By Bonnie Miller Rubin
CHICAGO _ Despite the fact that they don’t play football, basketball or soccer, Sergio da Silva and Armindo Goncalves were hotly recruited by Joliet Junior College.
The two young men arrived on campus in January, leaving behind their island home in the South Pacific _ a leap of faith, considering they are the first members of their respective families to ever board an airplane, much less pursue higher education.
“Right away, we learned that we should have brought socks,” said da Silva, 20, who is studying agri-business.
The duo represent a new push by community colleges nationwide to attract students from not just around the block, but from around the world. No longer content to be known as sleepy commuter schools, these two-year institutions are hiring international coordinators, attending overseas college fairs and setting lofty enrollment goals in places far beyond their surrounding ZIP codes.
A culturally diverse student body is an essential component for success in an era of increased globalization, experts said. But there’s another payoff as well: Foreign students pay three to four times as much in tuition as their district peers.
“Most countries don’t have a community college system, so they are sending students here for training,” said Karen Hunter Anderson, executive director of the Illinois Community College Board. “It helps globalize our campuses, but it’s also an extra revenue source. It’s a win-win for everybody.”
While foreign students have flocked to four-year U.S. colleges _ more than 886,052 international students were enrolled in 2013-2014, up 40 percent over the past decade, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE) _ community colleges are just beginning to catch up.
There were almost 88,000 foreign students nationwide at community colleges on student visas last year, about an 8 percent increase over the past decade, with almost 20 schools hosting 1,000 or more international students, according to IIE.
None of the top destinations are in Illinois, but Anderson said that should change, as more people become familiar with the third largest community college system in the U.S.
“People are discovering what we have here,” said Anderson, who just returned from a trip to Cuba to help raise the profile of the state’s 48 community colleges.
Still, evidence of an impending boom is everywhere. A few years ago, Joliet Junior College had two students from overseas. This semester, 14 are on campus _ a number projected to double by next year, according to Dayna Crabb, the school’s international student services coordinator.
Crabb, who was hired in 2013, attributes the growth to an emerging middle class and a lack of capacity in their own countries. She went on a recruiting trip to Vietnam, Thailand and New Zealand last fall and considers Southeast Asia “the next hot market.”
Other factors that make community colleges an increasingly popular option include small class size, skills-oriented curriculum and affordability _ the same reason that has attracted American students.
The story is much the same at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, which reports 119 students from 46 countries. At Harper College, 123 foreign students are enrolled at the Palatine campus.
“There’s no question that recruiting has exploded,” said Jill Izumikawa, Harper’s coordinator of international student services.
At College of Lake County, a center for international education was established five years ago. But even more telling is the school received a U.S. State Department grant to open an American Culture Center in Xi’an, China in 2012, explained Tammy Mireles, CLC’s international student recruitment coordinator.
“Diversity and global engagement are written into our strategic goals,” Mireles said. “It’s an area that is extremely important to us.”
Popular areas of study include business administration, computer science, engineering and allied health fields. Many students use it as launching pad to four-year institutions, but others _ like da Silva and Goncalves _ plan on returning to their home countries with a two-year associate degree.
The students are from Timor-Leste, a small nation between Australia and Indonesia, which was liberated in 2002 after decades under Indonesian rule. They belong to a new generation focused on jump-starting economic development at home, where their farming families work much the same way as they have for decades.
Their tuition and living expenses are covered by the Timor-Leste Hillary Clinton Scholarship Program, a USAID-funded scholarship to expand opportunities and nurture future leaders. They chose Joliet because it was the first community college in the U.S., they said.
“We also liked that it was quiet here, so we could focus,” said Goncalves, 26, and the quieter of the two.
They praised Americans for being friendly, even helping them navigate their way from O’Hare to Joliet. They marvel at the size of their apartment near campus, the ease of public transportation and the sheer size of American supermarkets.
Said Crabb: “Everyone else’s shopping carts are filled with processed foods … and then there’s Sergio and Armindo, with their produce and rice.”
Of course, adjusting to American life can be an education in itself. Language and money issues can hobble success (under U.S. law, foreign students are not permitted to work off campus). Homesickness can also be a factor. For four months, Goncalves was unable to establish any Internet connection with his family.
Even something as simple as classroom culture can be perplexing. In Timor-Leste, students never question a teacher, which can be a problem when your grade is based on class participation.
“You’re not allowed to speak unless spoken to,” said da Silva. “I like the American way much better. It has helped change my personality.”
Of course, nothing is as astonishing as snow, especially since the temperature in Timor-Leste rarely dips below 65 degrees and their wardrobe was mostly limited to T-shirts and hoodies. As they recounted their first experience, Crabb made a note to include “what to pack” in future orientations.
That she concerns herself with their food and wardrobe needs is typical for international student coordinators, who consider it their job not just to recruit students, but to look after them once they arrive, so they can thrive academically and socially.
Most schools have implemented some kind of support system to assist with the transition. Last fall, Crabb started the International Friendship and Mentoring Program. Faculty and staff volunteers have stepped up, from hosting Thanksgiving dinner to sightseeing to helping the newcomers find where to get their hair cut.
“While the initial reason was to benefit our international students, it is equally beneficial for the mentors and their families, who have shared how rewarding they’ve found the experience,” Crabb said. “They are thrilled to have the opportunity to invite someone from another country into their home … and to establish that sense of family.”