A chorus of intermingling accents fills the air where a cluster of students socialize somewhat shyly over cups of coffee at Julie’s Cafe in Berkeley.
With a tinge of a Russian accent, a girl from St. Petersburg makes a joke about how cold it is in Berkeley compared to Russia while her mother sits beside her, warming her hands with an untouched cup. Another girl from South Korea pauses to think, brow furrowed, before answering a question in slow, halting English, nodding at a student from Slovenia sitting across the table from her.
It’s mid-March, and the students are at Coffee Break, a weekly Wednesday mixer held by UC Berkeley’s international office to connect foreign students on campus. The mixer is one of many programs the office organizes to help these students make a successful transition — programs that are becoming increasingly important in the midst of growing international student enrollment.
“(These events are) definitely helpful,” said Coffee Break attendee David Marn, a UC Berkeley freshman from Slovenia. “It can be an issue to make friends in the U.S.”
Over the past 10 years, the number of enrolled UC Berkeley international students has doubled. In half that time, the number of freshman international students enrolling at UC campuses in the fall has quadrupled, while overall freshman enrollment has increased by only about 23 percent.
To combat the state’s disinvestment in higher education, the campus’s financial model has recently shifted to become more dependent on out-of-state and international student tuition.
Last fall, the campus hosted 5,645 international students, both graduate and undergraduate, from 120 countries — almost 3,000 more than it did a decade ago. In response, the campus has focused its attention on addressing the needs of international students and helping them adjust to campus life.
The rise of international students comes with a fresh set of challenges — namely, how to address their unique needs. Such students face a host of issues upon coming to the United States, including integrating socially, understanding the academic environment or even, as one student said, trying to understand the fast-talking employees at McDonald’s.
“In order to really make a joke or mess around with people, it’s very hard for us, because we’re really not at that level,” said Jerry Chen, a junior from Shenzhen, China.
Despite having friends who are from the United States, some international students prefer to maintain friendships with other foreign students on campus, whom they feel more comfortable with as a result of their diverse backgrounds.
The struggle to communicate extends beyond social interactions and into the classroom. UC Berkeley economics professor Brad DeLong, whose department currently boasts the largest number of international students on campus, has identified many of these issues through his interactions with international students.
The most popular majors international students declare — such as economics, electrical engineering and computer sciences and statistics — focus less on writing. DeLong suggests that increasing funding to writing and drama programs could help foreign students increase their oral comprehension and presentation skills.
“In order to sustain the excellence of our programs and the student experience, tuition from out-of-state and international students is crucial.” – Chancellor Nicholas Dirks
The international office offers programs to help foreign students adapt to the campus’s academic environment. Some students, however, still have trouble following classroom norms that come naturally to people who grew up in the United States, such as participating in lecture.
“I don’t know if many Asians will feel comfortable looking into the eyes of a professor or questioning a professor, when they first come here,” said Ho Dong Chyung, a senior international student from Brazil.
Because foreign students come from diverse academic backgrounds, they may also have difficulties understanding and meeting academic standards.
ASUC Student Advocate Timofey Semenov said his office has seen a disproportionate number of international students involved in academic dishonesty cases this year, although the number has fallen from last year.
Cases usually stem from confusion over citation procedures, plagiarism and other academic standards, Semenov said.
A national trend
UC Berkeley is investing more resources to effectively serve this burgeoning international population, and universities nationwide have done the same. Disinvestment in public education and overall financial instability have plagued U.S public universities, many of which have also begun tapping into the growing foreign market.
“In order to sustain the excellence of our programs and the student experience, tuition from out-of-state and international students is crucial,” said Chancellor Nicholas Dirks in an email to the campus Friday.
Nonresident undergraduate students, those who come from abroad or out-of-state, pay between two and three times more than California residents to attend the campus. They generated about $120 million in additional revenue for UC Berkeley during the 2012-13 academic year.
Roughly half of nonresident students who submitted their statement of intent to register at UC Berkeley for fall 2013 were international students, according to UC data. Only 29 more out-of-state students than students from China enrolled at a UC campus in fall 2013.
Some have expressed concern that increasing the number of nonresident students takes away spots from California residents. At a UC Board of Regents meeting in January, Student Regent Cinthia Flores cautioned against increasing nonresident student enrollment before having an educated conversation about alternatives.
But Oscar Dubon, the associate dean of equity and inclusion in the College of Engineering, said foreign students can positively impact the university — for example, by helping it become a more of a global institution.
“What attracted me to Berkeley was the history of fights for social justice and extremely politically liberal views.” – David Marn, a UC Berkeley freshman from Slovenia
During the 2012-13 academic year, a record 819,644 international students enrolled at U.S. higher education institutions — an increase of about 40 percent in the past decade — according to an Institute of International Education report. With about 236,000 students, China represents the largest group of international students in the United States, with India and South Korea also in the top three. This pattern holds true for UC Berkeley.
Many universities, including the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia, have successfully used this strategy to rebalance their finances, DeLong said, though it is too early to say whether it will be successful for UC Berkeley.
A reputation that feeds itself
Back home in China, UC Berkeley has a “huge” reputation for being the world’s top public university, Chen said.
“Other colleges like Northwestern and Duke — they might not know those, but they will know UC Berkeley,” Chen said. “When (students) see people going (to the United States), they too want to do that.”
Like many international students from Asia, Chen said his main reasons for choosing UC Berkeley were the “sunny” California weather, the abundance of Asian students and academic flexibility.
“(In the United States) we have more freedom in doing things we want to do; we can switch our major easily,” Chen said. “Freedom is a typical element of American culture, and that’s the thing that attracts many people.”
For fall 2014, UC Berkeley drew 13,407 freshman international applicants, but only about 10 percent were offered admission, according to preliminary UC data. The UC system received applications this year from 22,593 prospective students, which is about 4,000 more than last year.
Amy Jarich, assistant vice chancellor and director of undergraduate admissions, said because UC Berkeley does not have a lot of money for international recruitment, the university’s efforts mainly consist of working with other universities to visit high schools and college events overseas.
UC Berkeley, as the university’s flagship campus, has been developing its programs longer than other campuses, Jarich said. The campus also has a name recognition that its counterparts do not, as well as its own unique culture.
“What attracted me to Berkeley was the history of fights for social justice and extremely politically liberal views,” Marn said.
In light of its increasing outreach to foreign students, the university has recently allocated more funds and resources to campus departments, such as the international office and the Student Learning Center, in addition to employing a career counselor who specializes in helping international students, according to Ivor Emmanuel, the international office’s director.
The Tang Center’s Counseling and Psychological Services program and the international office’s advising program also employ counselors who have expertise in dealing with issues unique to international students.
Despite grappling with various challenges, many international students enjoy the time they spend on campus and value the chance to interact with people from different cultures.
“California is this melting pot of cultures,” Marn said. “The history of immigration to California goes back to the gold rush. There’s a lot of literature of people going. I guess I wanted to be one of those immigrants and experience these clash of cultures.”