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International Students Generate Millions for Oklahoma University — and Town

Kyle McMichael is the international student advisor at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, located in the small town of Durant, 150 miles southeast of Oklahoma City.  The mere presence of foreign students not only guarantees his job, it also represents roughly $3 million for the university in out-of-state tuition revenue. “They pay the out-of-state tuition. And right now for the fiscal year that is estimated to be $23,700,” McMichael says. By contrast, the university reported that in 2016, 85 percent of all Southeastern students received some form of financial aid.

McMichael’s office was less than three years old when he took it over after an eight-year post in the U.S. Army, one that included deployment in Iraq and Kuwait. He quickly drafted a plan to grow the university’s foreign-born student population from 130 to 300 by 2021, a move that would bring an additional $4 million to the university and help fund the education of U.S.-born students. But in the current political climate, his projections may be optimistic. In a 2017 survey conducted by a coalition of U.S. higher education associations, 39 percent of U.S. colleges and universities reported a decline in international applications recently, with the sharpest drop reported from the Middle East. International students cited a perceived rise in visa denials, a perception that the United States had become less welcoming to outsiders, and concerns that travel and employment opportunities would be further restricted.

Immigration matters quite a bit. It keeps the university going. It keeps me in a job.

If international enrollment were to drop, says McMichael, the university “would lose quite a bit.” So would the surrounding community. Through tuition payments and spending on housing, books, and other day-to-day expenses, every one of his international students helps support the regional economy. The Association of International Educators (NAFSA) estimated that during the 2015-2016 academic year the more than 1 million international students at U.S. colleges and universities contributed $32.8 billion to the U.S. economy and supported more than 400,000 jobs. “Immigration matters quite a bit,” says McMichael. “It keeps the university going. It keeps me in a job.”

It also “means a more diverse campus,” he adds. “We feel it’s good to have American students interacting with students from other cultures and nations.” At his university office, McMichael’s hosts an annual “Eat Around the World,” event, a food and cultural mixer that raises money for international-student trips to the Oklahoma City National Memorial and the state Capitol.

Many international students would like to stay in the United States following graduation, a move that allows the U.S. economy to benefit from the education they received here. McMichael would like to see immigration reform that smooths the way for international talent to both study and work in the United States. “They are very timely, very responsible,” McMichael says of the school’s international population. Further, their ability to speak multiple languages is especially important to employers in south Oklahoma and nearby north Texas, as well as to the military. “They could thrive here and help out with the language barriers that we see,” he says.

While attending school, several of McMichael’s international students already volunteer with groups like the Boys & Girls Clubs of America or a Family Friendship program, which pairs them with a local family that needs help. “Immigrants bring their culture here and share that with members of the community,” says McMichael. The numbers prove it, too: When we help immigrants, we’re helping America.

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