Coming to America
by Marcia Goodrich
In 2008, as Kaixian Yu's plane was landing at Houghton County Memorial Airport, his life was taking off. He had been accepted into Michigan Tech's PhD program in mathematical sciences. He was excited about working with his advisor in a field he loved. And, he had studied English for ten years at home in China and passed the language competency test with flying colors.
What could go wrong?
"I couldn't find anywhere to live," says Yu. "We spent five days looking. Then, when we finally found a place, I was trying to set up the cable and Internet, and the people at Charter couldn't understand me."
"It was very difficult," he says quietly. Then he perks up. "Fortunately, people here are really kind and so nice. They understand that English is not your mother language. I'm not so afraid now of making mistakes."
Yu is one of nearly five hundred international graduate students enrolled at Michigan Tech. If it weren't for them, Tech's phenomenal growth in research and graduate education would have been stunted at best. Over the last several years, fully 40 percent of Tech's master's and PhD students have come from beyond American borders.
That's more than double the national average of about 16 percent, according to the Council of Graduate Education. Dig a little deeper and that discrepancy disappears, however; fully half of all engineering grad students in the US are international students. This helps explain why they are drawn to Tech, says Thy Yang, the University's director of International Programs and Services.
"Most international students studying in the US pursue degrees in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics]," she says. "And our STEM programs have a strong reputation overseas."
The influx of international students to US schools is due in part to the value other cultures place upon educating their children, she believes. "They want their children to have the highest level of education so they can have a better career. Jobs in STEM are also jobs that pay well, and many employers have trouble filling jobs in these fields."
Jacqueline Huntoon, dean of the Graduate School, agrees. "Most US students are not interested in studying STEM," she says. "It's not sexy, not perceived as having great value."
Many Americans graduate from high school lacking the math and science skills needed to succeed in STEM undergraduate programs, let alone as master's and doctoral candidates. With the US educational system yielding only a trickle of potential STEM graduate students, American universities must look elsewhere, says Huntoon. "We couldn't have the research program we do without international students," she states flatly. "Graduate students do 75 percent of the grunt work involved in research. And it's not just here at Michigan Tech. Any institutions with vibrant research in STEM have a lot of international students. There aren't enough domestic students to go around."
All those international students provide domestic students with some key insights, says Michigan Tech President Glenn Mroz. "Bringing the world to Michigan Tech gives US students the opportunity to learn firsthand what international competition looks like, and a chance to see just how hard people elsewhere are willing to work. It's a win-win for all students."
Of the hundreds of international graduate students coming to Michigan Tech, each has his or her own reasons for leaving home to spend years among strangers. Many seek a better understanding of the United States and its people.
However, graduate school can sometimes be a tough place to get to know the natives. "I wish there were more American students here," says Abhilash Kantamneni, who is working on his doctorate in physics. "In my department, there's only about one American for every four international PhD students."
After earning his bachelor's degree in India, Kantamneni was accepted to graduate programs at the University of Southern California and the Illinois Institute of Technology, as well as at Michigan Tech. All offered what he wanted most: research opportunities and the chance to work with cutting-edge technologies. He chose Tech in part because it seemed to offer total immersion in Americana. Other schools have thousands of Indian students to pal around with, and Kantamneni was not looking for a home away from home. "I wanted to experience more cultures," he said.
Indian students also have potent economic motives for getting a graduate degree. American students can usually find good jobs with a bachelor's degree. "But in India, if you want good career growth, you need to study as much as possible," says Kantamneni. "You need at least a master's to advance." Competition is murderously intense to get into the top Indian schools, so US universities offer another route to the coveted graduate degree.
PhD student Lei Zhang left her home in China at the urging of her entire family. "We think we can learn more here. The culture is different, the education is different. And I want to make myself different. There are so many students in China, and if I go the same way as everyone, I will have an ordinary life. That's why I make the effort to study hard and work hard."
Zhang chose Michigan Tech because it is nationally ranked in her field, materials science and engineering. She also chose Tech because of Houghton. "Everybody likes large cities, but I can't focus myself as well in a large city. And, it is very safe here."
What about Houghton's intimidating winters? "I knew that before I came here," she shrugs. "My hometown is in the north of China, colder than here. I like it."
The weather was also no big deal for Margus Paesalu. While the vast majority of Tech's international students come from China and India, the rest are drawn from more than seventy other countries. Paesalu is Estonian and one of the first participants in ATLANTIS, an exchange program for forestry students from Scandinavia and the US.
"Part of why I chose Michigan Tech was the latitude and the Finnish," says Paesalu, who studied at the University of Helsinki and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. "Everyone thinks I'm American originating in Scandinavia."
He came to the United States for curiosity's sake and for the challenge. "This is a country I heard a lot of but had never been to," he says. "Your president is in the news all around the world, all the time. And a native-speaking environment is more demanding."
What he found was a new way of learning. "The biggest point is the hands-on experience," says Paesalu, who is earning an MS in Forest Ecology and Management. "When I came here, I had to design my own project. I'm ordering supplies, estimating costs, and then showing my supervisor." Both independence and collaboration are valued, he says. Education is more a dialogue, "not just watching a PowerPoint and switching your brain off."
Along with that practical approach to education comes a more collegial relationship with the faculty. "My advisor here is really friendly. He's always there for me. It's really motivating and very much welcome," Paesalu says. Faculty in Scandinavia are also very supportive, he says, "but in parts of Europe, if you are a professor, everyone is below you."
Daniel Yeboah of Ghana, who is working on his master's in applied ecology, has had a similar experience. "In Ghana, we always had to address professors using their title. Here, our professors prefer to use their first name. It takes away fears, makes them more approachable. And it gives you an opportunity to ask more questions."
Yeboah was inspired to come to Tech after meeting University faculty and students back home. He had dreamed of furthering his education in a place that addressed issues on the forefront of natural resource management and valued dynamic thinking. "I saw that in the Michigan Tech people."
There are major advantages to studying in the US, and particularly to studying at Michigan Tech, according to Parinya Chakartnarodom '08, who earned a PhD in Materials Science and Engineering. A Royal Thai Scholar, his government supported his graduate studies abroad. In return, he is now serving on the faculty of Kasetsart University in Bangkok, one of Thailand's leading universities.
"At Tech I had access to a lot of equipment, including an X-ray diffractometer, a scanning electron microscope, a transmission electron microscope, and an atomic force microscope," he says, adding that the department's technical staff were a great help. "I couldn't have finished my research without their advice."
Chakartnarodom also praised the thoughtful, one-on-one instruction he received, both in how to conduct research and how to teach. Plus, the local hospitality made his years away from home easier to bear. "Not only did the people at Michigan Tech teach me a lot, my landlord and my neighbors were very nice to me. They taught me a lot of life's experience. I can't imagine doing it without a good neighbor."
International students bring a variety of gifts to the University. Not the least of them are exotic cuisines.
"When we have cookouts, they bring good food, that's for sure," says Greg Odegard, an associate professor of mechanical engineering– engineering mechanics. "My students bring this chicken thing from India that blows away my burgers and hot dogs."
Great picnic fare is just a bonus, he is quick to add. "I've been amazed at the work ethic they've shown."
"The Indian grad students that come here aren't offered the kind of financial support that American students have," he says. "Many have to work full time in jobs completely unrelated to their studies. Plus, they are taking classes and trying to do their research."
But, he stresses, American students can be equally committed. "I have domestic students who work harder than anyone," he says.
"International students tend to bring lots of energy and enthusiasm," says Sarah Green, chair of the chemistry department. She also stresses that generalizations are dangerous; like American students, she says, "they are all individuals, all different. Some have turned out to be terrific teachers, and others are completely focused on their research."
This is true in part because a broader range of international students is now coming to the US. Thanks to expanding economies at home, a new generation of middle-class parents is now willing and able to help pay for their children's education abroad. As a result, international students no longer depend on a thimbleful of scholarships available only to the rarefied ranks of the super-smart.
"The first wave of Chinese students who were allowed to study in the US was absolutely the top pick academically," says Green. "That demographic has broadened over the years. China now has some very good universities, and we now compete with European universities as well for the best students."
Also, as China has adopted capitalist ways, so have its young people become more like their American counterparts. "They are more focused on economics and jobs," she says. But whatever their nationality, those who are just in it for the money probably won't do well in grad school. "The need to learn new stuff is what drives scientists. Getting a PhD is hard work. If you are going to grad school just to get a better job, this isn't for you."
Mechanical engineering professor Amitabh Narain has advised students from China, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and Uruguay in his twenty- seven years at Tech. There are differences between domestic and international students, he says. "Their work ethic is very good, but they require engagement. You need to be involved with them. Americans are more likely to take an idea and run with it."
However, foreign students' math skills can be outstanding. "I just finished writing a final report on a $700,000 grant and two successful new proposals totaling $400,000. About 60 percent of the work was computational in nature and was handled by foreign graduate students," Narain says.
Like Green, Narain has seen a change in student preparedness as more and more international students come the United States.
"We have had an exponential rise in grad students, and a lot of them are self supported" and not dependent on research grant funding for their tuition, he says. "They knock on my door and say they will be willing to take on a project at no cost to me. That lets me put a trained person to work immediately, which is a good thing. But not all of them are capable of doing the work."
And then there is the subject of accents. In all fairness, says Narain, he gets more gripes from students on his own lilting speech than do his graduate students who teach classes. "We do have a responsibility to be understandable to our students," he says. "But for students to expect all accents to be their own is extreme."
Accents not withstanding, virtually all Indian students who come to the United States are able to carry on a conversation with ease. With India's dozens of languages and dialects, English has become the nation's common tongue. On the other hand, few Chinese students coming to Tech have had a chance to master English.
That's one big reason Chinese students work so hard, says math student Kaixian Yu. "The Americans speak English, and we don't," he says. "We have to spend more time figuring out what the book says. What does this word mean? This sentence? And then, what is this knowledge? It's not double the time, but we spend maybe one and a half times more than Americans."
Foreign students face additional challenges stemming from America's post-9/11 immigration and security climate. Many don't return home during their entire time at Tech for fear that their visas will be revoked when they try to come back to the US. That climate also prevents students' families from coming for a visit.
"I have a daughter and a wife in Ghana," says Yeboah. "The US Embassy in Ghana is making it difficult for them to come here. To be away from my family for two years is very difficult, and it could be an obstacle to continuing my PhD studies. To wait another four or five years? That would be terrible."
The loneliness can be compounded by cultural differences. Ghanaian society is community-based, Yeboah says. An American would be hard-pressed to go to a village and not be swept up immediately into community life. In the United States, everyone is friendly, but the social unit is the family, and not having family nearby can be tough. "It's a bit of a hard time, to live alone in the basement," he says.
Finally, international students are sometimes surprised to discover that, in addition to succeeding in their studies, they are expected to be standard bearers for an entire nation.
"It's a huge responsibility," says physics student Abhilash Kantamneni. "When I flew here, my dad told me, ‘Remember, you are representing your family and your country.' If I'm bad at anything, people typecast all Indians. It's a lot riding on your shoulders."
Nevertheless, coming to America can be well worth the labor and the tears. "The grad program of American universities is world-class," says Narain, who earned one degree in India before getting his MS and PhD in the US. "The one-on-one interaction that goes into our graduate education makes it very difficult for others to compete."
Indeed, Yeboah doesn't miss a chance to champion the education he is receiving half a world away from home. He tells his countrymen, "Go to the place where you get the best, so you can be the best."
"You can talk with your advisor a lot and learn much more here. That's a fact," Yu says in near- perfect English, two years after he had to enlist a friend to order his Internet service. "We should face that. This is the place to learn what's going on."