What’s driving the international student boom at UM-Dearborn?

January 11, 2023

The university welcomed its biggest class of international students in 2022-23. What’s behind the surge — and is it a sign of things to come?

International students gather for a photo on the UM-Dearborn campus.
Following a huge post-pandemic bounce in enrollment, international students now represent one in 10 students at UM-Dearborn. Photo courtesy Office of International Affiars

Bharat Kudachi, an electrical engineering master’s student and recent president of the Indian Graduate Student Association (IGSA), was one of the first people to notice that 2022 might be an explosive year for international student enrollment. The particular leading indicator he was watching was a surging number of students on the IGSA WhatsApp group, which most incoming Indian students join so they can pick the brains of current students. On the one hand, the growth was exciting. But because IGSA also helps students with things like rides from the airport and finding housing, Kudachi and IGSA treasurer Siddharth Jain immediately began thinking about logistics. In particular, Kudachi was concerned about finding everyone a place to live. Here at UM-Dearborn, of course, the university doesn't operate any residential housing, so international students typically land either at The Union or two nearby apartment complexes with a university-operated shuttle service. Kudachi checked, however, and those three venues were already running at or near capacity. So in April, he decided to drop a quick email to Trista Wdziekonski, executive director of graduate enrollment management, just to make sure this issue was on the university’s radar. Kudachi remembers the subject line included the phrase, “Quick Reply Needed.” 

Kudachi got that quick reply. Not surprisingly, Wdziekonski had been closely watching the numbers too, and she was also seeing a potentially historic international student class on the horizon. During the pandemic, most universities, including UM-Dearborn, saw a drop in international student enrollment. Now, applications were not only rebounding but blowing past pre-pandemic levels. Because international students tend to apply to a greater number of schools and admitted students must also complete additional steps like I-20 forms and visa interviews, Wdziekonski knew that the number of applicants doesn’t translate into number of enrolled students. But if historic trends held, it could easily be the biggest class of international students ever at the university. When everything fell into place in August, that’s exactly what materialized. At the start of the Fall 2022 semester, 870 international students on F-1 or J-1 visas were taking classes at UM-Dearborn, comprising more than 10% of total enrollment at the university. Three hundred sixty one of them, or around 40%, were brand new this year. 

Dig into the numbers and you’ll find lots of interesting storylines. As in past years, students from India are by far the biggest group by country. They make up 71% of the total, indicating the strength and durability of one of our longest-running international student pipelines. Also dominant: the College of Engineering and Computer Science, home to 82% of our international students, which is a clear demonstration that our STEM programs continue to be the big draw. Graduate students make up 88% of the total, which interestingly, runs counter to the nationwide trend, which is tilted 60/40 toward undergraduates. The group is also increasingly diverse. 2022’s class has students from 49 countries. And though students from India are the biggest community, eight countries are represented by populations in the double digits, four of which have more than 20 students (China, Lebanon, Oman and Nigeria). On the flip side, for 23 students, they’re the only ones from their country. For another five students, there’s just one other person from their country

International student enrollment by country

A bubble graph showing international student enrollment at UM-Dearborn by country
As you can see, students from India make up the vast majority of international students at UM-Dearborn. The "Other" category, shown above, represents students from Albania (3), Brazil (3), Egypt (3), Italy (3), Singapore (3), Argentina (2), Armenia (2), Sri Lanka (2), Thailand (2), Turkey (2), Botswana (1), Costa Rica (1), Ethiopia (1), Ghana (1), Indonesia (1), Ivory Coast (1), Japan (1), Kenya (1), Kuwait (1), Mexico (1), Norway (1), Peru (1), Philippines (1), Romania (1), Russia (1), Rwanda (1), Saudi Arabia (1), South Africa (1), UAE (1), Venezuela (1), West Bank (1), Yemen (1) and Zimbabwe (1). Graphic by Violet Dashi

So what’s driving this big uptick in enrollment? Wdziekonski and her colleague Francisco Lopez, UM-Dearborn’s director of international affairs, cite a range of factors. As with many things, the pandemic is still exerting an influence. Specifically, travel restrictions, drawn-out timelines for student visa processing, and general financial instability over the past two years caused many international students to delay their study abroad plans. Now, with COVID-19 reaching a less disruptive endemic phase and visa processing getting back to normal, Lopez says the dam of “pent-up demand” is bursting. Nationwide, international student enrollment at American universities nearly bounced back to pre-pandemic levels this year. On average, colleges reported an average increase of 7% in new international students, though levels have varied by institution. 

Still, this national trend doesn’t explain everything that’s happening at UM-Dearborn, where total international enrollment is up more than 45% over pre-pandemic levels. Though it’s hard to say definitively, Lopez and Wdziekonski suspect a couple contributing factors. Perhaps most importantly, engineering and computer science continue to be the most popular disciplines for international students nationwide, and we happen to have strong programs in these areas. These disciplines are also popular among students from India, where we’re drawing the lion’s share of our students. In addition, Lopez says we have very high rates of students landing professional opportunities outside the university, both during their studies, known as Curricular Practical Training (CPT), and after they graduate, known as Optional Practical Training (OPT). “In a normal pre-pandemic semester, it was common to process 60 to 80 CPTs, and the most pre-pandemic CPT authorizations we processed was about 100,” Lopez says. “This fall, we authorized over 180 — about an 80% increase. So out of 398 eligible students, about 46% received CPT.” Lopez says stats are a little harder to gauge for OPT, the U.S. government program that allows students up to 36 months of post-graduation employment without having to change their immigration status. But participation is undoubtedly high at UM-Dearborn: Since 2019, we’ve averaged about 440 OPT students per semester. “Our international students are getting incredible placements while they’re studying with us and killer jobs after they graduate,” Wdziekonski says. “And that’s about the best marketing you can have for incoming students.”

In fact, Wdziekonski and Lopez say word of mouth is likely another big reason for the recent surge in international student enrollment. When students have a positive experience at UM-Dearborn, they naturally tell their friends and family about it, which spreads the word to new potential students in a very authentic and organic way. As with other types of immigration, sometimes populations reach a critical mass, and an area becomes known more generally for being a welcoming spot for a particular group. We could be reaching such a tipping point, for example, with career-focused Indian students who are looking for programs in engineering and computer science. And even among our students who are the only ones from their countries, Wdziekonski says she knows of at least one new student who’s “nursing along five or six others” back home who are now interested in studying here. “If a student has a good experience, that word of mouth thing can happen really quickly,” she says.

International student enrollment by college

A pie chart showing international student enrollment by college
Graphic by Violet Dashi

The new ways we’re getting the word out to international students could also be playing a role. During the pandemic, info sessions for prospective students all flipped to an online format, and Wdziekonski says this model frankly worked better for international students. Lopez says they’ve also worked really hard to include topics that transcend academics. “We’re including more information about the visa process, or how to find housing, or making sure that students are well-prepared for life in Dearborn and know what to expect before they arrive. And you see students in these sessions using the chat to network and share their WhatsApp groups, which I think is a really positive sign.” Parallel to some of the challenges faced by first-generation domestic college students, Lopez says this style of outreach and networking can be particularly crucial for students coming from countries that don’t have an established history of sending students to American universities.

Unsurprisingly, this growth spurt hasn’t occurred without some growing pains. As Kudachi anticipated, housing was the biggest challenge this fall. As the numbers of new students continued to rise, and with spots in the usual apartment complexes filling up, he and other members of IGSA did what they do and flipped into troubleshooting mode. They started calling around and, before long, discovered a fourth apartment building near campus that still had dozens of leases available. He looped in folks at the university, who stepped up to help with some additional logistics, like convincing the building manager that an I-20 form is a good stand-in for a credit report. The facilities team joined the effort and arranged a new shuttle route. And IGSA opened up their WhatsApp group so students from any country could network, find roommates and find a couch to crash on temporarily if all else failed. “Obviously, it can be very stressful to have your plane ticket and not know where you’re going to be staying when you arrive,” Kudachi says. “We didn’t want to leave anyone in that situation. So we put a call out to all the members of IGSA, and so many people volunteered to share their homes. I think being a student, we’ve all been in the same place, so they understand what it feels like.”

A portrait of UM-Dearborn student Bharat Kudachi standing in front of a stone building with Greek architecture.
Under Bharat Kudachi's leadership, the Indian Graduate Student Association stepped up to help find housing for a historic class of international students. Photo courtesy Bharat Kudachi

In the end, everyone found a permanent place to stay, though some students did end up outside the four-building network that’s served by the university shuttle. For these students, Uber is often their costly alternative to get back and forth to campus. Even for students living in places served by the shuttle, transportation can be a regular challenge. The shuttle takes students to and from campus several times a day, and on the weekends, to three different grocery stores, including an Indian grocery. But outside of that, students are on their own for say, a Target run, a mid-week resupply, a trip to a restaurant or a visit to the doctor. Kudachi says students more often turn to the WhatsApp group to catch a ride with someone who has a car rather than public transportation, which he says just takes way too long to get anywhere. In fact, Lopez and Wdziekonski say housing and transportation really need to be thought of as a single challenge. “I think that’s the big question: Is there a certain capacity or limit when it comes to our international student enrollment, given the unique situation of our campus?” Lopez says. “We’re a commuter campus, there’s not very good public transit in our area, students from abroad don’t typically have cars, there are only so many units within walking distance, and even fewer that are served by a university shuttle. So it’s a really interesting opportunity, because the demand appears to be there. But it’s probably going to take a creative solution.”

On that front, Wdziekonski says the university will soon be launching a working group to deal directly with this housing-transportation dynamic. They’re currently looking into a better system for roommate matching, as well as new agreements with leasing companies to hold more spots for international students. But given the additional complicating factor of a nationwide housing shortage, more outside-of-the-box options are also on the table. For example, their team recently learned of an apartment building that has traditionally served senior residents that had enough openings to potentially justify another shuttle route. Similarly, there are neighborhoods within commuting distance to Dearborn, like Detroit’s Rosedale Park, with high concentrations of seniors who would like to “age in place” in their homes, but who might benefit financially from renting a room to a young person. For Wdziekonski, the immediate question is whether these kinds of nontraditional housing situations would appeal to our students. And even if they did, any location beyond walking distance would still need an accompanying transportation solution.  

As the university and student organization partners like IGSA sort through these larger logistical issues, they’re also focused on improving the non-academic experience of international students. As a newly arriving Indian student, you may not face a huge challenge finding a community. But if you’re the only one from your country, it can be far trickier to make friends and build professional connections. To that end, the university helped launch the Graduate International Student Organization (GISO) in 2019, which Wdziekonski says was inspired by the widely successful IGSA model. And they’re constantly trying to think of new ways to expand cultural opportunities for students, like planned trips to downtown Detroit. This year, the Student Activities Board organized a trip to Cedar Point, which was hugely successful and disproportionately enjoyed by international students. 

Two students play a giant connect four game on the UM-Dearborn campus on a summer day
Francisco Lopez, UM-Dearborn’s director of international affairs, says the university is increasingly focused on enriching the non-academic lives of international students. Lawn games available for free checkout at the Student Engagement Center give students new ways to hang out and be social on campus. Photo courtesy Office of International Affairs

Amidst these uncertainties and challenges, there is no doubt opportunity. This surge in international students accompanies the start of a long-anticipated decline in domestic student enrollment, owing to Michigan’s aging population and shrinking classes of high school seniors. Having solid plans to accommodate growth in international student enrollment could be key to maintaining the university’s financial health and growing its cultural vitality. Many of the details of that effort will fall to folks like Lopez and Wdziekonski, who tend to mull over the finer points of this puzzle even when they’re not at work. But in some sense, it will be on all of us. At a recent town hall, in a discussion of hybrid work, Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Gabriella Scarlatta reminded faculty and staff that our international students are one of the reasons to have a strong physical presence on campus. “If they are here, our campus is all they have,” she said. “They don't have another community, they don’t have their family to go back to, they don’t have their friends to go back to. They only have us. That’s why we need to show up and be here for them.” Now representing 10% of the student population and growing, it's a group that's increasingly defining the identity of UM-Dearborn.

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Story by Lou Blouin