International students at Southeast boosting economy, making cultural difference in Cape Girardeau, officials say

Tuesday, November 9, 2010
International students Hnin Oo Lwin, left, her brother, Wai Yan Lwin, and Charlotte Despres have found a friendly atmosphere at Southeast Missouri State University. (Fred Lynch)

It makes no difference if it's Burma or the Bootheel, brothers and sisters are the same wherever you go.

Wai Yan Lwin, a 22-year-old graduate student in his second semester of the master's of business administration program at Southeast Missouri State University, is experiencing the pros and cons of going to school with his sister, Hnin Oo Lwin. The siblings used to fight all the time, usually over chocolate, in their home country of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, but they've matured since then, Wai Yan said.

These days, the MBA students are glad to have each other to lean on half a world away from home, but it does create some problems.

"The con is we don't make as much friends as we should because most people think we're a couple or dating," said Wai Yan, who goes by Will. "Overall, I think it's a good thing to have somebody."

Hnin Oo, 23, agrees. She said she never gets homesick, and if she misses a class she can lean on her brother to bring back the notes.

"Sometimes we overdepend on each other," she said. "I have to learn to be more independent."

The siblings are part of a growing international student force at Southeast that is delivering a big economic boost and making a bigger cultural difference in Cape Girardeau and Southeast Missouri, officials say.

International student enrollment has more than doubled in the past two years, increasing to 541 students, or about 4.8 percent of Southeast's 11,000-plus student population, as of the most recent census.

While the vast majority of the university's foreign students are from places like China, India, Nepal and Japan, Southeast's student body is represented by pupils from 45 nations. Those students and their families annually pump between $4.5 million and $5 million into the local economy, according to Gerald McDougall, dean of Southeast's Donald L. Harrison College of Business and the university's international programs.

The growth in the institution's international community is by design. A couple of years ago the institution launched an initiative to internationalize the campus, McDougall said. While the economic effect is a happy consequence of the expanded enrollment, McDougall said the culture and perspective the international students bring is invaluable to a university preparing young minds to compete globally.

"We have to bring the world to them," he said. "By increasing our international student body, that is a significant enrichment to the community."

The effect of international students is significant nationwide.

Foreign students and their dependents contributed about $17.6 billion to the U.S. economy in 2008-2009, according to a statistical analysis from NAFSA: Association of International Educators. The Washington, D.C.-based organization is expected to release its latest economic benefits report next week, International Education Week. Missouri's 11,285 international students and their dependents pumped more than $270 million into the state's economy in 2008-2009, the report found.

"We expect to see the numbers continue to go up, but to us one of the broader questions is what's going on globally in competition for foreign students," said NAFSA spokeswoman Ursula Oaks. "A lot of countries are doing a good job of attracting foreign students."

Case in point, the United Kingdom, which has boosted its international student enrollment by at least 77 percent since 1999, Oaks said.

U.S. institutions of higher education still dominate recruitment of international students, with an enrollment of 624,000, or about 21 percent of the foreign student pie in 2008. But that's down from 28 percent in 2001. Oaks said Sept. 11, tighter restrictions on visas and changing American attitudes hit recruitment campaigns hard in the earlier part of the decade. But countries like China are competing more intensely for foreign students.

Charlotte Despres, an intensive English program student from Geneva, Switzerland, said she has found Cape Girardeau and Southeast welcoming.

"I like the spirit of America," the 18-year-old said. "Everything is bigger in the U.S. The food is different. The people are different."

Will Lwin and his sister find Cape Girardeau and their university experience more settled than life in their home country, where oppression often rules under Myanmar's secretive military-ruled government.

McDougall said Southeast expects to increase international student enrollment to more than 600 students in the coming years, a plan that will not take a single seat away from Southeast Missouri natives. The goal, he said, is to broaden perspectives, of international students and the campus at large.

mkittle@semissourian.com

388-3627

Pertinent address:

One University Plaza, Cape Girardeau MO

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