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MSU attracting swell of students from overseas

BY GENEVIEVE POSTLETHWAIT gpostlethwait@paducahsun.com

With approximately 1,094 international students registered as of Friday, Murray State University has boosted the number of international Racers for the third consecutive year.

This number includes exchange students from partner universities and students studying English as a second language, as well as 822 "degree-seekers" - 467 undergraduate and 355 graduate students.

According to Bill McKibben, associate director for International Student and Scholar Services at MSU, this number should only increase as university registration wraps up today and the ESL program continues its open enrollment throughout the year.

Three years ago, MSU had about 795 international students. That jumped 17 percent to 936 students in 2012, and another 11 percent to 1,039 students in 2013.

"For our school's size, we're talking about 10 percent of the population," McKibben said. "I think it adds to our campus and really brings a lot to the community. We learn a lot of things from our international students - just as much as they learn from us."

McKibben, who has been working with MSU's international students in some capacity for 13 years, said it's difficult to point to one reason for the steady growth. Many factors are involved, he said.  

One is new technology that has enabled the school to get much more out of their "armchair recruitment" efforts than they could in previous years.

Things like Google Analytics and similar services allow McKibben and others in the international department to gather data about sources and frequency of traffic to their website and social media accounts. This knowledge has helped them make more informed decisions about where to focus their recruitment efforts. 

The department's recent addition of three international admissions assistants has also freed senior staff members to dig into this new data and use it for more intelligent, aggressive recruiting overseas.

"We have to be really careful with where we put our financial resources," McKibben said. "We want to go places we think would be beneficial. We have to be selective."

In recent years, senior counselor of international admissions Tyson Manering has focused heavily on attracting students from India to MSU. 

Nationwide, the number of Indian students studying in American universities has declined by 3.5 percent, according to the Institute of International Education. At MSU, however, the number of Indian students has increased more than threefold. As of Friday, 134 Indian students were registered at MSU compared with just 37 last year.

MSU has also seen a swell in students from such countries as Saudi Arabia and Brazil that offer government-sponsored scholarship programs encouraging qualified students to study abroad.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah Scholarship Program has sent some 140,000 Saudi students to study abroad since it began in 2005. It completely covers tuition, as well as living expenses. As of Friday MSU had 364 Saudi students registered, down from 442 last year.

"Many students are looking for an affordable place to study," Manering said. "We're a public university, we're not a big city, expenses are pretty low. For some students that is a draw. Other students come because it's a very safe, family friendly community."

"We have to be realistic. We know what we are," McKibben said. "We're trying to focus on our strengths and what we can offer. For example, Murray was voted friendliest small town. For any parent, especially a parent from overseas who's about to send their 18-year-old halfway around the world, those things matter. We really use that."

For Younghwang "David" Song, of South Korea, Murray's reputation as a friendly, Christian town was one of MSU's biggest draws.

Song earned his Bachelor of Arts in business administration with a minor in economics in only three years and is now working toward an MBA in marketing. As a Christian, Song liked that MSU was in the "Bible Belt."

He said he's very involved in Murray's Korean Presbyterian Church, Phi Mu Alpha, the Korean Student Association and the International Student Association. He worked in the study abroad office as an undergrad, and he assists McKibben and Manering in the international department as a graduate student. He is one of 103 students from South Korea this year.

"Even if this is a small town, if I do my best, showing enthusiasm, I can do a lot of things," Song said.

Diani Burgos, of Belize, is in her third and final year at MSU working toward a Bachelor of Science in psychology with a minor in photography. Like Song, Burgos is very involved on campus and loves its diversity. She has friends here from all over, she said.

"It is one of the friendliest places," Burgos said of Murray. "There are a lot of people here who are very understanding and comforting. Coming here was much easier than I thought it would be."

Burgos first learned about MSU at a college fair in her hometown of Orange Walk. She is one of 35 students from Belize registered at MSU as of Friday.

"Back home we only have two seasons: wet and dry," she said. "So I asked the colleges, do you have four seasons?"

When asked how she feels about the four seasons after last year's harsh winter, she laughed.

"I still love it," she said.

In his 13 years at MSU, McKibben has seen the international student population rise and fall. Its growth tends to come in waves, he said, and can sometimes go years without growing at all, despite the school's best efforts. "We've been very fortunate and blessed to see this steady growth," he said. "We hope that it continues."

Contact Genevieve Postlethwait, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8651. 

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