Coming to America

Washington U. in St. Louis offers an elite group of international students a graduate education -- and sends professors home with them.
October 20, 2005

Washington University in St. Louis is used to having international students, but the university will be taking efforts to give some of them an American experience to the next level.

The university announced Wednesday the creation of the McDonnell International Scholars Academy, which will bring in Asian students for graduate or professional studies, as well as for a program of activities focused on American culture and politics.

As universities in Asia have grown in strength, some American administrators see collaborative programs as necessary to stay abreast of the educational and professional zeitgeist, and as opportunities to mend the image of the United States abroad.

The McDonnell Academy was launched in collaboration with 15 Asian universities -- from China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia , Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand -- and a $10 million commitment from John F. McDonnell, former chairman of the Board for McDonnell Douglas Corporation, and the JSM Charitable Trust, as well as support from eight multinational corporations, among other donors. Each of the corporations, which include Nestle Purina Petcare Co., Tyco Healthcare/Mallinckrodt, and Monsanto Co., will sponsor and have contact with one scholar.

According to Mark Wrighton, chancellor of Washington University, the companies have generally expressed interest in sponsoring students in the physical and life sciences and business. The companies will not choose the students from applicants at the 15 partner universities, but Washington will try to accommodate the companies’ interests by having students in particular disciplines. The students not sponsored by corporations will be from varying disciplines, Wrighton said, to ensure “intellectual diversity” among the scholars, who will stay for an entire program of graduate or professional study.

It’s a good thing such hefty donors have pitched in, according to Wrighton, because the academy is going to be the V.I.P. room of exchange programs. For the lucky few – around 20 next fall, and more to follow – who are admitted both for graduate study and to the academy, they’ve won an all-expense paid course of study, including room and board and books, and special perks like a trip to Washington D.C. That trip would be part of the students’ education on American politics, which will be helped by John C. Danforth, former U.S. senator and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and chair of the academy’s external advisory committee.

The academy will also spring for airfare for at least one trip home each year for students to visit their alma maters.

And when the graduate students go home for a week to tell mom and dad about America, they’ll have company: a faculty member ambassador-mentor from Washington University. Wrighton said the trips will be a chance to build a base for collaborative research and educational programs. Faculty members might come back and say “’Gee, I discovered three new faculty members who have a new approach to the cancer challenge, or earthquake resistant structures,’” Wrighton said. He added that there could be some exchange of postdoctoral fellows as well.

Some administrators are realizing that establishing more personal, international relationships in the higher education community could go a long way in improving the United States’ image. “We are much admired and appreciated [in Asia],” Wrighton said. “But there are some who wonder if we’ve lost our way.” Wrighton noted that the academy will be competing with universities in Europe and Australia that are also aggressively pursuing top talent in Asia, an effort that is integral to “rebuild America’s image as the preeminent leader in higher education.”

Victor C. Johnson, associate executive director for public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators, called the program an “incredibly innovative” collaboration for its involvement of the private sector. He added that universities are increasingly reaching out for foreign partnerships with countries “we used to think of as ‘sending’ countries,” but which are “making vigorous efforts to develop their own indigenous educational capacity…to become ‘receiving’ countries as well. It’s becoming more of a partnership,” he said.

Richard S. Meyers, president of Webster University, in St. Louis, which has campuses in three Asian countries and sends faculty members to Asia, said that becoming part of the global community is a job for all higher education, and that he is glad Washington University is stepping up. “We want to change the world,” he said. “You can’t do that alone.”

Johnson agreed, and said he would like to see the federal government “calling universities and the private sector to share best practices and talk about what people are doing,” he said, “to make it clear that this is an important effort of the U.S. to reach out to the world.” Right now, Johnson said, efforts by universities are individualized.

Meyers said he has been getting more frequent calls from colleagues asking about initiating programs in Asia, and he said such programs are a great opportunity to help America’s image abroad, “which is abysmal at best,” he said. “The educational community may, in many ways, rescue the government, which continues to be very unpopular.” Meyers noted that European universities are forming consortia in Asia, to increase their market share, while foreign enrollment at American universities is down, at least in part, because visas have been more difficult to come by since 9/11.

Wrighton said that the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security have been working to lower visa barriers, and that “we should be able to work around” any issues to allow regular travel for foreign students. Meyers said that Webster, like some other universities, has been increasing contact with elected officials to inform them about visa troubles. “Somebody’s listening,” he said. “This year we had less problems with China.”


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