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The Buffalo Niagara Region Is An International Student Magnet

The path to the srividya veeranki to act as the Roswell Park Cancer Institute System Analyst begins about 8000 miles away.
Veeranki, 27, received a bachelor's degree in computer science and engineering, in her hometown of India, and then studied the management information system in the University at buffalo.

“The journey so far has been great,” said Veeranki, who earned a master’s degree from UB in 2012 and lives near the South Campus.

She’s among the 13,660 college students from around the world who studied in the Buffalo Niagara metropolitan area between 2008 and 2012.

The region ranked as one of the most popular destinations in the country for international students, according to a recent Brookings Institution study. Western New York had more students with F-1 visas during that time than all but 13 other metropolitan areas.

The students pumped an estimated $317 million in tuition and living expenses into the local economy. More than half of them – 7,756 – studied at UB, where international student enrollment has grown steadily for years. The rest studied at a half-dozen other colleges and universities in Erie and Niagara counties.

Many of them arrived from Canada. But thousands also came from far-flung places like China, India and South Korea.

The local institutions are intensifying efforts to attract more students from a broader array of countries.

“It isn’t just about enrollment. It’s also about internationalizing our university,” said Stephen C. Dunnett, vice provost for international education at UB. “We want the next generation of American students to be more globally competent than they have been in the past.”

Seeking diversity

UB was one of the first American universities to enroll students from China more than 30 years ago, a history that continues to pay benefits. Nearly 1,700 Chinese students now attend UB, accounting for about 28 percent of its international students. India ranks second with 1,495 students, followed by South Korea with 321 students and Canada with 147 students. Malaysia, Turkey and Iran also sent 100 or more students to UB this fall.

“We’re heavily dependent on three or four countries,” said Dunnett. “We’d like to have more diversity, and we’re trying to.”

Relying too much on certain parts of the world for students can be risky. Dunnett remembers when Iran sent more students to UB than any other country in the late 1970s. That changed almost overnight following the Iranian revolution.

“We had hundreds of Iranian kids marooned here who wanted asylum and couldn’t pay tuition,” he said. “It happened so fast.”

These days, Dunnett watches closely the tension in Hong Kong, which he admits has caused him some restless nights. The Ebola epidemic in West Africa has been troublesome, too, even though UB doesn’t have any students from Liberia or other nations where the deadly virus has run rampant. The African country sending UB the most students is Nigeria, which has been declared Ebola-free.

Still, “all of these things affect us,” Dunnett said.

To help diversify, UB recently ratcheted up recruitment in Latin America, specifically Brazil.

UB has consistently been ranked among the top 20 schools in the country for total number of international students.

Even some international students are pleasantly surprised by the diversity when they arrive on campus.

“I knew that UB had a large international student population. I did not expect the number that I saw,” said Reema Bhatt, who earned a master’s degree in June.

Dunnett said much of the recruitment comes by word of mouth, from former students who return home.

“The reputation of UB has always been greater overseas than it is in our own country,” he said.

While UB continues to increase its international student enrollment – it’s about 18 percent of overall enrollment – some other universities are growing their foreign student populations at a greater rate, Dunnett said.

Coming from Canada

The other local colleges and universities have had mixed success in attracting international students. Some local schools experienced an uptick for several years beginning about a decade ago. That’s when Canada didn’t have enough post-secondary schools to train all of the teachers it needed, so Canadian students pursued their teaching degrees at U.S. schools. Niagara University, Canisius College and Daemen College all experienced the Canadian spike.

But no school benefitted more than D’Youville College, the school closest to Canada.

“Come off the Peace Bridge, turn left and you’re here,” said Laryssa Petryshyn, director of the International Student Office.

In 2004-05, D’Youville had nearly 1,500 international students, almost half its total enrollment at the time. Nearly all of them were from Canada. That number shrank to 420 in 2013-13, and it’s closer to 300 this year, Petryshyn said. The college continues to recruit heavily in Canada and is trying to make greater headway in China and India.

To bolster its recruiting abroad, Niagara University recently created an office of international relations and appointed Hung Le as vice president for international affairs.

Le said the university will focus on diversifying well beyond Canada, where most of its foreign students come from.

One strategy focuses on Vietnam, an emerging market for international students, where Le once ran a bilingual, private school.

Vietnamese Catholics are familiar with the Vincentian fathers, the order of priests that runs Niagara. That could be a selling point for the university among Vietnamese parents looking for a safe, nurturing environment for their children, Le said.

“Vietnamese parents and the Vietnamese government are investing a lot of money in education,” he said.

Other countries will be fertile ground, as well, because an American degree is highly valued overseas.

“They love the American educational model,” said Le. “It’s the experimentation that goes into the classroom. It’s the engagement of the professors. American professors nurture young minds. Other places, it’s very didactic.”

Dispelling complaints

U.S. colleges and universities enrolled 819,644 international students – a fifth of all students worldwide who study abroad, according to the 2013 edition of “Open Doors,” a report published annually by the Institute of International Education. That’s nearly 40 percent more than the 586,322 foreign students in the U.S. a decade earlier.

Critics have complained that liberal granting of student visas displaces American students, invites potential security threats and depresses wages for skilled workers. But supporters of increased internationalization of American classrooms and laboratories argue that current immigration policy is too restrictive, causing the nation to lose ground as other countries pursue a larger share of the global marketplace of students.

Dunnett doesn’t understand the objections to recruiting international students, which he maintains strengthen the local economy.

“Some people say, ‘Oh, you’re subsidizing foreigners.’ Not at all,” said Dunnett, noting that international students pay tuition at three times the rate of state residents. Nor do international students take seats from state residents. “We do not have as many applications as we’d like, especially in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields,” he said. “A lot of our (American) students don’t want to study in those fields.”

Keeping them here

For all of the success in drawing bright, talented foreign-born students, the region has struggled to keep people like Veeranki here after they earn their degrees. It’s a brain drain that goes largely unnoticed because international students don’t have deep ties in the region.

Veeranki builds applications, databases and websites for use in analyzing health-related data at Roswell Park. She is more of the exception than the rule for international students in Buffalo Niagara, where about a quarter of graduates from other countries stay to work after earning their degrees. That’s well below the overall nationwide rate of 45 percent of foreign students who extended their visas for a job in the same metropolitan area as their college or university.

“Ninety to 95 percent of my classmates have moved out of Buffalo, to places like New York City, Chicago, the West Coast,” she said.

Veeranki wanted to stay in this region to work in health care.

“The cost of living is very low,” she said.

But for many international students, the region’s main drawback is a lack of employment options in high-skill fields, especially among larger firms where there might be opportunity for advancement.

“There are no big companies for students. They want to work with big names,” Veeranki said.

Shin Gern Sam ended up at UB in 2010 upon the recommendation of a professor at Inti College in Malaysia, although he admits that his choice of an American university was somewhat random.

“My only criteria was that I wanted to go to a place that had a lot of snow,” he said.

UB fit the bill. Sam completed his bachelor’s degree in finance in 2012 and applied to banks and other companies in Western New York. Ultimately, he decided to move to New York City, where he could pursue more opportunities in information technology. Sam would’ve had to leave the U.S. if he wasn’t employed within three months of graduating.

“I was kind of desperate,” he said.

An internship at a nonprofit organization led to job at, a website that provides how-to information on a variety of topics. The company has since helped him get a work visa, which lasts for three years and is renewable for another three years. He hopes to get a green card and start his own business someday.

A lot of international students would like to stay in Buffalo for their optional practical training, the period of up to 29 months for graduates to work in their field of study under their student visa.

“It’s not a matter of choice. It’s what’s available in their field,” said John J. Wood, senior associate vice provost for international education at UB.

Buffalo’s economic prospects appear to have improved since the time period the Brookings study examined, so Wood suspects more international students will be able to find work here.

Bhatt, 24, may already be evidence of that. Within weeks of getting her degree from UB’s School of Management, she was hired by Ernst & Young, where she tests applications to make sure there’s no tampering of data in financial audits.

The native of Mumbai was wary of the cold when she first arrived at UB in 2013, but she’s since come around to it.

“I like ice skating,” she said. “I tried it last year and loved it, but I’m not very good at it.”

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