TAMPA — It was the Mid-Autumn Festival and American and foreign students packed a University of South Florida ballroom. They bit into mooncakes and sipped hot tea, ready to spend the next few hours singing operas, performing martial arts and reciting Chinese poems.
In his British accent, Roger Brindley spoke over the buzzing crowd into a microphone.
How many Chinese students were in the room? he asked. Dozens of hands shot up. How many students from a different country? Hands, hands, hands.
"I'm so glad you're here," Brindley said. "We can learn so much from each other."
Long before he became an administrator at USF, he earned his own degree in America. He knew how the students felt — the thrill, the nerves, the hurdles.
Years ago, such a large global gathering may not have taken place on campus. But things are different now. Cultural exchange just may be a saving grace for the university's future.
Foreign students are going to college in America more than ever, their numbers increasing 6 percent since 2012.
More than 32,000 international students attended higher education institutions in Florida last year, according to the Institute of International Education. The University of Florida had 5,588 and Florida International University had 2,938.
USF is catching up. This semester, the university is home to 2,657 international students from 140 countries — 801 more than last year. University leaders have set a goal for the student body to be 10 percent international in the next five years.
"We've been very deliberately bringing these students in," said Brindley, vice provost and USF associate vice president for USF World, the branch responsible for USF's global efforts. "We are now known in places that 10 years ago had never heard of us."
In addition to bringing in foreign students, USF is sending more students on study trips. USF president Judy Genshaft and her husband, Steven Greenbaum, personally donated $1 million to send students abroad. About 1,000 USF students had an international experience this year. At USF St. Petersburg, study abroad almost tripled in the past two years, with students going everywhere from Belize and Moldova to Spain and France.
The exchange has cultural benefits, said USF provost Ralph Wilcox, things that aren't entirely tangible. International students bring new views into classrooms. They broaden the school's brand around the world.
They also come with a very tangible benefit — money.
Most international students pay full tuition, the same as anyone coming from outside Florida. That comes to more than $17,000 a year for an undergraduate, compared to about $6,000 for an in-state student. For an out-of-state graduate student, tuition tops $21,000.
USF leaders have pointed to foreign students as a welcome source of revenue as public universities struggle with funding. In-state students are feeling tapped out financially. State dollars are far scarcer than they once were.
"That additional tuition is certainly welcome in difficult economic times," Wilcox said. "But my focus has always been on the quality of education. If you can't guarantee international students a world-class education, they won't come. They are very savvy consumers."
International students contributed almost $22 billion to the U.S. economy in tuition, living expenses and more during the 2011-12 academic year, according to the Association of International Educators. In Florida, they contributed $936 million.
And some students stay here to work after graduation if they can get the proper documentation. But that's not necessarily a simple prospect.
Growing up in Brazil, Ana Castro dreamed of American life, red Solo cups and house parties like in the movie American Pie. At an apartment across from USF, she lives with two Americans and a Japanese student. She is part of an honors fraternity, engaged in a Greek life she didn't even know existed before coming here.
But now at 21, she's focused on the future working in chemical engineering. She went to a career fair and was asked over and over if she was an American citizen, she said, by employers looking to avoid the hassle of hiring an international student.
"You have to be really good at what you do," she said. "You need to prove that you're the only person who can do that job. If I want to stay here, I cannot work serving coffee."
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Some international students find USF on their own, thanks to the Internet. They talk on Facebook. They look at the school's website. They know things.
"They've got the basic understanding of who we are before they ever come and say hello to us," said Brindley. "They'll come and want to ask some quite pointed questions about best programs. What's life on campus like? Will I get a dorm room? Rather than, 'Where is South Florida? Is Tampa near Miami?' "
Mikhail Ivanovskiy remembers meeting with a USF recruiter at home in Kazakhstan.
He took an English test, a math test and did an interview. He won a partial scholarship for INTO USF, he said, a bridge program where international students can improve their English and earn college credits.
Now he's a full-time USF student, one of 30 from Kazakhstan. His parents pay his tuition. His father owns a paint factory, he said, and his mother stays home to raise his little sister.
"I talk to them twice a week, at least," said Ivanovskiy, 19. "They wanted me to go."
USF recruiters travel the world looking for students, targeting places like former Soviet states, mainland China and Taiwan. USF maintains a recruiting office with two staffers in Delhi, India. The top five countries sending international students to Florida are China, India, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and South Korea. No matter where they're from, they don't get academic breaks on USF admission standards.
Recruiters don't focus too heavily in one area — an outbreak of disease or political unrest would be disastrous. And they don't focus heavily on places full of world-class academic institutions, such as Australia. USF also maintains partnerships with universities in Saudi Arabia, China and England, sending professors and students there to collaborate on research.
"We have in this state a bright and motivated cadre of young academic students coming into universities who were raised in Florida, went to Florida high schools, go to Florida universities, and will probably settle in Florida," said Brindley. "So we have to bring the world to them."
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Through his office window, Brindley looks out on a sprawling sports field. The other day, he said, students were playing soccer on one end and cricket on the other. They were from all over the world.
Right before graduation, he said, the international students get a sash representing the country they're from. Something they can keep forever.
"They could be the beautiful gold and green of India. They could be the yellows of Colombia," he said. "They're graduating. They're reaching their dream, they're reaching their goal, and they're doing it at our university, and we're celebrating their heritage. I have to tell you, it causes me to get goose bumps."
Brindley reached in his cabinet and pulled out his own honorary sash, with the flag of the United Kingdom.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394.