BILLINGS — About 44 international students are expected to be enrolled at Montana State University Billings this fall, up about 20 to 30 percent over 2019, said Paul Foster, executive director of the office of international students at MSUB on Monday.
A March report from U.S. Immigration and Customs states the international student population dropped 20 percent nationwide in 2020.
But Foster said he's cautiously optimistic about the increase in international students in Billings.
“It’s an ever changing game, but I think we’re also a smaller university in a smaller city. I think those trends tend to wipe us out in one year, but then next year we’re back. I hate to say we’re doing really well, because that might jinx us. But standing here right now, we’re cautiously optimistic," Foster said.
Foster said MSUB reports its total number of international students around the end of Sept., when the students are fully enrolled in school.
“They are still not here until I get them into the residence halls. Then I can kind of relax a little bit. It is a long journey to get here and they are still crossing the border and showing their papers and all of the documents," Foster said.
The relatively low cost of living in Billings, and its reputation as a friendly community keep international students coming back, Foster said.
"They report back to their home country and their friends back home about what a great place to study and what a great university it is. Affordability is important as well. Billings remains a pretty affordable city to live in and great, friendly people in our community," Foster said.
Foster has been at the head of international education at MSUB since 2013. He is originally from Billings and spent much of his international education career in countries in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
When he took over, the program mostly hosted students from China and Saudi Arabia. Now it hosts students from about 35 countries per year, Foster said.
The program also facilitates U.S. students who want to study abroad. Foster said the average year sees between 40 to 60 U.S students travel to other countries to learn. The program was challenged in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, hardly seeing any students, Foster said.
“That’s really curtailed our study abroad efforts. But we do have students traveling. We have two students now in Korea. They spent two weeks in quarantine when they got to Korea in their home university. They’ve been released and they’re healthy. They’re doing really well and now they’re going to spend the next nine or 10 months studying Korea and international studies and their own major. And it is coming back," Foster said.
It's still a bit early to count the U.S. students who are studying abroad. College classes usually start in September in the United Kingdom and in October in Japan, Foster said.
Marvin Putu, 24, is an international student from Paris, France, studying for a degree in business marketing at MSUB. He has played on the soccer team since he first came to Billings in Aug. 2018.
"Honestly, I’m glad that I came to America. That’s something I would have never thought. Back in high school, if somebody would have told me I would have come at 21 and stayed in America, I would have laughed at his face. But that’s where I am right now and honestly, I’m really happy," Putu said.
Putu said he plans to graduate at the end of the fall semester. Thanks to the pandemic, he's only gotten one chance to see his family and friends back in France since first arriving. That trip was in the summer of 2019.
“I’m really close with my family. My mom and my dad, my siblings. I even have a couple of friends back home that I am really tight with them. So not being able to see them, it was really challenging. But somehow I managed to stay here and managed to be as positive as I could," Putu said.
Putu has been riding out the pandemic in Billings, and said he's excited to see his family again after graduation. He advocated for everyone to get some international experience, either through educational opportunities or travel. Putu said it can be a life-changing experience.
“The life experience. Learning about yourself. Learning about other people. Interacting and make connections with people you never thought you would make connections with. It’s definitely a great experience," Putu said.
After graduation, Putu said he's for sure going back to France, but not certain about what he'll do after that. He might take six months off, continue his education to graduate school, or apply for jobs pack home, Putu said.
Students from across the globe converging on the MSUB to learn is an added asset to the campus community, Foster said. For many local students, an interaction with a classmate from another country might be the only chance they get to make friends with someone from halfway across the world.
"They have a different way of viewing the world, different life experience. And I’m a firm believer that the more voices we get attacking a problem, the better solution we are going to have. In many cases, It’s just teamwork. Working with members of a diverse team, making friends with people from different countries," Foster said.
The international studies program at MSUB is growing, thanks to a U.S. Department of Education grand and newly formed partnership with Northwest College in Powell, Wyoming. Foster wrote the grant last year, and the program will now receive $120,000 per year for three years.
The grant allows about 20 MSUB students to study, Japanese, Korean or Chinese online Northwest College. Then next year, the students will get to study for one year in the home country of the language they studied. The grant will also allow three Northwest College staff and two MSUB staff to travel abroad and develop a global studies certificate program at the two institutions.
“It gives us access to a huge area of the United States Where our students now have access to these languages and international studies. Whereas before, it just wasn’t possible here," Foster said.