By Tony Biasotti
Rama Youssef grew up with war, but was still shocked when it came to her country.
The freshman biology major was born in Damascus, Syria, in 1999. When she was 3 years old, the United States invaded Iraq, and a few years later, Iraqi refugees were in a mass exit across the border to Syria. Youssef’s family was relatively well off, and they did what they could to help. Her mother had an unused one-bedroom apartment, and she let a family of refugees live there for free.
“I grew up seeing refugees from other countries in my own country,” Youssef said. “I would hear about war, but I didn’t really understand what it was. I never thought I would be one of those people, that I would become a refugee.”
The civil war in Syria started when Youssef was 12. One of the catalyzing events was the torture and death of a boy just a year older, after he was arrested while protesting President Bashar Assad’s government.
The next year, in the spring of 2012, a car bomb exploded about a mile from Rama’s middle school. “My whole school shook. The windows in my classroom broke,” she said. “My teacher was screaming, ‘Get under the tables,’ and everybody went under the tables and started crying.”
That was enough for Rama’s mother, whose other three daughters had already left Syria. A few months after that bombing, she left with Rama, her youngest.
Youssef’s road out of Damascus took her first to Jordan, then to San Diego and Portland, Oregon, and finally to Thousand Oaks. She is the only Syrian refugee enrolled at Cal Lutheran, and one of well over 500 international students, counting 372 on student visas and smaller numbers of U.S. permanent residents and dual citizens. The university is responsible for additional visitors in internships and work placements.
‘Part of our mission’
The actively enrolled students come to Cal Lutheran from 49 countries, not typically fleeing a crisis, but always bringing rich experiences and cultural knowledge. One of the university’s goals through 2022 is to internationalize more rapidly so that all students, whether living close to campus or studying abroad, are building confidence about interacting with multicultural teams, clients and audiences. This year, the university has established a Center for Global Engagement to coordinate study abroad, student recruitment and more (see Page 7).
International student numbers have been growing, though the future is uncertain due to economic and political developments beyond Cal Lutheran’s control. For the 2018-19 school year, the university has 101 undergraduates who are enrolled on student visas; that’s up about 10 percent from 10 years ago, said Dane Rowley ’04, MS ’08, the university’s director of international admission.
The number of international graduate students fluctuates much more. It’s risen markedly over the last decade but is now in decline.
Rowley was hired as the first director of international admission five years ago when the university was sharpening its focus on international students. He recruits students from around the world and helps them to apply and then acclimate.
One reason Rowley has this job full time is that competition for international students is fiercer than ever. Universities in the United States and around the world now recruit globally. On top of that, countries that export large numbers of college students, such as China, are improving their own university systems and giving their students reason to stay home for college.
Cal Lutheran has always attracted foreign students. The first ones came from Norway, Sweden, and other countries with a cultural or religious connection to CLU. Over the past few decades, the university has become truly global. The countries with the greatest representation are China, Austria, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, India, Thailand, Norway, Qatar, Japan and Turkey.
“Throughout CLU’s history there’s been a really rich diversity,” Rowley said. “It’s part of our mission. It wasn’t just in the last five years when ‘global education’ became more of a buzzword. Our mission has always been educating the leaders of a global society.”
Nationwide, the number of international students at universities peaked in 2016 at around 840,000, and dropped by 4 percent in 2017, according to an analysis of Department of Homeland Security data by the National Foundation for American Policy, an immigration and trade policy think tank.
Competition from other countries has played a part in the shift, Rowley said, along with a decline in the popularity of graduate business programs. U.S. government policy is also a factor. More student visa applications are being denied, and more prospective students are asking Rowley if they’re really welcome in the United States.
“We had students from Ghana, Nigeria and Bangladesh who are not here because they couldn’t get visas, and there was really no good reason given,” Rowley said. “It has definitely affected the conversations I’ve had with students.”
‘A whole lecture hall’
By at least one measure, Cal Lutheran is more diverse than many universities with larger pools of international undergraduates. At the University of Southern California, for example, around half of the 11,000 international students come from one country: China. At CLU, no single country has sent more than 20 of the currently enrolled undergraduates; typically, the number is less than five per country. That creates a community among the international students that is cross-cultural, with students of different races who speak many languages.
“We are alone here in the United States, so we try to stick together,” said Erik Arias, a political science major from Ecuador who is in his senior year. “We have something in common just by being international students. We’re all here to support each other.”
Arias is a peer mentor for other international students, a program offered through International Student Services. Part of the Center for Global Engagement, that office also coordinates student groups that bring international and American students together, helps international students with visas and immigration issues, and holds an orientation every summer for the new class of international students.
“I was surprised coming to orientation,” said sophomore Susanna Zdolsek, a political science major and intercollegiate water polo player from Sweden. “It was a whole lecture hall filled with international students. I didn’t think there were going to be so many.”
At orientation, Zdolsek met her roommate, who is from Norway, and she was quickly adopted into a group of friends that consists of three Swedes and three Norwegians.
Not everyone has the opportunity for that kind of social group. Youssef is the only Syrian to enroll this year. Another member of the class of 2022, Khuslen Munkhbayar, is the university’s first undergraduate from Mongolia.
“At a very young age I knew I wanted to come here,” Munkhbayar said. “I grew up watching American movies and American television. It was my dream to come here. … Whenever I think that it’s hard or something, I think about how I’m the first undergraduate student here at CLU from my country, and it makes me cheer up. I feel like I’m opening a door for Mongolian students.”
‘CLU showed me that they cared’
Munkhbayar is from a middle-class family in Ulaanbaatar, a city of more than 1 million people and the capital. Being in Southern California, she said, is like “being in a movie. It’s like seeing everything in HD. It’s all so vivid.”
The location is a plus when it comes to recruiting international students. “We have that proximity to L.A., and we have access to what everyone loves about California, but we’re smaller and quieter, and we’re very safe, and that resonates with parents,” Rowley said. “The way I talk about it with students is, you’re not going to find a nightlife here in Thousand Oaks, but we’re 45 minutes from Hollywood.”
Small class size is a selling point. A Cal Lutheran student can tell her professor about her particular struggles with English. At, say, UCLA, that student might not say a word to professors over the duration of an academic year.
The intimacy of a small university can help international students feel welcome when they’re thousands of miles from home. “CLU is in a very nice place in California, but also it was the only college that replied to me and showed me that they cared about me,” Youssef said.
Youssef is the first Cal Lutheran recipient of a scholarship through Books Not Bombs, a nonprofit that helps Syrian students apply to U.S. colleges and secure scholarships. The full-tuition scholarship is funded by the university.
About 97 percent of CLU’s international students are on some type of scholarship, with 90 percent of them earning merit-based scholarships, Rowley said. The average merit award is $18,000.
The typical international student comes from a family “with some means,” Rowley said, but most still need help paying for college. They’re not eligible for the loans and grants that American-born students can obtain, and in many countries, even a relatively high salary falls far short of the cost of attending an American private university. A year of tuition and fees at CLU is $42,692.
“If I didn’t have a scholarship, I wouldn’t be here,” said Arias, who described his family in Ecuador as upper middle class.
Arias, Zdolsek and Munkhbayar are all part of the university’s Global Scholars Program, which awards merit-based scholarships of up to $30,000 per year to new students and $25,000 to transfer students. Another new program, the International Women’s Leadership Scholarship, covers all direct costs of attendance through a combination of funding from Cal Lutheran and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. All of these awards have been established since 2015 to target high-achieving students.
‘I got the email, and I just cried’
A refrain among international students is that CLU chose them as much as they chose CLU. That’s certainly Youssef’s story: She met a university representative at a college fair at her high school in Portland and was interested, but didn’t know how she’d pay for college. She discovered Books Not Bombs on her own and started calling the financial aid offices of universities listed as participants on the group’s website.
“CLU was the only school that had specific information about how to contact them,” she said. “I called financial offices of these schools and they’d put me on hold for 15 minutes and say, ‘We don’t know what you’re talking about.’”
Munkhbayar, too, felt chosen. One day in Ulaanbaatar she read an article about international business that quoted Gerhard Apfelthaler, the dean of the School of Management. She was impressed and decided to apply.
“Before I got my acceptance, I went to a fortune teller and asked if I would make it in, and she said yes,” she said. “Then three or four days later, at 1 a.m., I got the email, and I just cried. I woke my mother up and we both cried.”
A business major, Munkhbayar wants to see more of the country for graduate school, preferably New York City. Someday, she expects to move back to Mongolia and contribute to its economic development.
Youssef also wants to help her country, though she doesn’t know if she’ll ever be able to go back. Only her father is left in Syria. Her mother left the United States not long after bringing her here, and now lives in Egypt with one of Youssef’s older sisters.
“I really miss my country, but I miss my old country, not the new one,” Youssef said. “I know even if the war is to end, it will never be the same…. I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon, but when I’m older I want to go back and help out. I want to be part of fixing my country.”
She plans to become a dentist first, and then to travel the world with a nonprofit or a United Nations group to give dental care to children in war zones and poor countries.
None of that seemed possible when she was a child, when the only future she saw was getting married young and having children, as her sisters had done. Then the war came, and though it scattered her family and left her alone in a new country, it opened her world.
“Every day when I wake up, I think, I want to be the role model that breaks every Middle Eastern stereotype about women,” Youssef said. “I’ve been doing that so far, I think.”
Tony Biasotti is a freelance journalist who lives in Ventura. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, Ventura County Star and Pacific Coast Business Times.