Foreign Students Contribute to State, Local Economies: Fashion Outlook from the Northeast

November 15, 2011

By Katie O'Connell

We now turn to the Northeast states, as we continue our series this week examining the impact of foreign students on local economies and highlighting real-life stories about their presence on campuses and communities around the country. In the Northeast, foreign students spent more than $5.8 billion during the 2010-2011 academic year, according to NAFSA’s Economic Impact Statements released Monday. Overall, foreign students and their dependents contributed $20.2 billion to the U.S. economy in the same time period.

See how each state benefited in this chart and keep reading for an insider’s view into how international students contribute to our economy and fashion from Erika Rohrbach, an international student advisor and NAFSA member at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City.

Creative International Students Succeeding in Fashion and Business

By Erika Rohrbach

I’m not a numbers person. I suspect I would fail statistics miserably if such a course were forced upon me. But I must confess, when I hear how many international students are in the United States and how much they contribute to our economy, I get a little giddy. 723,277 students; over $20 billion: those are big numbers. These kinds of figures make it easier to open conversations about the value of international education with relative strangers who can translate their meaning into the universal languages of commerce and politics much more easily than I can.

But I’m not in this profession for the numbers. I’m in it for the people. For the students who walk into my tiny, windowless office in this city that hosts the most international students in the country. For my colleagues in academia as well as in government, who share and appreciate the privilege of interacting with those from other cultures as individuals. We are a lucky bunch. We needn’t turn on the television or set foot outside our doorways to encounter the world.

And let me tell you, the glimpses of the world I’ve gotten through students at FIT have opened my eyes in ways I never could have imagined. Kosuke ‘KOOan’ Okawa from Himeji-shi, Japan showed up on campus in spring 2005 as a sweet, frenetic fashion design student sporting a giant afro. By the time he finished his AAS in fall 2006, KOOan was designing clothes for Beyoncé, was later featured in the TLC reality show I’ve Got Nothing to Wear, and has gone on to design his own line of couture fashions.

And then there’s Mokgadi Matlhako, who earned her BFA in Accessories Design in 2004, and in 2006, secured the first order for her breakthrough line of high-end handbags for the NBA, becoming an NBA licensee at the tender age of 25. She then went on to design and supply bags for the 2010 FIFA World Cup held in her native South Africa. Mokgadi’s dilemma now, at age 30, is whether to continue expanding her licensing or attempting to develop the production end of her business, Kgadi LLC, at home and in neighboring Botswana.

These and other students come to us with their abundant creativity, but what they give back is their enterprise. Our students learn here how to transform their ideas into things—in this case commodities in the global marketplace—and do so with remarkable results. They don’t just affect the way we look at things; they shape the way we look. If that doesn't impact our economy, I don’t know what does.

Having met a number of other design- and business-minded FIT international students with similar ambitions and talents, I’m at a loss as to how the national conversation regarding the cultivation of the world’s “best and brightest” perpetually focuses on those in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math) disciplines. This past spring, over 13% of our international graduates were sponsored for H-1B temporary worker visas, none of them in a STEM field. The 2011 Open Doors report, like last year’s, shows Business and Management as the top major of international students in the United States. If these students are coming to learn how to do business with us, does it not stand to reason that we might benefit from allowing them to stay and apply that knowledge?

I’m fortunate to work in a town where the mayor not only isn’t afraid to utter the term “H-1B” but has repeatedly urged Washington to relax the restrictions limiting the ability of international students to enter our workforce and remain here. Michael Bloomberg, like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, recognizes that these highly skilled individuals not only contribute significantly to this state’s fiscal and cultural well-being as students, but, as graduates, have the great potential to go on to create American jobs. In every sense of the word, they can and do make our lives richer.


Erika Rohrbach is an international student advisor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. She is past chair of NAFSA Region X and a member of the ISSS-RP Travel Subcommittee.


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