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Universities across Western Pennsylvania attracting more foreign students

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Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
Carnegie Mellon students, from left, Svayam Mishra, from India, Yin 'Cecilia' Zheng, Zhang 'Jenny' Wang, both from China, and Vinay Palakkode, also from India, speak together on the Oakland campus during a break, Friday, Nov. 14, 2014.
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Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
Carnegie Mellon students, from left, Svayam Mishra, from India, Yin 'Cecilia' Zheng, from China, Vinay Palakkode, from India , and Zhang 'Jenny' Wang, from China, and speak to the media on the Oakland campus during a break, Friday, Nov. 14, 2014.
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Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
CMU students Zhang 'Jenny' Wang of China and Vinay Palakkode of India share their experiences in Pittsburgh, on the Oakland campus during a break on Friday, Nov. 14, 2014.
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Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
Carnegie Mellon students, Yin 'Cecilia' Zheng, from China, and Svayam Mishra, from India, speak to the media on the Oakland campus during a break, Friday, Nov. 14, 2014.
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Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
Carnegie Mellon students, Vinay Palakkode, left, and Svayam Mishra, both from India, speak to the media on the Oakland campus during a break, Friday, Nov. 14, 2014.
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Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
Carnegie Mellon students, from left, Svayam Mishra, from India, Yin 'Cecilia' Zheng, Zhang 'Jenny' Wang, both from China, and Vinay Palakkode, also from India, pose for a photograph on the Oakland campus during a break, Friday, Nov. 14, 2014.
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Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
Carnegie Mellon student, Yin 'Cecilia' Zheng, from China, listens during an interview with the media on the Oakland campus during a break, Friday, Nov. 14, 2014.

At 24, Vinay Palakkode, a native of Kerla, India, is living out his parents’ dreams as a graduate student studying engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

“They tried very hard to send me here,” said Palakkode, a research assistant in the school’s nationally renowned robotics program, as he sipped his morning coffee in CMU’s Skibo Café.

Students like Palakkode put CMU on the list of the 25 U.S. universities with the largest number of international students. Although CMU ranks 25th — it has 5,501 international students in a student body of 13,258 — international enrollment accounts for 41 percent of its students. By that measure, the school Andrew Carnegie founded to train the children of mill workers may be among the most international in the nation.

The numbers, detailed Monday in the new Institute of International Education’s Open Doors survey, show international enrollment at U.S. universities increased from 819,644 last year to 886,052, nearly double the number 20 years ago. China, by far, sends the most students.

When they come to the United States, international students typically pay the highest tuition rates and receive little or no financial aid. They tend to boost university bottom lines and bolster local economies. Economists estimate they pumped $27 billion into the economy last year.

“It’s not just the financial contribution international students make, but really the way they educate the U.S. students who sit next to them,” said Peggy Blumenthal, a spokeswoman for the institute.

“CMU seeks to attract the most talented students from across the world,” said Interim Provost Nathan Urban, who noted the school draws students from more than 100 countries. “This diversity in our student body prepares all of our students for a global future and is a driver of innovation in our classrooms, labs and communities.”

Although CMU’s international enrollment stands out, universities large and small across Western Pennsylvania are attracting more foreign students.

Among the schools reporting international growth were Seton Hill University in Greensburg, where international enrollment grew from 45 two years ago to 57 this fall; Indiana University of Pennsylvania, from 765 to 892 in the same period, and the University of Pittsburgh, from 2,781 to 3,537.

Joe DeCrosta, director of international programs at Duquesne University, where 853 international students studied last year, said the influx of foreign students bodes well for a region that has experienced limited immigration.

“Perhaps this is an indication the winds of change are upon us in Pittsburgh,” DeCrosta said, adding that Duquesne expects international enrollment to top 1,000 students soon.

Palakkode marvels at the kindness of Pittsburghers.

“People are really helpful. I’ve always had someone volunteer to help me whenever I got lost,” he said. “Back in India if you get lost, you have to find your own way.”

It was CMU’s reputation for developments in computer vision, or the analysis of images to inform decision-making, that drew the young engineer to Pittsburgh.

“This is probably the best place in the world for that. So I thought, ‘Why not CMU?’ ” he said.

Yin “Cecilia” Zheng, a 22-year-old graduate student in CMU’s professional writing program, grew up in Beijing, where her mother, a university professor, taught English.

She applied to CMU’s graduate program after spending a semester there during her junior year.

“I was the luckiest one in my department,” she said.

A scholarship helped cement her decision to return to Pittsburgh for graduate school.

Although CMU’s international enrollment is heavily concentrated in its graduate programs, it’s also a magnet for undergraduates.

Zhang “Jenny” Wang, a 19-year-old sophomore who came to the United States to study architecture, grew up in Wuhang, a city in central China. She liked the school’s strong academics and the relatively low cost of living in Pittsburgh.

That helps at CMU, where undergraduate tuition is $48,030 this year and total costs top $60,000 a year.

Freshman Svayam Mishra, 19, who hails from southern India, enrolled in CMU after a stop in Pittsburgh last summer on a whirlwind tour of top U.S. schools, ranging from Berkeley to the University of Pennsylvania.

“I just liked the vibe of CMU. I like the pace of life here,” he said.

Though some have questioned policies that encourage foreign students to study here, Evan M. Ryan, assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, said international students often continue to build bridges long after graduation.

“International education is crucial to building relationships between people and communities in the United States and around the world,” Ryan said. “It is through these relationships that together we can solve global challenges like climate change, the spread of pandemic disease and combating violent extremism.”

McClatchy’s Washington Bureau contributed to this report. Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or [email protected].

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