TRAVERSE CITY In the not-so-long ago recession, jobless people signed up by the hundreds at Northwestern Michigan College to sharpen their skills or change careers.
The economy is back in gear, so NMC’s student numbers are stagnating, and dropped to 4,847 this fall from NMC’s record enrollment high of 5,440 from the 2010-11 school year.
Now NMC is looking to distant lands to bolster enrollment, and hopes to add 500 out-of-state and international students within five years. College officials set a goal of 5 percent for international students, which now stands at .4 percent . That would equate to about 250 students, an ambitious increase over the 21 foreign students enrolled now.
"We want to offer our students an international experience," said Lindsey Dickinson, NMC's international recruiter and adviser. "If someone can't study abroad, the biggest way they can learn about other cultures is to sit by a student from Afghanistan or Pakistan and learn about their contemporary, ethical dilemmas."
Traverse City Area Public Schools, meanwhile, intends to enroll up to 200 Chinese students in the coming years, building numbers gradually through a partnership with Weiming Education Group, a large Chinese private school.
NMC hopes a good share of those high school students will go on to NMC, Dickinson said.
The foreign influx will mean significant revenues for the high school and NMC. Weiming will pay $10,000 a student, and TCAPS will receive an additional $7,000 for junior students. NMC charges more than double tuition for international students compared to Grand Traverse County residents.
NMC hopes to draw faraway students with its specialty programs, such as aviation, robotics and water studies. It will amp up marketing efforts and expand on its seven foreign university partnerships.
The majority of foreign aviation students come from the United Kingdom, but hail from all over the world, said Steve Ursell, who heads the international aviation program
Emmanuel Adeniji , for example, left Nigeria at age 17 to attend the UK's University of Hertfordshire, where Ursell periodically visits to promote the college. Adeniji tested the NMC waters two summers ago with a two-week flight course. He recalled arriving in Traverse City for the first time.
“I thought, ‘Oh, God, I’m the only person of my color.’ It was so strange,” he said.
But Adeniji liked the rural flavor of Traverse City a far cry from the Nigerian capital of Abuja, where he grew up. He gets a lot of stares, he said, along with welcoming smiles. He was sold on the affordability of the flight school and the tight relationships between students and staff.
“It’s like a little family,” he said. “The flight instructor knows you personally. At other schools, you might not even see the flight instructor.”
An influx of this magnitude will require leadership in the community and on campus, said Peter Briggs, who heads up Michigan State University’s office of international students and scholars.
"It’s exciting for what it can be, and it will take leadership. There’s a lot of money to be made, but there will be a lot of cultural dynamics. You can’t do it on the cheap," Briggs said. “What kind of Chinese cultural competence is there on the campus of your high school or the college to help guide this?"
A few rumblings are starting to be heard on the community front. Kathy Sorenson of Traverse City fears that students with poor English skills will drain focus from students in the classroom, take jobs from the locals and mean fewer openings for Michigan students in state universities.
Foreign students, under visa restrictions, are only allowed to work on campus, said Lindsey Dickenson, NMC's international recruiter and adviser,
NMC biology instructor Nick Roster said foreign students who struggle with English usually seek help on their own, finding tutors or taking NMC's English as a Second Language class.
"I find foreign students are incredibly polite, won't interrupt you, and won't ask for help," he said.
He predicts the intense work ethic of the Chinese will improve overall performance of their student peers.
"If they brought that here, it would be awesome," he said. "It might raise our students up a little bit."
Dickinson said students must test at a proficient English level to be admitted. NMC gets testing results directly from the agency to avoid bogus reports.
To accommodate the student influx, NMC likely will partner with area hotels, perhaps nearby Cambria Suites, instead of building a new complex, said Andy Dolan, NMC spokesman.
A fairly large apartment building, taken over by Chinese, most likely who have never rented before, presents its own challenges.
"In China, for they don’t have shower curtains. They have a drain in tile floors, and now you have water damage. It's a simple example," but one that shows the need for a Chinese liaison, Briggs said.
Dickinson said she holds orientations for teachers and students alike to address different learning styles and expectations for health and hygiene, dating and classroom culture.
“We call our professors by our first names, for example, and that’s not something many international students have ever heard of,” Dickinson said.
To enhance community knowledge NMC will hold an International Affairs forum next June to explore China's business, education and more.
Shayrrl McCready, an NMC administrative assistant, said it's just a matter of reaching out.
“They're so willing to share about their food, their home, what school life is like it's an education for us as well as them," she said.