Students throng event promoting studies in U.S.

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High school students surround tables at which college and university recruiters tirelessly offered answers to their questions for up to five hours at an EducationUSA fair last week.

The enrollment of foreign students is an essential source of revenue for most colleges and universities in the U.S.  Having once been in charge of communications for a university, I can report that Asians long have been a lucrative source of tuition.

Thus it was that I attended a recruiting “fair” sponsored by EducationUSA at a fancy Phnom Penh hotel a week ago.  As the Web site notes, the organization — which charges educational institutions for their participation — is a product of the U.S. government, and a laudable one at that:

EducationUSA is a U.S. Department of State network of over 400 international student advising centers in more than 170 countries. The network promotes U.S. higher education to students around the world by offering accurate, comprehensive, and current information about opportunities to study at accredited postsecondary institutions in the United States. EducationUSA also provides services to the U.S. higher education community to help institutional leaders meet their recruitment and campus internationalization goals. 

Given the level of enthusiasm and energy that I witnessed in the crowd of more than 1,000 students, most still in their school attire, I came away from the event mightily impressed.

One reason was the number of Cambodians who showed up.  Intently seeking information, they nearly swamped the recruiters at their stations.

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The crowd at the upscale InterContinental Hotel spilled into the lobby from the ballroom above.

A second reason for my reaction was how eager, almost desperate, the young people seemed to improve themselves by seeking to attend U.S. schools that ranged from community colleges (San Mateo State, if memory serves) to universities (New York University) that provide undergraduate or graduate education.

“I got a general idea of prices and which schools have what majors,” said one high school student, Chea Pessnoka, who at this point in his life is considering disparate possibilities — mechanical engineering, information technology and graphic design.

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Chea Pessnoka poses for the inevitable selfie with friends in front of you know who.

Jay R. Raman, the embassy’s public affairs officer, told me how important the affair is.  “It is the highlight of our calendar for education advising,” he commented.

Taking advantage of enrolling in a U.S. institution means overcoming obstacles that are not insignificant relating to money, intentions and suitability for advanced study.  The second and third hurdles may be the toughest in a five-step process that the students must negotiate if they are to advance successfully.

To obtain a visa, they may be asked to show that they are well prepared academically to study in the United States.  For example, they may have to provide standardized test scores required by their U.S. school.

Prospective students seeking a visa also need to demonstrate that they have the resources not only to pay for their education — for which some receive financial aid upon acceptance of their application — but also for their living expenses while abroad.

In addition, they must show proof of their intent to return home after they finish their studies; the criteria, which deliberately are not outlined in detail, may center on family, career or financial ties.  “That,” Raman allowed, “is sometimes the sticking point.” Unsurprisingly, two consular officers fielded numerous visa questions at the event.

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Consular officers from the U.S. embassy counsel prospective visa applicants.

A friend who is a retired diplomat hadn’t heard of the program but opined that the policy on visas strikes him as elitist similar, he said, to how college education in the U.S. is limited to those who can pay for it one way or another.  He added that the policy was possibly shortsighted, saying many students who study abroad often depart eventually, even after 10 years, to return home and thereby benefit their country.  His perspective is, I think, not without merit.

As a measure of how much importance the kingdom’s government and the embassy here attach to the fair, Julie Chung, deputy chief of mission, dropped by as did Lao Chhiv Eav, Cambodia’s  undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports.  (However, I didn’t glimpse them.)

According to the Institute of International Education, there were 764,495 individuals from foreign countries studying in the U.S. in 2011-2012.  In 2013-2014, the number had grown to 886,052, 31 per cent of them from China, which had considerably more than twice as many as the next biggest contributor of international students.  That was India with 102,673.

(The online list covers only the 10 biggest sources of such students, and of course this small country doesn’t come close.  According to Raman, the number from Cambodia is approximately 500.)

It is hard to imagine that the total hasn’t swelled by now to more than a million.  Such a magnitude suggest big business for the nation’s institutions of higher learning.  Picking a number out of the air of a modest average of $10,000 in annual tuition for each student, total revenue (including financial aid) comes to $10 billion, including any scholarships.

Seeing so much passion and hope generated by the gathered students was at once depressing, inspiring and heart-warming.

On the one hand, I wish higher education in Cambodia met the best international standards. Although there are plenty of college and university graduates, especially in Phnom Penh, the quality of the education they receive is uneven and their career goals tend to be limited. For example, accounting is much favored as a secure option with a relatively decent salary.  Law is a popular career, too, but not for women, who are far from having achieved gender equality in this Asian country.  Other choices that would increase economic development tend to prove less appealing.

At the same time, any education in a nation with so much illiteracy and such a poor track record in all public and many private schools is worthy of praise.

Given the challenges facing those young individuals, some from privileged families, I am filled with admiration for the students in strong pursuit of self-improvement, and I have to say that I am grateful to the State Department for reaching out to them.  It doesn’t matter to me what the government’s goals are: some combination of encouraging them, benefiting colleges and universities in the U.S. and bolstering the most promising natural resources of a developing country.

At the very least, the promotion of diversity in institutions of higher education in the United States is not only a good thing, but, in the current political climate, I believe it is an essential one.

E-mail: malcolmncarter@gmail.com

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