The Foreign Connection (Part 1): International Students Find a Home at Moraine
Chicago’s southwest suburbs are home to a larger international student population than you might have imagined, thanks to several decades of work by Moraine Valley Community College administrators.
If the global recession deterred foreign demand for an American education, you'd never know it while roaming the Moraine Valley Community College campus, where this semester 297 students from 47 countries provide native-born classmates and teachers with a global perspective.
"I came here because American education is in demand in Russia," Maria Radnaeva said. "If you can speak good English, and you have a Russian education and American education, you will be in demand in the job market."
But things weren't always this way. Moraine Valley's international students program began more than two decades ago as a 130-page proposal by assistant dean Diane Viverito, who believed undergraduate education at Moraine was otherwise incomplete.
"Maybe 30 years ago it wasn't as obvious, but it's hardly debatable that we're not impacted every day by global issues," said Viverito, now the head of the Office of International Student Affairs. "We live in a diverse world, and we're an immigrant country, so understanding about people from other countries strengthens us as a nation."
In the late-1970s, Moraine's international student body totaled about 40 students, according to administrators. Without an official program or sufficient services, like English language courses, the number steadily dropped. By 1984, not a single foreign student could be found on campus.
"One of the issues the proposal reviewed was why that was, and my conjecture was that the college was not welcoming to international students," said Viverito, who later received a National League for Innovation Award for her research.
Once approved by trustees, the school molded an office that would attract non-native students, guide them academically, and provide them with housing options. In the fall semester of 1989, when the program officially started, 21 students enrolled.
"International students enrich our classroom discussions by contributing diverse perspectives and experiences," assistant professor Kevin Navratil wrote in an e-mail. "In the political science courses I teach, it is invaluable to learn from students who have experiences in other political systems and cultures."
Transfer Trials and Tribulations
Local students and faculty are not, of course, the sole benefactors of a diverse student body. Foreign adults here studying abroad are given an opportunity to learn first-hand about American culture, while earning credits and adjusting to the world of higher-education.
"You might have a student who drops out, but in general students successfully transfer to universities and graduate and find careers in their home countries," Viverito said.
At about $16,500 a year, the international student tuition at Moraine is still a cheaper option for non-native adults, who are not eligible for financial aid. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for instance, charges international students between $41,224 and $45,952 a year.
Before acceptance, Moraine requires proof that these adults have at least one year of accessible living expenses set aside, including $7,740 for housing, transportation and personal costs, which wind up mostly in the local economy. Host families are paid between $375 and $600 a month, though many students share and rent an apartment.
Academically, as with native-born students, Moraine offers a more flexible admissions policy in which successful high school graduation is weighed above all else.
Language barriers persist, though most students enroll in the school's full-time intensive English language program to help their fluency reach a university level in a short amount of time. Unlike four-year institutions, the community college does not require a Test of English as a Foreign Language score but will accept it in place on its own language placement exam.
Enrollment plunged from about 300 to 195 students after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, as visas tightened and prospective applicants shied away, according to administrators. Over the next couple years, other students went home after their classmates began turning a suspicious eye.
"It was sad because there were some innocent, fine people here who took some negative feedback," Viverito said.
It took a few years, but at nearly 300 students the program has returned to its August, 2001, enrollment level, a high point for the school.
If international students disappeared from campus again, the remaining "students and faculty at Moraine Valley would lose the real life experiences and viewpoints from people who have lived in other parts of the world," Navratil said.
Patch sat down with several international students and attended the school's Global Perspectives panel discussion hosted Nov. 17 by Navratil. Read about the experiences and academic aspirations of several specific students in tomorrow's installment of this three-part series. Click here to read Part 2 and Part 3.