All this week, the NAFSA blog will take a closer look at the impact of foreign students on state economies and feature real-life stories about the positive impact they make on campuses and communities around the country. Today, the South.

In these tough times, foreign students and their dependents continue to make a significant economic contribution to local and state economies. In the southern states, that impact has been clear – foreign students spent more than $4.5 billion during the 2008- 2009 academic year across the region, according to NAFSA’s Economic Impact Statements released Monday. Overall, foreign students and their dependents contributed $17.6 billion to the U.S. economy. The report offers detailed information for each state, broken down by major higher education institutions and, for the first time, additional analysis by congressional district.

See how each state benefited in this chart (20kb Adobe PDF), and keep reading for a first-hand account of the contributions foreign students are making in one of the southern states.

The compelling, real-life stories about the positive impact foreign students make on our campuses and communities often come from the experiences of international educators who work with them every day. This week, NAFSA will be featuring their stories from around the country. Today we have a post about international students in Georgia from Dana Tottenham, associate director for the Center for International Programs Abroad at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. If you want to share your story, visit NAFSA’s Take Action Center today, and be on the lookout for more state-level data and personal stories throughout the week.

International Student Communities Make a Difference in Georgia

Dana TottenhamBy Dana Tottenham

Last spring, I had the opportunity to participate in one of the most compelling and informative aspects of my career in international education: NAFSA Advocacy Day in Washington DC. As I sat in the offices of Senators Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss, our coalition of Georgia international educators from Georgia Institute of Technology, North Georgia College and State University, University of West Georgia, and Emory University, shared our students’ lives with the legislative aides while also listening intently to how study abroad had transformed the lives of the very aides working for our congressional representatives.

During this two-day visit to DC, I had the opportunity to reflect on the many narratives and stories that enrich my professional and personal life as an international educator. I picked up our Japanese exchange student, Rieko, from the Atlanta airport as she was about to embark on her semester of study at Emory. Years later, she returned to campus for a visit and shared her on-going connection with Jonathan, an Emory alum who capitalized on his educational experiences, passion for Japanese language, and study abroad networks to embark upon a career overseas after graduation. I organized pre-departure gatherings for students as they prepared to spend a semester in Dharamsala, India, studying among the Tibetan refugee community. Upon return, these students have conducted research on Tibetan art in exile, organized Students for a Free Tibet outreach, and volunteered with the local Drepung Loseling Institute for the Tibetan cultural festival in the community. I listened as my colleague Ursula described how her international students participated in English conversation groups and joined the local choir, sharing their intimate knowledge of Rachmaninoff Vespers in Russian with the group. The daily connection of international students living side-by-side with American students on our campus enriches everyone’s lives, as students develop new friendships, experience diversity, debate foreign policy in class, and create new rituals across campus spaces.

These narratives enrich, motivate, and inspire students, faculty, staff, and administrators on our campuses. However, in today’s economic climate, the very nature of international education is being transformed and, in some cases, perhaps threatened. As the global economy rapidly changes and campus budgets are tightened, I am concerned about what it will take to draw the attention of our state and national leaders to keep international education as a top priority.

At our university, recent budget cuts indirectly resulted in the elimination of programming previously carried out by the International Students and Scholars Office. For some of my colleagues, the way that they do their jobs has changed from a holistic approach of servicing the international student community to a regulatory and compliance model. Other divisions within the university are reassessing student needs in the wake of these changes, as we struggle to provide services to students and welcome them into our community.

How do we maintain strategic priorities in the wake of scarce resources? How do we maintain a vibrant, international academic community where diverse ideas keep the classroom alive? How do we ensure that international students continue to make a lasting impact on our campuses? How do we encourage study abroad students to make connections both here and abroad that will launch them into competitive global careers? As an international educator, one of my new priorities is continuing to share the stories of students across Georgia with my congressional representatives. Margaret Mead’s infamous words remind me on a daily basis the impact that one student can have on our campus community, the city of Atlanta, the state of Georgia and beyond: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Dana Tottenham is the associate director for the Center for International Programs Abroad at Emory University. These reflections are representative of her personal views only.

If you want to share your story, visit NAFSA's Take Action Center today, and be on the lookout for more state-level data and personal stories throughout the week.