International Bonding

July 1, 2010

WASHINGTON -- Sudirman, a graduate of the Muhammadiyah teaching college in Surakarta, Indonesia, did not need an American education to wind up memorialized in a six-foot portrait on the wall of the Indonesian embassy. But then again, driving out Dutch colonialists is not as big an industry today as it was in the 1940s.

“Engineering, business administration, communications, the sciences,” said Posiah Mohd, director of the students' department at the embassy of Malaysia, Indonesia’s neighbor to the west -- these, she said, are the industries that modern nations covet. And the United States is still considered the top training ground for those and other postsecondary disciplines.

Hence the U.S. Higher Education Showcase, an event held Wednesday morning at the Indonesian Embassy here. The showcase was designed to let representatives from various foreign embassies meet -- and exchange heaps of promotional literature with -- representatives from various American colleges.

Also, to eat of elaborate pudding molds and mysterious pâtés wrapped in banana leaves.

Unlike the college fairs many of the university officials were used to, it was the embassy officials who were seated behind tables while the higher education reps milled around, handing out prospectuses. It was not unlike speed dating: Each side would make a pitch, talk about what it is looking for in an institutional partner, lay the groundwork for a possible relationship, then slide over to the next booth and repeat.

In other ways, the scene evoked a campus orientation, of the sort both the embassy officials and the college emissaries hoped to achieve through their efforts: Americans and foreigners from countries all around the world mixing eagerly under the banner of academe. The college and university representatives appeared enthusiastic, many of them touting their English-language summer programs as a way for foreign students to get their English to a serviceable level prior to the beginning of classes.

“We both have the same goal,” said Dina El Sadat, academic adviser to the Embassy of the Kingdom of Bahrain. That is: U.S. colleges want to enrich their melting pots with foreign students from various, sometimes remote, nations; and foreign nations -- particularly the remote ones -- want to send more students off to America’s top-flight colleges. The possibility of actual collaboration depends on what each institution is able to offer and what each country is hoping to get.

“We want them to offer scholarships,” said El Sadat, smiling genially behind a table decorated with handmade dolls and miniature looms and ceramics nestled amid the pamphlets. “We want flexibility requirements such as GRE or TOEFL scores -- sometimes a school will say they want a 550 score, and sometimes we’re looking for a 500, and we want the student to get admitted,” she said, adding that waivers on due dates for application materials would not hurt, either.

“Most universities require SAT and ACT, and we don’t have those in Madagascar,” said Andriatsitohaina Joaona, a counselor for the Embassy of Madagascar. “Not all of them [are willing to waive some application materials], but that is what we are looking for, really.”

That, and money. Joaona, situated beneath the painting of the horse-mounted Sudirman in a three-tier atrium that also boasted statues of humans wearing frightening headdresses, said he is especially interested in how much each U.S. college charges for tuition and how much scholarship money might be available to a recruit from the African island. A representative from the University of Central Missouri had just been trying to sell him on the tranquility of Warrensburg, Mo.; Joaona had asked him to write the university's total tuition and potential scholarship amount on the back of his business card.

“Usually it is parents that are richer, more comfortable financially, that send their children to universities in the United States,” said Fatoumata Binetou Ndao, a counselor for the Embassy of the Republic of Senegal, in the adjoining ballroom, where idiophone music -- presumably Indonesian -- played through large speakers. “Or, you know, when they have capacities like being on a sports team.”

The high cost of U.S. higher education, Ndao said, prompts many promising Senegalese secondary-school students to apply instead to universities in France and Belgium, where tuition is cheaper and the dominant language, French, is the same.

Mohd, the Malaysian representative, who attracted an early crowd with her colorful table spread and baju kurung dress, said Malaysian scholars have increasingly opted to study abroad in Australia. Universities there are generally cheaper and have fewer entry requirements than American ones, she said. Currently, there are about 6,000 Malaysians enrolled in American institutions, compared to 25,000 in the 1980s.

“Most of the people have told me that the population of Korean students has lessened,” said Bong Jong Kwak, director of the Korean Education Center here. Bong had some ideas for how to remedy that: First, put more advertisements online where Korean students will see them (“Korea has one of the strongest countries in terms of Internet.”) Second, create a blog aimed at Korean students -- preferably in Korean.

Third, get cozier with private recruiting agencies in Korea. “They do not have enough information about all of the [U.S.] programs,” Bong said. Those recruiting agencies are far more influential as far as creating awareness of institutions than are diplomats such as himself, he admitted.

Some foreign representatives were there for purposes of imitation more than recruitment. “More important is to get the Macedonian universities [to] sort of see the American university system and how it works,” said Stojanche Kitanoski, first secretary of the Embassy of the Republic of Macedonia. “The U.S. system of education is much better than ours, so we’re looking to learn.”

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