November 8, 2000


Students and alumni cross borders in search of education, adventure

By Kathryn Federici Greenwood

(Editor's note: The following story contains a correction of the version originally published in the Nov. 8, 2000, issue of PAW.)

Princeton undergraduates could easily hole up in Firestone Library for four years - not to mention entertain themselves with on-campus extracurriculars - and never seek out another perspective on the world. In fact, most do.

In recent years, however, the university has been making incremental efforts to change the complexion of the campus to one that embraces and encourages international experience. Princeton is attracting more students, both undergraduate and graduate, from other countries, and starting to take down barriers to study abroad for U.S. students. And as curiosity and career opportunities drive them, increasing numbers of alumni are settling overseas.

When Roberto A. Cordon '88 was a student, "Princeton was still in the service of the nation, not of all nations...I think that changed," says Cordon, a native Guatemalan who's now a consultant for the United Nations in Geneva. "Now Princeton is a much more international place."

Bringing a global perspective to campus has been one of President Shapiro's goals. "It's extremely important for Princeton in all dimensions to be open to experiences from outside," he says.

More financial aid brings more foreign students

To that end, Shapiro himself raised money to increase the financial aid budget for international students, who tend to be the top students in their own countries. As a result, Princeton upped its percentage of international undergraduates (non-U.S. citizens and non-permanent U.S. residents) - from 6 percent of the Class of 2003 to about 9 percent from 37 countries this year. Among its Ivy League peers, Princeton ranked last in the percentage of foreign students in 1999--00, according to a report by the International Students and Scholars Office at Cornell University. But this year's jump may change that, depending on the increase of foreign students at the other Ivies.

Today, international students are admitted under the same need-blind admission policy already in place for U.S. and Canadian students, says Stephen E. LeMenager, acting dean of admission. Princeton boasts one of the largest scholarship funds for foreign students of any American college, LeMenager adds.

Most international students still come from upper socioeconomic groups, observes Jill Otto '02, who was born in Brazil, educated in Germany, and calls both places home. Like Otto, Princeton's international students tend to be very international. Their trip to New Jersey is generally not their first sojourn abroad. Similarly, their post-Princeton plans usually include more time away from their homes to take advantage of job opportunities in the U.S., earn advanced degrees, and further explore a new culture. In recent years, Canada has sent the vast majority of students to Princeton, followed by Singapore, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Germany, and Romania.

With their international experience, command of languages, and academic qualifications, students from abroad are "highly sought after" by employers, says Marianne Waterbury, associate dean of undergraduate students. Eventually, she adds, "many go back and assume positions of leadership in their own countries."

Being a foreigner in a U.S. college engenders "a certain level of maturity," says Otto, a comparative literature major who is earning a certificate in Latin American studies. International students know "why they're here, how they got here, and what they want to get out of the university," says Otto.

A large number of them study engineering, computer science, and the social sciences, primarily economics and the Woodrow Wilson School, says Waterbury. Their parents, she says, want them to earn "a quantifiable degree."

Avik Mukhopadhyay '02, an Indian raised in Kuwait who attended a British high school, decided on studying engineering in the U.S. in part to take advantage of the burgeoning development of computer technology. The skills one can pick up and opportunities available in the U.S., he says, "are unparalleled." Eventually, Mukhopadhyay, president of International Students at Princeton (ISAP), wants to return to India. "I definitely want to give something back."

Once at Princeton, experienced international students like Mukhopadhyay and Otto, who are fluent in English, integrate fairly easily into campus life. The Office of Undergraduate Students conducts a preorientation for all foreign undergraduates, and ISAP connects with them even before they set foot on Princeton's campus. Many, however, do find the amount of binge drinking on campus "appalling for the most part, at least initially," says Waterbury. "They are somewhat dismayed that otherwise smart people would waste their time engaging in that kind of behavior."

For graduate students from other countries, learning English and the isolation of graduate life present the largest obstacles to becoming comfortable at Princeton, says F. Joy Montero, associate dean of the Graduate School. The Graduate School, through the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, addresses these problems by bringing international students to campus for a three-week orientation.

The Council of International Graduate Students, headed by Radhika Wijetunge, a Sri Lankan studying civil and environmental engineering, also helps graduate students mix through a variety of activities. Some of the larger contingents of international students, such as those from China, have developed organizations to make their stay in the U.S. a little easier.

While international students comprise only a small fraction of the undergraduate student body, they make up 41 percent of new graduate students this year, up from 32 percent in 1986--87. The Cornell report placed Princeton first among Ivy League institutions in the percentage of international graduate and professional students. Cornell ranked second with 36.1 percent.

The number of international graduate students has grown over the past 20 years because of several factors, says David N. Redman, the Graduate School's associate dean for academic affairs: a decline in U.S. applicants to Ph.D. programs; greater accessibility to U.S. doctoral programs for students from China and the former Eastern bloc nations; and foreign-born faculty members attracting more non-U.S. citizens.

Graduate students choose Princeton because of the academic programs, financial aid, and faculty members whose research interests match their own, says Montero. The bulk of international students study math, the natural sciences, and engineering, she adds. China sends the most graduate students to Princeton, followed by India, Canada, and Russia, according to data from the Office of the Registrar for 1999-00.

A place for the globally minded

Both graduate students and undergraduates, as well as visiting scholars from overseas, find a home at the International Center, now located at the Frist Campus Center. Founded in 1974, the center encourages exchanges between Americans and international students and scholars, both on campus and in the surrounding community. Exchanges take place through a bevy of programs, including dinner discussions at residential colleges; weekly lunches for students, scholars, and faculty members to focus on timely issues; and English tutoring for the spouses of foreign scholars.

"The International Center was the center of my extracurricular activities," recalls Roberto Cordon. Director and cofounder of the International Center Paula K. Chow "made it natural that you could be a citizen from here and interact with citizens from other places and that an international community could exist wherever you were," says Cordon. For many of the international students, he adds, Chow was "our surrogate mother."

Removing obstacles to study abroad

Last year, Nawal Atwan '01, a Woodrow Wilson School major who is also premed, went to school at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where the Woodrow Wilson School offered a task force on Making Peace with Syria and Lebanon. The only Palestinian-American among Israelis and Jewish-Americans in her program, Atwan viewed the Palestinian-Israeli struggle through a different set of eyes. "To be able to sit down with Israelis really helped me to see their side," says Atwan, who was born in Kuwait and raised in the U.S. Her father's family lives on the West Bank.

During her semester abroad, Atwan, who says she's passionate about the Palestinian cause and plans to write her senior thesis on health care policy on the West Bank, volunteered for the Union of Palestine Medical Relief Societies, a nongovernmental organization helping Palestinians with health care. She saw firsthand that Palestinians are "pretty much prisoners" and suffer from substandard health care - learning that could only take place on the spot.

As recently as the 1980s, study abroad was marginalized. Incorporating independent work while studying overseas made it difficult for most students to leave campus, and the program itself was limited. "We were not attracting the people who wanted to have a serious study abroad program," said Nancy Ann Kanach, associate dean in the Dean of the College office. "So the people who came [to Princeton] were people who were perfectly happy to stay here for four years."

Today about 10 percent of each graduating class studies abroad - low compared to some of Princeton's peers but not to Yale and Harvard. Kanach is charged with doubling that. Princeton is developing closer ties with programs and universities abroad and modifying the way juniors can complete their independent work. Several departments have integrated their requirements - such as Woodrow Wilson School task forces and junior seminars in the English department - into programs at institutions overseas. This fall alone 73 students are studying in 15 countries. That is more than double the number abroad last fall. Most students, primarily juniors but some sophomores and seniors, go for a semester, but a few stay for two.

The overseas experience can encompass more than just a semester taking courses. Students can also attend a summer language program, do an internship, conduct research, or participate in one of the many service projects during breaks.

For Jessica Moffett '01, a politics major who spent the spring semester of her junior year at the Catholic University of Chile in Santiago, writing her junior paper abroad "made independent work exciting. . . . It's something I want to do. Had I not gone abroad, it would feel like a burden." After finishing the semester and completing her jp on the transformation of the socialist party in Chile, she interned in the office of one of socialist President Ricardo Lagos's chief policy advisers, Eugenio Lahera *79.

Students return to Princeton with increased confidence and often more passion for their academic interests. "This place can be very insular. And when they come back they realize that Princeton is apart from a lot of the goings-on in the world," says Kanach. "They open it up a little bit."

Despite the academic advantages of overseas study, some students still feel they need to defend their desire to go abroad and that "they are being disloyal to Princeton," said Kanach. Greg Mancini '01, a German literature and cultural studies major who studied at the Free University of Berlin, says, "The [Princeton] community isn't totally supportive [of study abroad]. . . . I have this general feeling that you're supposed to stay here and be 'Princeton' in some way." Even his father, Donald A. Mancini '71, questioned his desire to leave for a semester, asking Greg, "People kill to get in here. You're only allowed four years here. Why would you give up a semester?"

Alumni overseas

A semester abroad can fuel student interest in further travel in their post-Princeton years. Some alumni cross U.S. borders for job opportunities, internships, graduate study, or simply for adventure. With some 5,000 alumni living abroad, both expatriates and non-U.S. citizens, Princeton's reach is far and wide. Canada is home to the most alumni living abroad, followed by Great Britain and Japan.

Roberto Cordon '88, who majored in chemical engineering and the Woodrow Wilson School and received a certificate in Latin American studies, has visited 72 countries - and most of those trips have involved Princeton friends or opportunities developed through Princeton contacts. Cordon has bumped into fellow Tigers around the globe, in Katmandu, Nepal, Leningrad, and Fiji, to name just a few places.

When Cordon, who speaks Spanish, English, German, French, Portuguese, and Italian, decided to leave his native Guatemala to attend Princeton, he thought he would return right after graduation. But "what Princeton did, among other things, was to open my mind that there was a world out there and to realize that I could be a part of it." Since graduating, Cordon has lived in Boston, Chile, Washington, D.C. - where his work as an international development consultant required extensive travel to Europe and Africa - and now Geneva. Along the way he earned a master's in international business and political economy from Wharton. "I realized that there were so many exciting things to be done abroad," he says.

Like Cordon, Sarah Churchwell *98, who earned a doctorate in English and American literature, hadn't planned on living overseas after graduate school. But last year when she found the job she wanted, she moved to London. An assistant professor at the University of East Anglia, in Norwich, Churchwell lives in Norwich four days a week and spends long weekends in London.

Churchwell finds the lack of certain American conveniences maddening: tiny refrigerators, no central heating, shower, or clothes dryer. Navigating a different culture and education system can be exhausting. She shares her frustrations with her American friends - most of whom were made through Princeton connections. "I actively seek Americans," Churchwell says, "because it's relaxing to be with people who share your references and your vocabulary."

Curiosity led Martin A. Schell '74 to Asia at the age of 32. Textbooks he read in high school social studies classes lacked any thorough discussion of Asia. So he ventured to Japan in 1984 thinking he would stay just a few months. One thing led to another, and 16 years later he has lived in Japan, Thailand, and now Indonesia. "I followed what seemed interesting," he says, and often created his own work. He has rewritten Japanese-to-English translations in Tokyo, taught English in Songkhla, Thailand, and operated a small export business in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Currently, he's a freelance editor. He lives in Klaten, a small city in the southern part of central Java, and is married to a Javanese woman.

Schell has been away from the U.S. so long that some aspects of life in his home country now seem strange. But he keeps in touch with Princetonians through e-mail: He founded the TigerNet discussion group Asia-Experiences. Through another discussion group, he met David W. Paul *73, of Seattle. Working via e-mail - the two didn't meet in person for six months - they wrote Globally Speaking: A 21st-Century Approach to Communicating Successfully, published online by as a series of articles.

Among alumni living and working overseas, those who were international students have developed a strong network once they leave campus, says Pablo Jenkins '99. A native of Costa Rica, Jenkins lives in New York City and is a board member of International Alumni of Princeton.

"Why Princeton thrives as an institution and as an international institution is all of the connections it can reach out to based on its international alums," says Jill Otto. "It's really incredible when I go back home how many people have very strong ties to Princeton."

For the record: This version corrects the description of a program offered at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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