As a student at the Korean National Police University, Marn Pyung “Francis” Jang wanted to experience life in the U.S. What his classmates said about Western Carolina University’s peaceful countryside sounded perfect, Jang said. Just how much countryside abounds in Western North Carolina, however, took him by surprise when he arrived in Cullowhee. “No public transportation? That was a shock to me,” he said. However, the friendliness of students and faculty members, the thought-provoking and interactive classes, and the change of pace from the rigors of his home university more than made up for it, he said. KNPU is similar to West Point in the U.S., and Jang was accustomed to uniforms, 7 a.m. roll call and early morning runs. “I’m living in a heaven right now,” he said.
Jang is one of more than 300 international students from some 40 countries taking classes or enrolled at WCU during the 2016-17 school year. Most are enrolled undergraduate students pursuing WCU degrees in education, engineering, emergency medical care, business and other fields. Last fall, about 50 were exchange students taking classes at WCU while enrolled at their home institutions, according to WCU’s Office of International Programs and Services. The majority of the international students hail from Saudi Arabia, where government funds helped support their studies abroad. The next largest contingents come from Jamaica, Colombia, Germany, Japan, Canada and France. Additional exchange students were expected to join the student population for the spring semester. Later, students from Jamaica will arrive during the summer to pursue degrees in education as part of a more than 40-year partnership with WCU.
What tends to appeal most to international students when it comes to WCU is the interactive academic attention they receive in small classes and a true sense of feeling connected and cared about by the campus and surrounding community, said Kaitlin Ritchie, assistant director of international students and scholar services. “Students say being here is like being on a campus in a movie,” said Ritchie. “They are drawn to the beauty of this campus and the mountains.” Students also like that they can walk to classes, the dining hall and other campus destinations and to participate in academic and social activities, she said.
“WCU is an ideal size and atmosphere for international students – large enough to provide a variety of excellent academic opportunities and small enough for students to feel connected and safe,” said Ritchie. “This is a community where you walk across campus and see someone you know, and they will know you by name. Students often say that this aspect helps them make friends quickly and truly feel part of campus life.”
WCU historical accounts shared by Mountain Heritage Center staff mention international students coming to campus prior to 1967 when several students from Cuba were recruited by a Spanish faculty member. Then, under the leadership of Chancellor H.F. “Cotton” Robinson in 1974 and his successor, Myron L. Counter, WCU rapidly expanded international programs and services, and the number of international students increased. In 1996, WCU established the IPS office. Today, international students comprise about 3 percent of the university’s students, which is close to the international percentage of the student body at WCU’s fellow institutions in the University of North Carolina system, said Ling Gao LeBeau, director of international programs and services at WCU.
Recruiting international students is challenging, with universities and colleges around the world vying to attract them, said LeBeau. Word of mouth – international students hearing about WCU from former students – is one of WCU’s most powerful recruiting tools, she said. Another is cultivating strong, active partnerships with institutions abroad so that students who seek out international experiences are encouraged to consider WCU, she said. WCU has partnership agreements with 41 institutions in 23 countries, with more in the works. Over the past two years, WCU has expanded its global partnerships by collaborating with schools in countries in which the university already has a presence and to institutions in Sweden, Denmark, Italy, India, Ghana, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Brazil, Turkey and Austria, said LeBeau. In addition, WCU is working to develop partnerships with schools in Botswana and South Africa.
To attract and serve international students who may not be proficient enough in English to enroll as a degree-seeking student, WCU launched the Intensive English Program in 2009. When participants in the full-time, noncredit academic program achieve English proficiency, they can apply for enrollment. At spring commencement in 2016, the program celebrated the first five participants to earn their degrees at WCU after completing the IEP.
WCU also is part of the UNC International Student Recruitment Consortium to increase awareness abroad of all institutions in the UNC system. North Carolina benefits when international students stay after graduation to work in high-demand fields where there are unmet needs or return home as unofficial ambassadors for the state, consortium officials say. Another benefit of hosting international students is the indirect global experience extended to the entire WCU community through their presence, said LeBeau. “For Western Carolina students who don’t have a chance to see the world, the international students who come here help them see the world through them,” said LeBeau. “They offer different perspectives and different thoughts in the classroom, and that enriches and helps diversify learning for all students.”
LeBeau reiterated the value of international students at WCU in a message to them after the U.S. presidential election in November. She wanted to reassure students who had concerns that they are and will continue to be welcomed, valued and supported, she said. “We greatly appreciate your wonderful contributions at WCU,” she wrote. “Your presence is highly valued and you continue to provide great benefits to the WCU community as proud representatives of your country and culture.”
International students say they value many of the ways WCU differs from their home institutions. Joris Strobel, an exchange student from Germany studying secondary education, likes that he can walk to class and not have to take a bus or car. He also appreciates the way professors treat students and how small class size allows for interaction. “You can actually ask a professor a question and don’t have to sign up to talk to them,” said Strobel. Yeojin Oh, an exchange student from South Korea studying education, was surprised when students stopped professors to ask questions during class and, at times, seemed to talk more than the faculty members. The interactive learning style is something she wants to help bring to South Korean classrooms.
Strobel and his roommate, Yoshihiro Tarui, an exchange student from Japan studying education, also had to get used to the idea of sharing a room in a residence hall but said the experience has been good. Both aspiring teachers, Strobel and Tarui came to WCU to improve their English and learn things about American culture to share with their future students. They have discussed school systems in their home countries, laughed about the stereotypes they had of each other and commiserated about missing food from home. (A care package of Japanese noodles, snacks and cereals from Tarui’s girlfriend helped ease that predicament.) Other international students find themselves cooking more often when foods they are used to, such as rice at breakfast, are not available in the dining hall.
For fun, international students say they play sports such as volleyball, flag football and quidditch; exercise at the recreation center; go to sports events; take in musical and theatrical performances; and enjoy scenic hikes to mountain overlooks or waterfalls. Getting to see the beauty of the Western North Carolina mountains and the leaves change color has been a highlight for Yangchenchen Li, an exchange student from China studying accounting. Strobel said he appreciates that he can walk to the Tuckaseigee River to fish. Awed Alshehri, a junior from Saudi Arabia who started in the Intensive English Program and is now majoring in emergency medical care, said he regularly enjoys hikes and other adventures offered by Base Camp Cullowhee, WCU’s outdoor programming organization.
South Korean student Oh and her roommate, Lia Plankenhorn, a senior from Fort Mill, South Carolina, majoring in forensic anthropology, went to the Blue Ridge Parkway for a picnic lunch and hike at Waterrock Knob. Oh said her limited English makes it difficult to explain how beautiful the mountain range is but that the experience was one of the most memorable from her time at WCU. She ate a turkey sandwich at the overlook and although it was a “usual” sandwich, “it tasted more delicious there,” she said.
Plankenhorn, a native of Germany, has been excited to be part of so many “firsts” for Oh at WCU – first hike on the Blue Ridge Parkway, first football game, first experience at a rock climbing wall and first time using a clothes dryer. She was looking forward to taking Oh home with her for Thanksgiving and continuing their discussions about the differences in Korean, American and German cultures. “It also allows me to reflect on things I take for granted or have never really questioned,” said Plankenhorn. “It makes me realize that I don’t always know why things are done the way they are.”
For international students, having American friends is especially important to help them adjust to a new campus, city and country, said Ritchie. IPS launched the International Pals Program to match new international students with U.S.-based student buddies who contact them before they arrive, assist with their orientation and stay connected with them throughout their time at WCU. The student leader of I-Pals, Sadye Riley, a sophomore from Cary majoring in entrepreneurship, said her experience studying abroad in Ireland made her want to become part of I-Pals. Riley sometimes felt lost and confused, and having someone help her understand how to get a student identification card or finalize her schedule would have been helpful, she said. “I didn’t want our international students to come in feeling that way,” she said.
WCU also has an International Catamounts student organization for U.S. and international students to share experiences and cultures, and join together in community service and social events, said Ritchie. The I-Cats group hosts an international coffee hour, which includes cultural presentations by international students, twice a month on campus. Also, to promote friendship and cultural exchange, WCU connects international students and scholars with day-host families through the International Friendship Program. Students are matched with faculty and staff members who may invite them to activities such as family dinners or trips to a local farmer’s market.
Off campus, international students seize opportunities to travel on their own. Li spent fall break in Los Angeles. Tarui has visited Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia. With help getting rides to the airport in Asheville, Roudy Chaccour, an exchange student from France who is half-Russian and half-Lebanese and studying global management and entrepreneurship, has visited Boston, Atlanta, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon.
Other international students have participated in WCU faculty-led travel courses or alternative break trips in which students travel together to another city and participate in service activities. Lane Perry, director of the Center for Service Learning, said he will never forget going to New York in 2013 with students in a disaster response and leadership course. The group helped repair a home damaged by Hurricane Sandy that belonged to a first responder who had worked at the Twin Towers on 9/11. A Muslim student from Saudi Arabia was part of the group, and he talked with the homeowner about what an honor it was to serve in the community. The homeowner shared how meaningful and how healing it was that students – and specifically the student from Saudi Arabia – would come to his home “speaking the language of love in the form of service,” said Perry.
For Jang, fall break afforded him and Hae Won Jeong, another exchange student at WCU from KNPU, the opportunity to join three KNPU classmates at the New York City Police Department. They visited the police academy and units including aviation, harbor, canine, highway patrol and others; met bureau chiefs; and learned about equipment and facilities. An NYPD employee contacted WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher to commend the students from KNPU, and The Korea Times and Korea Radio published reports and photos about the visit. Stephen E. Brown, professor and head of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at WCU, said the KNPU students’ trip to New York was “representative of the initiative and hunger to learn about the American justice system that all KNPU students have shown at WCU.”
Jang said what he learned at WCU about white-collar crimes has made him want to study the area further after he is commissioned. “It made me rethink our criminal justice system,” said Jang. “When we say crime, we usually think of street crimes, paying less attention to white-collar crimes. However, white-collar crimes can be more serious and severe, undermining our society as much as street crimes.”
The strength of the academic experience at WCU is what attracted students such as Alshehri, who said he wanted to enroll in one of the best emergency medical care programs in the nation. He has been dreaming about becoming a paramedic ever since age 9. Mitra Shabani MS ’16, a doctoral student at Clemson University originally from Iran, found WCU after repeatedly seeing the name of a professor – Martin Tanaka, associate professor of engineering and technology – on research papers about biomechanical engineering and tumor growth. After her father’s four-year battle with stomach cancer, she wanted to put her math and physics skills to work modeling cancer tumors and how they grow. “I wanted to be able to help people with the same condition as my dad,” said Shabani, who said her father’s cancer is in remission. At WCU, Tanaka became her research adviser and helped her access data for her research and make valuable connections in the field, she said.
Chhaingheap Chea ’16, a December graduate from Cambodia majoring in computer information systems, said he fell in love with computers at age 7 but technology limitations in his home country made pursuing a career in the field a challenge. Chea wanted to earn a degree in the U.S. but needed to improve his English skills to make it possible. When he heard about WCU and the IEP from his aunt, Thanh Tram ‘14, he applied. After one semester of intensive English study, he was proficient enough to be admitted as a degree-seeking student and was on track to complete his bachelor’s degree in December 2016. He hopes to find work or continue his studies after graduation, and he would be happy if that future happened to be in Western North Carolina where everything is so “fresh and clean,” he said. “I am one step further to my goal,” said Chea. “I can’t wait to see what WCU has helped prepare me for after I graduate.”