. universities. Wilkerson's talks offer broad information about campus life in general across the U.S. He also does separate presentations promoting MU and tries to get a feel for students' goals and needs.
"It is important to understand what the needs of students are," he said.
Wilkerson usually visits three to four high schools per day in each country he travels to, and every trip takes him to several countries, he said. When he went to Latin America last year, he hit four countries in 13 hours.
"It's rewarding," Wilkerson said, adding that there are many merits to having international students at MU.
According to the National Association of International Educators, international students at MU pumped $52.4 million into the economy in 2011-12.
"The educational impact of the international students are unquantifiable," Wilkerson said. "The benefit of that opportunity for (American students) to interact with students from other cultures is unmeasurable."
Wilkerson said the new recruiting initiative has already boosted MU's profile abroad, but he doesn't expect to see tangible results for three to five years.
After one visit to a top high school in Central America, the guidance counselor sent him an email saying that nine students listed MU among their top choices.
"To know that students are excited to study in Mizzou makes me excited," Wilkerson said.
The College of Engineering is trying to boost the number of international students in the program. Vladislav Likholetov, director of international partnerships and initiatives at the college, said it has about 30 agreements with universities in China, two in Iraq and several in India. He said MU was among the first U.S. universities to accept master's students from Iraq. Some members of the first class of Iraqi students graduated in December.
Engineering Dean James Thompson has set a strategic plan to have 500 undergraduate students in the college, which has about 3,000 students in total.
"We look forward to having a diverse undergrad population," Likholetov said.
New MU students Zebin Lin and Jinpeng Wang are both from China but lived in different provinces. They met each other online while using QQ, a Chinese social media platform, to discuss MU. Lin said QQ has four different groups dedicated to MU; each has about 200 members.
Lin, a economics transfer student from Wuhan Textile University, said he asked QQ members about MU to prepare himself for his new life in Columbia. It also came in handy when he was preparing his application.
Lin said he doesn't anticipate missing home too badly because people in Columbia have been so nice.
Wang has been studying chemical engineering at Shandong University of Technology and will continue to do so at MU. He arrived in town Monday and said he has never been this far from home.
"I want to get a part-time job in a lab that will help me with my major," he said.
Another new student, Zoona Jerral, has a mission in Columbia. As a cultural ambassador to the United States from Pakistan, her goal is to mend the image of Pakistan and inform people about the potential of her home country.
Jerral was selected by International Research and Exchanges Board, a nonprofit organization known as IREX that promotes positive lasting change around the globe, to study at MU and experience American culture while sharing information about her homeland. The organization covers her living expenses and tuition while she spends one semester at MU.
Jerral will study anthropology, American literature and architecture while she's here. She also will perform 20 hours of community service and make a presentation about her country. She plans to volunteer at either Habitat for Humanity or the Cedar Creek Therapeutic Riding Center.
During her time at MU, Jerral wants to know how diversity contributes to American prosperity. She's also interested in learning about community development.
Although she has lived on her own for more than four years and is accustomed to being away from home, she said the distance between the United States and Pakistan will make it difficult to see her family.
"I went home once every two months, but now it's going to be once in five months," she said.
Before Jerral came to the U.S., her friends threw three farewell parties for her. There were so many people, she couldn't count them all. Many friends advised her to have fun — and to get a boyfriend.
"I'm sure I'm not going to get one," she said.
Since many Pakistanis speak English, language won't be a barrier for Jerral. She already feels the workload creeping up on her, though.
"I can see it coming," she said. But "it's good to have a difference in life."
Missourian reporter Lauren Gatcombe contributed to this report.
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.