International students and their families contributed more than $21.8 billion to the U.S. economy during the 2011–2012 academic year, according to a new NAFSA report released yesterday. California, New York, and Texas welcomed the largest numbers of international students, and those and other states across the country saw substantial benefits from spending by these students and their families on living expenses, tuition, and fees.

The compelling, real-life stories about the positive impact international students make on our campuses and communities often come from the experiences of international educators who work with them every day. Today we have a post about international students in Pennsylvania from Jennifer Figueroa, director of International Student Services for Bucknell University, in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. If you would like to share your own story, visit the Share Your Story page on Connecting Our World.

Bicycling to Sustainability
By: Jennifer Figueroa

Somehow, I am lucky enough to have a really unique job. I work in higher education, specifically with students that come to study in the United States from all over the world. I travel vicariously through them, and occasionally travel for real when the opportunity presents itself. I’ve mentored, supported, and advised students from far-flung places, nations, and cultures including the Ukraine, Brazil, Rwanda, Honduras, China, Nepal, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Macedonia, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, The Netherlands, Madagascar, Yemen, and Tibet. What is the best part of it all? Getting to know them as individuals and seeing the influence they bring to our campus. Each student brings a vibrant and unique perspective to campus, lending new ideas and concepts to classroom discussions and enriching campus programs through cultural experiences.

Of course there are the classroom interactions, the cafeteria line discussions, and the cultural events with food and dance where international and American students interact and learn from each other. Educators recognize this cultural and educational value, but many politicians and bureaucrats roll their eyes at it. I’m here to provide a powerful qualitative example that combined with NAFSA’s economic data, shows how valuable international students are to our communities and our country, as well as the impact they make when they return home.

Many of the international students we enroll at Bucknell have seen more poverty, ruin, and suffering than an untraveled American can imagine. Many strive to do more while they are in school; they cannot wait to give back. With incredible drive and passion, I have personally witnessed full-time students start up high-functioning non-profit organizations, raise funds, and really make a difference in the world, all while working toward a degree. One remarkable example is Muyambi “Dick” Muyambi, a Bucknell alum of the class of 2012 that saw a need to address the lack of affordable and effective transportation in his native Gulu region of Uganda.

Muyambi garnered support with some friends and successfully obtained an initial $10,000 grant to launch Bicycles Against Poverty in 2008, to distribute bicycles to low-income entrepreneurs, predominantly rural farmers, in developing countries who are in need of transportation. In return, the recipients make microcredit payments, which promotes responsibility over the bicycle, fosters microcredit management skills, and allows the organization to work towards financial sustainability. Bicycles Against Poverty is in the final stages of gaining 501c(3) status, and has college organization chapters at Bucknell, Skidmore, Cornell, and Brown. They’ve distributed 487 bikes, reaching well over 2,000 people on a weekly basis.

As a humble individual, Muyambi is quick to recognize many partners and supporters in this endeavor. And I am quick to point out that Muyambi’s story is one of many. We need the voices and perspectives of those that can help us learn and prompt us to do more. International students bring new, dynamic perspectives and ideas to our educational system. Surround yourself with difference -- and I promise you’ll learn a lot from those around you -- but a lot more about yourself as well.

Jennifer Figueroa is director of International Student Services at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. She is a NAFSA member and a participant in the Connecting Our World 2012-2013 Grassroots Leadership Program