International students at Niagara University representing, from left, Vietnam, China, Japan, Myanmar, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Costa Rica and South Korea.

As immigration curtailment efforts continue in the White House and xenophobic rhetoric escalates nationwide, the number of incoming international students is rising steadily at Niagara University.

“Our number of incoming international students – not including Canadians – has risen 25 percent,” said Deborah Curtis, Ph.D., executive director of Niagara University’s Edward A. Brennan Center for Language, Culture and Leadership. “We’ve increased diversity and are proud to say that students from at least 40 countries now attend Niagara.

“Most encouraging is the rise in undergraduate students,” Dr. Curtis continued, noting that most of the university’s international student transfers had previously been at the graduate level.

The change represents a significant turnaround from the past couple of years when there was a marked decrease in Saudi Arabian students due to a lack of funding and the maximization of allowed visas.

“We’re happy to say that our Saudi Arabian student population has returned, along with those from four other main countries – Vietnam, China, Turkey and South Korea.” Dr. Curtis said.

Despite the increase, there have been challenges, Dr. Curtis noted.

“We’re also working in Turkey, despite political challenges resulting in the government closure of our private partner schools there, which happened practically overnight,” she said. “This has made it extremely difficult for students applying for visas.”

One Turkish student, Hakan Karaaytu, who was able to enroll at Niagara, said he was grateful for the hard-earned opportunity.

“I left my dreams and my love in my country where things are quite difficult, but Niagara University is my new country and my new family,” Karaaytu said. “This school protected me. It will be my family forever. When my dreams come true one day, I will proudly present the flag of Niagara University.”

Dr. Curtis said Niagara puts a great deal of effort into diversity. The university tries to accommodate international students, like Karaaytu, so that they feel safe and welcome on campus.

“We start with taking great care of the students that we have,” Dr. Curtis said. “We sit down and figure out their goals; we make them feel comfortable. We strive to make the transition as seamless as possible, considering they’re very far from home, and that extends beyond the classroom.”

For example, Niagara recently hosted a Lunar New Year party for Asian students who celebrate the occasion, complete with eastern cuisine, decorations and dress.

“Word of mouth is powerful. When students are happy, they tell their friends back home,” Dr. Curtis said. “We also knock on doors. We set up partnerships with schools with similar values to ours.”

Dr. Curtis said the strong international community would hardly exist without a welcoming faculty and domestic students.

“Students are comforted by faculty members and peers who speak their language and work toward building relationships,” said Dr. Curtis, citing the trepidation expressed by families who hear from abroad that the U.S. may not be as welcoming as it once was. “Knowing that their children are well taken care of here helps put parents back at home at ease.

“Overall, students still want to come, and their families still want to send them. It helps that Niagara’s domestic students are completely welcoming and happy to have a diverse student body; they love to travel abroad and take every opportunity they can to experience the world as well. They realize that we live in a global environment and that their future workplaces will be international.”

Noting a recent student presentation in cultural psychology, Dr. Curtis said, “The students who heard the presentation were so positive. They are happy to be able to sit in classrooms and learn from each other. They recognize it as a wonderful experience for everyone.”

Khin Thinn Thinn “Shap” Myat, a Myanmese pre-med undergrad majoring in biochemistry, agrees.

“I chose Niagara University because of its small class sizes and its friendly atmosphere,” Myat said. “Niagara means a lot to me because of the relationship I have with the faculty members, especially the science faculty.”

Of course, accommodating international students doesn’t come without its difficulties. Many enter Niagara University without fluency in English.

“Students have our ESL program and the programs we offer at the Brennan Center. Some enter with language challenges but begin to matriculate as soon as their English skills improve,” said Dr. Curtis.

Dr. Curtis remains hopeful for international students in U.S. higher ed, despite negative rhetoric in the news of late.

“We’re all in this together,” she said. “We live globally and that’s not going to change. Having an international component allows all students to look at issues from different perspectives. Our students will go on to work internationally and they’ll have international colleagues. International education serves all students and it absolutely fits Niagara’s mission. It is, literally, our opportunity to contribute worldwide.”

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