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Universal U: Changing the World
By Brandt Williams, February 2001
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Universities are designed to offer students the opportunity to expand their minds and build careers through exposure to new ideas and new experiences. For international students at the University of Minnesota, their enrollment means exposure to an entirely new country and culture. The presence of international students has helped alter the atmosphere at the U. Often, international students use their experience at the University to change the worlds from which they come.

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look at minority students' life at the University of Minnesota. You'll need a fast Internet connection.

International students at the U represent 136 countries. Nine-hundred new international students enrolled at the university in the fall of 2000, an increase over the previous year. Over 3,500 international students attend the university's four campuses. That's the fourth-largest international student population in the Big Ten.

President Mark Yudof says a diverse student body is a vital element to the school's educational atmosphere. He says international students, in particular, bring something unique to the university.

"They bring diversity in terms of religion, they bring diversity in terms of race and ethnicity. They bring the cultural perspectives of their home countries. They bring a base of knowledge which may not be available here. They're part of the learning experience for our students. I hope we do positive things for them, but I'm sure they do positive things for us," Yudof says.

See Brandt Williams' reporter's notebook.

International students didn't start coming to the University of Minnesota in steady numbers until after World War II, though the first Chinese student enrolled at the U in 1914. Improvements in post-war economies enabled families to send their children abroad to study in the U.S.

Political events have also influenced the numbers and types of foreign students who come to the U. The warming of relations between the United States and China in the 1970s led to an increase in Chinese student enrollment at the university. Today the university is home to around 1,200 Chinese students and scholars - one of the largest populations of it's kind among U.S. universities.

Some of those students have gone on to play important roles in their home countries.

Paul Fai-Nan Perng graduated from the U with a masters in economics in 1971. Today he is the governor of Taiwan's central bank, a role equivalent to that of Alan Greenspan.

1874: First international students come to University of Minnesota from Nova Scota and Denmark.

1914: First Chinese student comes to the University of Minnesota.

1915: First international student gets Ph.D.: Sakyo Kanda from Japan receives a doctorate in physiology.

1945: End of WWII.

1971: Paul Fai-Nan Perng graduates with a master's degree in economics; known as the "Alan Greenspan of Taiwan."

Daqun Liu graduated from the U in 1992 with a doctorate in plant pathology. He is now the president of the University of Hebei near Beijing.

Students leave their home countries and come to the university for many of the same reasons U.S. students do. Some students are attracted to the U's highly ranked programs. Others come because they know a graduate, or they know someone who has emigrated to Minnesota.

However, acclimating to life in Minnesota can be difficult, even when a student has family here. The university's Office of International Student and Scholar Services assists foreign students adjust to campus life. Director Kay Thomas says her office helps students with issues that academic counselors can't handle.

"Sometimes it's family problems. They're not doing as well here academically as they did at home. And so often that is related to how well they're adjusting. Sometimes it's financial concerns. Sometimes they just feel isolated and lonely," says Thomas. Every other Friday, international students, faculty and others who are new to Minnesota, come together at the Small World Coffee Hour. The bimonthly coffee hour, held in Heller Hall, is just one of the programs Thomas and her group sponsors to help make the university a more accommodating place for foreign students. The event also gives U.S. students a chance to interact with international students and learn about other cultures.

"I like it here because it's a big city and the school is also good," says Budiman Budiman, from Java, the biggest island in Indonesia.

Budiman is a computer science and marketing major. He says one of the things he likes about the University of Minnesota is the diversity. Budiman has been a student at the U since 1996 and during that time he's met students from countries around the world.

The university's student body is slowly becoming more diverse. Still, 76 percent of university students at all four campuses are white. Since 1992, the number of students of color has gradually increased. The number of Asian-Pacific Islander students has increased from 3.9 percent of the total student population in 1992 to nearly six percent in 2001.

Asian Pacific-Islander students are the largest ethnic minority group on campus. Alicia Tran is Vietnamese and Chinese, but grew up in a predominantly white Minnesota suburb. For her, coming to the U has helped her feel less like a minority.

"I've been a minority ever since I was little. Coming here was kind of a shock because I haven't had as much interaction with minority students. And now going from high school and having all white friends to college and having all-Asian and minority friends is a little different," she says.

While Asian representation at the U is strong, the university is striving to increase the number of African and Latin American students.

Barkot Tekle, a business student from Botswana - a small country in the southern part of Africa - came to the U.S. in 1995 and has lived in other parts of the U.S. before enrolling at the University of Minnesota. He says the U isn't as diverse as it could be.

"Of all the schools you can go to, I wouldn't necessarily say this is the best one. I just came from D.C. recently and I like the whole atmosphere there better. There's more internationalism, not just black people, just internationalism and all that; I don't see too much of that here," Tekle says.

Tekle is sitting at a table in a cafeteria in the Carlson School of Management. He's with a group of other students of color who are enrolled in business classes. Scattered around the cafeteria are other small groups of students. Groups larger than two are generally segregated by ethnicity, although most students sit alone or in pairs.

Like the population of the university, the majority of the students in the cafeteria are white. That poses a culture shock for U.S. students of color like Kyle McCree from Flint, Michigan.

Barkot Tekle, a business student from Botswana - a small country in the southern part of Africa - came to the U.S. in 1995 and has lived in other parts of the U.S. before enrolling at the University of Minnesota. He says the U isn't as diverse as it could be.
"For me, it's actually a new experience because I've never been a minority because of Flint. Black people are the majority. So, being here is a new experience," he says.

Kay Thomas says the U is striving for diversity for a practical reason: Ethnically diverse schools can better prepare all students to survive in a global economy.

"In this day and age, we're no longer living in Minneapolis, St. Paul or Minnesota. We're living in a global community. I think many of the industries and things that exist in the state of Minnesota are very tied in economically to the global community," says Thomas.

There are several scholarships available to students of color who wish to attend the University of Minnesota, including the Katz and Kirby Puckett Scholarships. The University also offers opportunities for students to study abroad. Thirty-five scholarships of up to $1,000 are available to university students participating in Global Campus programs. Other scholarships are available through the International Reciprocal Student Exchange Program.

Brandt Williams covers urban issues for Minnesota Public Radio. Reach him via e-mail at