International students find a variety of niches

There was a loaded moment after a lecture on Feb. 13 given by Matthew Swanson ’98, assistant director of admissions, on the subject of international student admissions at Williams. President Schapiro raised his hand and asked a question about the College’s ability to snag the interest of top international applicants away from the clutches of similar schools. Specifically, how did Swanson, the point man for the admissions office’s campaign to woo the best and brightest of the developing world, set Williams apart from the other colleges who sent representatives with him on regional recruiting tours?

The young alum deftly responded. He described a recent trip to China in which he and admissions officers from two other liberal arts colleges made the acquaintance of an extremely impressive girl. She took her three suitors on a whirlwind tour of Beijing, at the end of which, Swanson recounted, they “were all very taken with her.”

“And I ask you, Morty,” he finished, “where that girl ended up…”

His tone made clear to the audience that this young bachelorette is Berkshire bound. In fact, Ren Wei ’07 was accepted under Williams’ early decision program, and when she arrives at Williams in September, she plans to pursue a major in economics with a concentration in environmental studies, Swanson said.

The College is set to stake its claim as a major player on the global education scene. While other colleges, many with bigger names and farther-reaching reputations, are looking to cut funding for international student programs, Williams is reaffirming its commitment to national diversity. This commitment would, in Swanson’s words, give “maximum exposure to contrasting ideas and perspectives” to the college community. International students, it would seem, are to play a major role in the further diversification of the College. It is therefore critical to examine the effect these students have had on campus life, and the effect this campus has had on them.

The first thing to understand is that the number of international students is currently small relative to similar schools. At the Feb. 13 lecture, entitled “You’re From WHERE? Or What Happened to all the Americans?” which kicked off this year’s Faculty Lecture Series, Amy Pettengill-Fahnestock, assistant dean and international student advisor, and Swanson’s fellow lecturer, stated that the College’s international student population stands at 6 percent, or 118 students (a total which does not include students with dual citizenship). Mt. Holyoke College, in contrast, boasts a 16 percent international student population, and Macalester College comes in just shy of 14 percent.

That small group at the College, however, has had an enormous impact on student life, particularly in regard to academics. According to Pettengill-Fahnestock, 21 percent of international students have placed in the top 10 percent of their classes. Impressively, the top GPAs in both the sophomore and junior classes belong to international students. On that basis alone, an expansionary foreign policy on the part of the College looks like sound strategy.

A discussion of the academic achievements of the international community, however, risks falling back on the familiar stereotype of the overachieving foreign student rarely seen outside the library. At Williams, international students have excelled in all facets of campus life. In athletics, for instance, the men’s squash team has been powered recently by international students. The men’s soccer team features a core of Jamaican students. International students have joined their American counterparts in the leadership of a number of campus organizations.

At the personal level, international students express the desire to integrate socially with American students. This has not always been easy. According to Ashok Pillai ’05, the Swedish co-head of the Williams International Club (WIC), international students generally fall into one of two types. The first type has spent his or her entire life in one country, and quite likely has done little traveling. The second type has spent much of his or her life on the move, often because of parents employed by embassies or multinational corporations, and thus has more worldwide experience and has probably been better exposed to Americans and American culture.

Pillai, who attended high school in Japan, falls squarely into the second category. Although he strongly believes that “the international community should not be a separate community,” he acknowledges that a student of his background can find it easier to fit in than a student who falls into the first category.

Vladimir Andonov ’05, who is from Bulgaria, falls firmly into the first category and has relished the challenge of creating a place for himself in the Williams community. He described the First Days of his first year as his favorite time so far at Williams, citing the welcoming, friendly incredulity he met with when he told fellow frosh about his roots. “The general attitude of people here is [very] friendly,” Andonov said. “It is really a community.”

Andonov has come from one of Europe’s poorest countries to the world’s richest. Like other international students who have arrived from developing countries (and that goes for most), he has had to adjust to enormous discrepancies between his homeland and America. For instance, Andonov’s library job pays $7 an hour – a standard student salary in America, but a fortune in Bulgarian terms, where a comparable job would likely pay less than $2 an hour.

“In Bulgaria, I could literally live on my own with the money I made in two semesters working here,” he said.

This, of course, leads to another important point about international students, and the reason that Williams can compete with higher-profile schools for talented foreigners. Most students in the developing world couldn’t possibly conceive of paying an American college’s tuition. Williams, therefore, steps in to relieve the financial burden. According to Swanson, “we currently have arguably the most comprehensive and generous financial aid package for international students of any college or university in the country.” That’s music to the ears of international applicants who often find it necessary to make their college choice based on the mantra first popularized by Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character in “Jerry Maguire.” That’s right – Williams has shown them the money.

And Williams has seen its own money allotted to the cause grow. In the past year, gifts of $7.2 million from an anonymous donor and $5 million from Edgar Bronfman ’50 have allowed the College to switch to a “need-blind” admissions policy for international students, bringing international admissions policy in line with algorithms for domestic applicants. Williams is currently part of an elite group of five colleges who offer need-blind international admissions.

The international study program at Williams still faces many challenges in maintaining diversity. Chief among them is the College’s lack of regional diversity. While the international community here boasts many students from Eastern Europe, the Caribbean and East Asia, according to Swanson, underrepresented regions include the Middle East, Africa and Latin and South America. Federico Sosa ’04, the Paraguayan co-head of the WIC, is an especially strong advocate for more recruiting from the Americas.

Of great immediate concern to many international students is the new INS policy which requires male citizens of 20 nations, most of who are located in the Middle East, staying in the U.S. to report to INS offices for registration. Since December, several hundred men have been detained for mostly minor problems with their visa applications. At a recent ISU meeting, nearly all present expressed a great deal of anger at both the policy and the subsequent treatment of those who have complied.

Hamaad Ravda ’05 was one of a group of five Pakistani students who traveled to Boston last week with Pettengill-Fahnestock to register at the INS office there. While Ravda and the rest of his group were out within two hours, and he said he had a “good conversation” with the INS agent who interviewed him, he said he was still very unnerved by the whole ordeal.

“I sometimes felt like I was being treated like a criminal, when they took fingerprints and mug shots,” he said.

On the whole, Ravda has been fairly happy with the College, although he believes that President Schapiro and the administration should have shown more open support for the Muslim community both after the Sept. 11 attacks and during the Horowitz ad controversy which erupted last fall. Nonetheless, he said of the College, “it’s grown on me. . .people have been really accepting.”

Ravda also noted, however, that “Williams College isn’t like the real world.” That disconnect, which was related in various forms by several members of the international community, leads to almost unanimous favorable impressions of the College itself, but often much darker views of the United States as a whole. Williams often comes out as the exception to the rule that even similar college campuses are believed to show less welcome and acceptance. That disconnection syndrome has a name – the Purple Bubble, which international students feel as powerfully as their American counterparts.