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Nearly one-quarter international, Columbia weighs its global balance

This is the first in a two-part series that explores the evolving meaning of internationalism on Columbia’s campus. Click here for the second part.

Samanta Gokova, GS ’13, was at a museum earlier this semester with her Caribbean Culture and Societies class when a guide asked her and three American students to talk about what they noticed in a painting of three Haitian women holding buckets, waiting to get water. The other students, Gokova said, commented on the hues of the paint, the modest dress of the women, and the heat they must be enduring.

Gokova, though, had a different take on the work. She saw a painting that dealt with irrigation problems in the Caribbean—a perspective informed by her upbringing in Turkmenistan, where clean water is hard to come by.

Because many international students “are coming from the most impoverished world, we have a different perspective than all of the students here,” Gokova said.

Last fall, 23 percent of Columbia students representing 152 countries hailed from abroad—an all-time high. And there’s widespread agreement among administrators, professors, and students that more international students would benefit the institution.

But just how international should Columbia be? While all of the administrators interviewed for this article, including University President Lee Bollinger, said that the proportion of international students should be much higher than it is now, none of them would cite a specific percentage goal, noting that they do not use quotas in admissions.

School of International and Public Affairs professor Ken Prewitt, who until this summer was vice president for global centers, is one of Bollinger’s closest advisers on global issues. Prewitt believes there’s no “upper limit” on how international the student body should become.

“One hundred percent should not be non-American, because America’s part of the world,” he said. “But it’s only a small part of the world.”

And while students and administrators agree that international students make important contributions to Columbia, Prewitt said that the becoming a global university means more than just accepting international students. It’s also a question of attracting more internationally minded students, from both the U.S. and abroad, and finding the best ways to integrate international students into a student body that is still largely American.

“It’s a mindset,” he said. “I think a global university undergoes a personality change.”

Defining ‘international’
International students are a central part of life at Columbia, but as recently as the 1990s, that wasn’t the case. According to Provost John Coatsworth, the question of whether Columbia should do more to foster an international student body used to be hotly debated, with many faculty members expressing concern about the globalization of the Morningside Heights campus.

“It was a really serious issue, the question of whether we should be recruiting abroad for talented students,” Coatsworth said. “Would it change the University? Would it change the character of the University? Would it change the mission of the University?”

Two decades later, it’s safe to say that international students have changed Columbia. Now University administrators are taking steps to globalize students’ experiences, especially by using the network of eight global centers.

Prewitt said that the global centers will provide opportunities for both American and international students to visit other countries and to understand them in complex terms.

“I think the really exciting education is going to be when every one of our students who gets a degree from Columbia has spent some part of their four years … not here,” he said. “But when I say that, I also mean international students who are here ought to go to places other than where they come from.”

But in an era of globalization, it can be difficult to define what an “international” student is, or to create an easy binary between “American” and “foreign” students.

Columbia has two official definitions for international students—foreign citizens as well as U.S. citizens and permanent residents who grew up abroad, according to Kirin Liquori Terni, the first director of international student programs and services for Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Haitian student Emmanuelle Mercier, BC ’15, said she has found that many Americans have close connections to other countries and their cultures because this is a country of immigrants—another source of internationalism on campus.

“Many American students are second generation. Even though they haven’t lived abroad, they still have strong ties with another country,” she said.

Other students said that they do not identify with just one national identity. While Alina Abazova, BC ’13, is from Kyrgyzstan, she also lived in Malaysia and the United States before starting at Columbia.

“Having lived in different places, sometimes I just struggle defining who I am,” she said. “I might not struggle with language, but I still grew up in a different culture, and my parents raised me differently.”

global interactions
International students bring a diverse set of academic and personal experiences to the classroom. Vice President of Global Centers Safwan Masri said that the presence of students from other countries in the classroom “enhances the educational experience considerably.” Prewitt noted that if he brings up public policy in one of his classes, students’ responses differ based on their country of origin.

“Having international students is very beneficial to the Columbia community because you hear different perspectives, and you hear different lifestyles that they might have at home,” Abazova said. “You hear different stories.”

Mailman School of Public Health professor Richard Parker, a member of the Committee on Global Thought, agreed.

“It’s good for U.S. students to have contact with students from other countries,” he said. “I think it’s good to create a learning environment in which there’s an appreciation of the global.”

To make that kind of learning environment possible, the University has to do more than recruit an international student body, Abazova said—it has to ensure that international students and American students actually interact, inside and outside of the classroom.

But adjusting to foreign cultures can take time, and, Abazova noted, international students in the United States “tend to stick together”—as do Americans when they are abroad.

“If American students study abroad, they usually stick with Americans, because it’s their comfort zone,” she said. “It’s hard to go out of that comfort zone.”

Dean of Student Affairs Kevin Shollenberger said it’s important to capitalize on a diverse student body and make sure that American and international students are learning from one another.

“We’re already in this amazing international city in a very diverse campus, and I don’t have an answer yet for this,” he said. “But it’s something that we’ve been talking about, how to better capitalize on this.”

Prewitt said that in order for the University to become globalized, professors and students need to encourage interactions not only between American and international students, but also students from a variety of countries.

“A student from China who challenges a student from Brazil is as important as the student from China who challenges a student from Kansas City,” Prewitt said.

Regional representation
But even as the number of international students at Columbia rises, some students and administrators say that the University needs to do more to represent certain regions and countries.

Caribbean students, for instance, make up just 0.6 percent of Columbia’s international student population. Mercier, who is the only Haitian student at Columbia, said she has found that many of her classmates associate her native country with natural disasters, and she would like to share parts of Haiti’s culture with the broader student population.

“It’s very hard to tell people you’re from Haiti without them making assumptions about you, about you having a hard childhood,” she said. “I mean, it wasn’t rosy growing up. But still we had a normal childhood. It’s not a dark place like it’s seen to be.”

Multicultural clubs on campus exist not only to give students from similar backgrounds a place to convene but also to teach other students about their rich cultural history. Mercier said she joined the Haitian Students Association to show her peers that Haiti is more than just “an NGO nation.”

Similarly, Canberk Dayan, CC ’13 and vice president of the Turkish Students Association, said that his organization tries to bridge the gap between Turkish culture and Columbia student life through events like coffee study breaks and volunteer opportunities at soup kitchens. Turkish students make up 2.1 percent of Columbia’s international student body.

“We want to show people our culture,” he said.

South and Central Asia are two of the least-represented regions at Columbia, with only 92 students—out of more than 28,000—hailing from countries outside of India.

Gokova said that the University needs to do more to recruit Central Asian students. “You don’t get a lot of people from ‘stans,’ ever since the Soviet Union collapse,” she said. “I usually say that my country is USSR or Soviet Union, because it usually clicks in their mind—it’s Russia.”

Gokova said she thinks many Columbia students treat her differently after they hear her foreign accent.

“I felt at times disenfranchised, because I have an accent, it’s so obvious, and most of the CC students are very poshy and arrogant at times,” she said. “They assume that we are international, we’re coming from third-world countries, we’re poor, or not as educated as them.”

Abazova, meanwhile, is one of just three Columbia students from Kyrgyzstan.

“Whenever I say I’m from Kyrgyzstan, everyone gets a little confused,” Abazova said. “And then I have to pause and explain the geography, and a little bit of history, and how it relates to Russia.”

But just as important as recruiting a large number of international students from a wide variety of countries, Prewitt said, is making sure that all students—regardless of what country they’re from—leave Columbia with a global mindset.

“We shouldn’t confuse internationalization of the student body with globalization of the University,” he said.

This is the first in a two-part series that explores the evolving meaning of internationalism on Columbia’s campus. Click here for the second part.


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Michael posted on

I think that more international students might be a good thing if Columbia expanded its international financial aid, but as it stands now, while its true that a lot of people are from "impoverished countries", they are often the elite of those countries. In my time at Columbia, I've seen a great deal more economic diversity from the American students than from the international ones. I think a big reason administrators want more international students is that they tend to pay full tuition, not just that they add diversity.

If we just keep going on a track to more international students without a change in financial aid, we will have a university that essentially skims off the richest citizens of the globe from their own countries, getting rid of any ability for their own universities to improve significantly and leading to "brain drain" from underdeveloped countries.

Additionally, wouldn't decreasing the number of American students (who are themselves extremely diverse in all sorts of ways) decrease the responsibility of the university to the country and community it's housed in? I don't know if a Columbia made up of 5% Americans (because that's what the percentage of Americans in the world is) would be beneficial, as it would essentially be moneymaking enterprise taking dollars and talent from poor countries.

Also, I think it's important to realize that even if financial aid was reformed, diverse views are more important than world demographics. If we were to precisely tailor our university to world demographics, 4 out of every 10 students would be Indian and Chinese, with the next biggest population being Americans (at 5%, remember), and with a lot of countries having barely anybody. I don't have anything against any of these populations, but I would argue that artificially suppressing their numbers in favor of less-represented countries would be better at fomenting a university atmosphere. That one Tibetan student might contribute more to a diverse environment than six Indian students. This is basic university diversity policy. So saying that it's bad that we don't have a level of international students commensurate with the world population cuts against a lot of the policies we already use at Columbia.

Basically, I'm just saying that I really think it's shortsighted to pursue more international students, especially if we don't change aid policies, and I don't have that much confidence in the administration's motives for doing so.

Anonymous posted on

Michael, I am one of these full tuition-paying international students you talk about, and let me say first that I completely agree with you to the extent income diversity is not as prevalent among the international community and need-blind admissions should be extended to the whole student body.

However, I'd still like to ask you not to treat me as a passive straw man. Like MOST international students I know, I desire to use my degree to further development in my home nation, and in some way all international students (their families, money, friends and colleagues) are intrinsically tied to their origins - indeed, even the wealthier international students derive their income largely from economic activities at home and thus simply cannot be "skimmed" away even if they wanted to. Inevitably we will serve as bridges of knowledge, capital and technology between America and our other nations to the benefit of all, like any Columbia alum aspiring to be a leader in a globalized world should do.

"Brain drain" is a nuanced term that at least when applied to Columbia hardly has the implications you mentioned here. One thing is having 60% of your country's medical practitioners fleeing abroad because of violence or instability. Another is to have one or two out of a few million 18 year olds from a developing country going to a world-class institution where they can learn unmatched skills and serve as global bridges. One thing is to argue these bridges should be formed by people from different income backgrounds, which you do and I think is right. Another is to dismiss international students as they are as worthless brain drain, implying some sort of national treason in the name of self-interest. That, I think, is quite the opposite of reality, and your generalization is hurtful.

Michael posted on

I'm sorry if I caused any hurt to you or any other international students, but you misunderstand me, I am not dismissing any individuals, I am only attempting to highlight that when administrators talk about how 24% international is "underrepresentative", if they are searching for a truly proportionate balance I don't think it would be positive, because then it might actually lead to brain drain. I simply don't think that the pursuit of proportionality should be pursued above all else. I think that in the long-term, American colleges should not pursue the proportionality of the world, but more the proportionality of America, with some international representation. This means that instead of more money, students, and prestige flowing into America, universities all over the world will benefit from receiving their best students. I think that changing American universities to respond to world demand will simply make America into the world's education destination, especially if they increase financial aid, and that this will contribute to underdevelopment in local university systems as well as the educational disenfranchisement of Americans.

Anonymous posted on

Great article. However, Turkey actually has a strong representation on campus (stronger than most developing countries anyway) and is hardly as "under-represented" as the other countries described.

Anonymous posted on

Disproportionately, Columbia students from two particular countries cheated their way in. The Deans know about this but look the other way, probably because they pay.