Why ‘Coming To America’ Has A Different Meaning For International HBCU Students

While a combination of a global pandemic, changes in immigration policy and the end of a scholarship program has slowed the pace a little, Black colleges are still a destination for international students.

Before becoming the school’s Assistant Vice President for International Affairs, Dr. Yacob Astatke was an international student at Morgan State University, trying to adjust to Baltimore from his native Ethiopia.

“It was very challenging,” he remembered. “I was an international student in 1988 and I had never been on a plane before coming here.”

Now, as the person who oversees one of the largest cohorts of international students among Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Astatke tries to help the students who come to study at Morgan from around the world adjust to their new surroundings.

“While Morgan has an Office of International Students and Faculty Services that supports [international students] from the application process to keeping their immigration records and any other services they need, there’s also an Office of Cross-Cultural Programming,” he said. “We want to connect international and domestic students so that they can learn from each other.”

According to the Open Doors 2022 Report on International Educational Exchange, nearly 1 million students from around the world have chosen to come to America to study.

About 948,519 students from around the world are matriculating at universities around the nation, with the bulk of them (290,086) from China. As a state, California has the highest percentage of international students matriculating there, while New York City has the highest percentage among America’s cities, with 21.081 matriculating at New York University alone.

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While the number of international students has increased by almost 4% in the current school year, it is still trying to catch up from decreases over the last six years brought on by a combination of the perception that only certain immigrants were welcome in America during the Trump administration and the COVID-19 pandemic, Astatke said.

“COVID hit, and embassies were closed,” he said. “Only 30% of the close to 200 international students admitted to Morgan this year could get visas in time to come for the Fall. It’s a national problem.”

The ability to pay tuition may have also played a part in the delay for some international students seeking visas to come here. The governments of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait stopped offering the full scholarships that allowed students from those two countries to come to American schools, which led to fewer students from those two countries.

Proof of tuition funding through a bank statement or sponsor letter is often required to apply for a visa, according to Study International. International students are charged the equivalent of out-of-state tuition, but some colleges and universities may also add fees to pay for such things as maintaining visa paperwork.

A significant percentage of the International students attending colleges and universities in America from overseas are doing so as graduate students like Ikenna Oguliedo.

Oguliedo, who earned both a Bachelor’s degree and a Masters in Business Administration from the University of Nigeria, made the decision to continue his education in America after attending a friend’s graduation from Howard University in 2011.

Seeing this celebration of education made him want to have a similar experience, he said.

“I'd never seen education celebrated on that scale,” Oguliedo said. “The sheer number of students and everything that I saw at Howard was on another level. So, I left with the impression that this was something I wanted.”

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After talking with a friend who went to Morgan, he decided to go there to study Project Management in 2021. While initially it was a different atmosphere from Howard’s graduation due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that many of his classes were virtual, he was happy to be there, even if he did have to make some adjustments, Oguliedo said.

“I had to get acclimated to a completely different type of weather,” Oguliedo said.  “I knew that the weather was going to be different and the food was going to be different, but the excitement of getting into such a hallowed institution that’s known as a national treasure for good reason, gives you a good feeling. Everyone has been welcoming to me.”

In terms of HBCUs and international students, Howard University in Washington, D.C. has one of the largest cohorts. According to the study abroad platform, Howard has 668 international students coming mostly from English-speaking countries in the Caribbean, the Middle East, and African nations such as Nigeria, Ghana, and Kenya.

Schools of similar size to Morgan and Howard appear to be the most attractive to international students. The combination of a predominately Black student population, access to American culture and a relatively inexpensive tuition cost has made them attractive to not only the students themselves, but also to the governments that will be picking up the bulk of the cost.

But word of mouth also helps. Many of the international students that come to Howard do so thanks to the experiences of fellow countrymen and women, said Tonija Hope, director of the university’s Ralph Bunche Center for International Affairs.

“Unlike other universities that have robust recruiting operations, Howard doesn’t actively recruit students,” she said. “Most of them hear of Howard through alumni who have come from countries like Nigeria, Ghana, and Jamaica. Everything we do at Howard is viewed through an international perspective.”

Morgan, however, does recruit, Astatke said. The university has made an agreement with the Tertiary Education Trust Fund, one of the largest providers of education funding to Nigerians seeking higher education and has also gone to international college fairs to try and attract students. They also rely on the school’s international alumni associations in Kenya and Ghana to share the Morgan story with potential students, he said.

But in the end, HBCUs will continue to attract International students for the comfort level.

“The domestic students who come to an HBCU come here for a reason,” Astake said. “When you come to a place like an HBCU, you come to a place that’s like a family. Everyone is there to support you and everybody supports each other. HBCUs were set up, by culture, to welcome almost everybody.”

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