University and state focus on retaining international students

By Shoham Geva, Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 17, 2014

As a new push in the state to increase immigration to promote economic prosperity increases, international student retention has become a key focus, leading to involvement from many colleges in the state, including the University.

As of the Fall 2013 semester, the international-student population numbered 5,963 undergraduate and graduate students, according to data from the International Center’s 2013 annual report. The number has been increasing steadily since the early 2000s, rising more than 1,500 since 2004.

After they graduate, these students have two main options if they want to stay in the state or in the country: pursue another degree or find a job through post-completion optional practical training, or OPT. OPT allows graduates to stay in the United States for a preliminary period of 12 months as long as they find a job in their field of study.

Right now, only about a fifth of University international students stay on OPT following graduation. However, a new program may enhance more young talent to extend their stay in the state.

Global Detroit, an initiative to attract immigrants to Detroit, was founded in 2010 to implement the objectives recommended by a study of the same name, which found that immigrant talent is a huge driver of both the U.S. economy and the Michigan economy.

Global Detroit Director Steve Tobocman said international students have the potential to fill in gaps in the state’s STEM and entrepreneurship fields.

“The average immigrant high-tech entrepreneur starts their business 13 years after entering the country, and the number one reason they come to the U.S. is not to start a business, but to get an education,” Tobocman said. “You see international student retention as the pathway to become the Silicon Valley of the Midwest.”

Jeff Mason, executive director of the University Research Corridor, which is a partnership between the University, Wayne State University and Michigan State University, said the URC’s three member schools are especially important for talent retention because of their research focuses.

“Our three universities are a tremendous pipeline to produce that kind of talent, particularly in the STEM fields,” Mason said.

When it was founded in 2006, the URC’s initial focus was on economic growth and collaboration, but following a 2011 grant from a private foundation, it began pursuing ways to retain international talent.

Today, the University’s involvement in the URC represents its main connection to the statewide immigrant talent-retention movement.

On a statewide level, the URC works to promote international-student-friendly hiring practices and make the state more attractive to potential international students. On campus, students often interact with the URC through the Global Talent Retention Initiative of Michigan, a program founded in 2011 with which the URC has collaborated for the past several years. GTRI works to encourage and aid students in staying in the state after graduation.

GTRI Director Athena Trentin said the initiative’s importance lies in complementing the services already provided at universities to better connect international students to jobs in Michigan.

“International offices do not do career services,” Trentin said. “Career offices generally don’t have staff who have the cultural knowledge to help international students understand how to sell themselves in a much more individualistic setting. So what we can do is we can come in and bring that cultural component in, and we can bridge the international and the career office.”

Trentin added that as GTRI has developed over time, the University has been a key partner in its success.

Mason said for all three schools in the URC, the main benefit comes from being able to help enrich the broader state community.

“I think the whole idea of having a more educated, skilled individuals coming out of our universities and staying in the state helps to grow the economy, and that benefits the universities in terms of having a more vibrant economy — a growing economy — here in the state,” Mason said.

Cynthia Wilbanks, the University’s vice president for government relations, said the University is also invested because of the high potential of students.

“The University is interested in supporting international students and their aspirations because we know we recruit some of the best and the brightest to come to the University,” Wilbanks said. “If they are interested in and have the desire to remain in the state and contribute to the state’s economy in a variety of ways, I think the University is all for it.”

The effects of all these initiatives are still unclear because the programs are still young. Since 2011, the number of international students on OPT has risen by almost 400, but that increase could also be tied to a general increase in the number of international students at the University, and it is unclear what state these students are in past graduation.

Mason said he thinks the effects of these efforts are starting to become visible both at the University and in the state.

“I think there’s more to come,” Mason said. “It’s kind of the snowball effect. More companies are becoming familiar and aware of hiring international students, and I think that will bode well for the future.”