International Students and Scholar Services (ISSS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recently published statistics for Fall 2017 international student enrollment.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is now second among public institutions in the United States when it comes to enrolling international students. Last fall 3,336 new international students (a new record) were admitted, which brings the total number of international students at UIUC to 10,834. These students represent 113 countries across the globe, with the continent of Asia accounting for the greatest number of students (87% of total population).
Among Russian, East European, and Eurasian countries, however, the total number of international students is 92. This number accounts for 0.85% of the total international student population. For comparison, Harvard’s international population this year was 9851, with only 33 students from Russia (0.3% of total international enrollment), and less than 50 combined from all other Eastern European and Eurasian countries.
So why aren’t more students from REEE countries enrolling at the University of Illinois? While student mobility data paints a disappointing picture, the reality of the situation is more complex. A recent report published by IIE highlights a few reasons why Russians in particular aren’t choosing to enroll in universities abroad, among which the most important reason may be the high cost. Starting in 2016, Russian ministries proposed a “State Quota System,” according to IIE, which “makes available free education spaces for both domestic and international students using federal budget allocations.” This shows Russia’s clear commitment to scholarships for foreign students studying in Russia, but it is somewhat unclear to what extent the government sponsors Russian students enrolling in international universities.
I recently interviewed Ms. Daria Shapira, a graduate student in the Law Department at UIUC, who indicated that the greatest challenge she faced was fluency in English, as she was expected to be just as competent and quick with the language as her fellows in the cohort. But while learning a new language can certainly be difficult, it is a challenge that each international student faces. Between sips of coffee I next asked Ms. Shapira my most important question, Why did you choose UIUC? The answer was both surprising and unsurprising. Unlike many of our international students, Ms. Shapira already had ties to Champaign-Urbana and UIUC, having lived here for several years before attending UIUC.
While it certainly seems that only a small number of Russian students choose to study abroad in the US, American Councils, citing data from the 2015 Open Doors Report, reports that, “The U.S. is now the second most popular study abroad location for Russian students, behind only Germany, which provides substantial financial support for visiting students through its academic exchange program.” It follows then, that the problem is not necessarily with UIUC or American universities in general, but the general state of outbound student mobility in Russia and other REEE countries.
Which begs the question, “Why do we or should we want REEE students studying here?” A stronger presence of students from REEE backgrounds could only enrich our understanding of the culture we are so proud to study. Right now, it is possible for some students to earn a degree here in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies and not share class with a single native speaker of the region, except professors. I think that is a shame. So what can be done? While we cannot change educational policies or the state of government scholarships in Russia, the challenge falls on us to find a way to attract Russian students to this university, as best we can. UIUC, already in second-place in total international enrollment in the US, is well suited to “lead the charge” for enrolling more students from Russia and Eastern Europe. This should be a focus for us moving forward.
Jesse Mikhail Wesso is a first-year graduate student in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies and an Outreach Assistant at the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center.