Despite these tough economic times, foreign students are continuing to make significant economic contributions to local and state economies. In the Midwestern states, that impact has been clear – foreign students and their dependents spent $4.5 billion during the 2010 - 2011 academic year across the region, according to NAFSA’s Economic Impact Statements released today. See how each state of the region benefited in this chart, and keep reading for a first-hand account of the many other important contributions foreign students are making in one of the Midwestern 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 Kansas from Emily Lee, assistant director in the International Student and Scholar Services office at the University of Kansas. If you would like to share your own story, visit the Share Your Story page on Connecting Our World, and be on the lookout for more state-level data and personal stories on the NAFSA blog throughout the week.

Student Friendships in Kansas

By Emily Lee

My personal story of discovering international education often begins with me remembering being able to count to fifteen in Spanish while in elementary school. I thought that was quite an accomplishment, but it was not until I went abroad in high school that the impact of how little I really knew about the world and my inability to truly speak another language hit me. It was humbling to meet so many others who spoke multiple languages and seemed to know more about my country than I did. Like many others, that “aha” moment led me to study abroad and travel, and it influenced my career choice. I am now able to see our international students and witness their “aha” moments and the melting of barriers between them and the local community.  One of the most inspiring events I see each semester is when we hold a panel discussion featuring current international students during which they speak to our incoming students during orientation about the challenges they have overcome and friendships they have made. It is hard to deny the benefits of international education during those sessions.

For those of us who work in the field, it is easy to see the benefit of international education through our own personal stories and the stories of our students; however, I am sometimes surprised when I leave my little bubble here on campus and encounter those who have a negative, and sometimes fearful, outlook on the influence that “outsiders” have. Showing that international students make a great positive impact both on a personal, and at a larger community level, is essential to convincing others of the merits of international education.

While I would love to be able to convince everyone that the understanding and breaking-down of barriers that comes from international education is enough of a benefit to prove its merits, approaching the situation from a financial standpoint can be a helpful tool in promoting the value of international education. NAFSA’s Economic Impact Statements are a great way to show your institution, community, and government representatives that the positive impacts of international students are not only the “warm fuzzies” of friendship and understanding, but also firm financial benefits. According to NAFSA’s Economic Impact Statements for 2010-2011, international students and their families contributed over $200 million to the Kansas economy. That is an impressive number to be able to present.

I’ve shared the personal stories and the financial impacts at both a local everyday level and also on a national level with my members of Congress during NAFSA’s annual Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C. If you have not been to Advocacy Day, I would highly recommend that you attend if you can. It truly makes you realize the impact you can have with your government representatives on national policies that will influence your state, students, and institution. I was intimidated the first time I prepared to meet with my members of Congress, but was pleasantly surprised to see how making the case with a combination of personal stories and financial benefits from NAFSA’s Economic Impact Statements can sway those with whom you meet.

It is hard to imagine a more rewarding and inspiring profession than working with international students, who are not only trying to improve themselves and their countries, but are contributing to increased understanding among all of us as global citizens. I enjoy being able to share and participate in this.

Emily Lee is an assistant director in the International Student and Scholar Services office at the University of Kansas. She is also the current state of Kansas representative for NAFSA. These reflections are representative of her personal views only.