Supporting International Students

International Student Services at California State University, Los Angeles a History and Perspective

Michael D. Fels, Ph.D.
Director, International Programs and Services

Cal State L.A. is an urban, comprehensive, public University that recently celebrated its fiftieth year of service to the community. CSLA has deep roots in many Los Angeles neighborhoods that have been home to immigrants from Asia, Europe and Latin America for the better part of the twentieth century. European Jews, Russians, Mexicans, Armenians, Koreans, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Lebanese, Central Americans, Greeks and many others followed their dreams to City Terrace, Korea Town, China Town, Little Tokyo, Boyle Heights, East LA, Alhambra, Montebello, Glendale, Monterey Park and many more. That the demographics are always in flux can be seen every day on the streets as Brooklyn Avenue becomes Cesar Chavez Avenue, steak and eggs are replaced by dim sum and Armenian accents are heard in city parks that once were the sole province of the midwestern drawl.

Very much in the center of this great variety of peoples is Cal State L.A. First and foremost, CSLA is "…committed to student-centered learning, free scholarly inquiry and academic excellence within a diverse multi-ethnic community. . . .The University strives to promote understanding of, and respect for, diversity and to serve the changing needs of a global society."

While much of the world is represented in our classrooms due to the multi-ethnic nature of our community, the rationale for building a large international student enrollment has been a matter of debate. Do international students make academic success more difficult for local students who may have origins in the same countries? Do international students contribute to the intellectual/social life of the university as much as or more than local students? Since a large percentage of our visa students become quickly absorbed into their own local cultural/linguistic community off campus, just what is it that makes their presence important to the life of the university? Does the university have a social (moral?) responsibility to educate visa students? If so, what is that responsibility? What are its limits? When we admit visa students who harbor vigorous racial or ethnic prejudices, what responsibility does the University have toward local students of color? ("I want to be in class with 'real' Americans" or "I don't want to room with Black people.") Should the University actively encourage visa students to learn about and adopt, at least while they live and study on our campus, the principals of non-discrimination with regard to gender? Sexual preference? Religion? Ethnicity?

The only fact not debated is that visa students mean additional revenue.

The University demonstrates its ambivalence towards its large (650 in 1998's fall enrollment of matriculated visa students; another 100 or so taking classes in "open university" status), through never recruiting students from overseas. With regard to international applicants we maintain a passive, but interested, posture. If they find us, we're glad to help get them admitted, but we're certainly not out chasing them down. [Note: This does not apply to our own intensive English language program-ACLP. They ride and rope along with the best of them!].

To further contextualize the role of visa students at CSLA, it is helpful to trace the evolution of the office responsible for the "post-admission" advising of visa students. The admission of visa students was and is the responsibility of a unit of the Office of Admission.

Prior to 1986, International Programs and Services was known as the Foreign Student Office. That name reflected the limited responsibilities of the office, which were to provide immigration and non-academic advising services to "foreign" students. The Foreign Student Office--a passive, Student Affairs unit that reported to the Center for Student Life--made no contribution to the educational development of local students and did little to enhance the educational experience of international students. It was a document processing office, period.

By 1986, that the name, Foreign Student Office and the reporting relationship of the unit needed to be refocused to underline the academic mission of the University as a whole--its service to our local community--had grown clear. The University needed to provide its local students with more ways of being involved with various aspects of international education (including the internationalization of the curriculum) but there was no administrative unit on campus designated to serve that integrative, developmental function.

In response to that need as expressed by faculty, department chairs and academic administrators, the scope and activities of the "Foreign Student Office" evolved. Thus, to more accurately connote its new profile on campus the name was changed to "International Student Services" and International Students were redefined to include students who participated in an "international" experience--i.e. to local students going abroad as well as to those coming to the USA from abroad. The office became a liaison to the diplomatic community in Los Angeles, as well as to public and private organizations with interests in international exchange.

By the early 1990's International Student Services had unofficially become the engine for the development of international education at CSLA. It worked closely with faculty and academic administrators and now it was perceived as the central source of help with the development of international projects and programs as well as with the more traditional functions of study abroad and visa-student advising. In that regard, the services developed in the mid-1990's still form the backbone of services provided to visa students today: Orientation (a supplement to the University Orientation program); Immigration Counseling and all that implies; management of the mandatory health insurance program; general advising and advocacy (cultural, social, bureaucratic); admission and counseling for the University Open University program.

One may notice that this a "bare-bones" program. We do not find host families for students. We do not serve tea. We do not go to Disneyland. This is because the vast majority of our students transfer to us from other US institutions rather than coming directly from abroad. These students tend to have already figured out how to do much of the business of everyday life in the US. And, because of our location, there is no shortage of well-established local people who speak the same languages or even originate in the same neighborhoods in the same cities so that finding help with logistics is generally not a problem. Those needing special assistance receive it on a one-to-one basis. During our orientation, we encourage new students to make use of the abundant, multi-cultural recreational and social opportunities available to them through the University Student Union (including clubs and organizations). For the most part, this works. Over the years, efforts to organize "pan-international student" organizations have fizzled. Whatever students might need in the way of support to expand their social and cultural lives, they seem to get either from generic university programs or the surrounding communities. As for "host families", we abandoned that effort years ago when it was clear that the time and energy it took to find a family who would actually host (not rent to) an international student for the right reasons (i.e. not to get a servant or a recruit for the host-mom's religion) simply was not worth it.

In the mid-1990's, International Student Services applied for, and received membership in the National Student Exchange (NSE), a consortium of public universities in the USA which facilitates domestic academic exchanges for students. The number of students participating in the NSE has increased each year. In fall quarter 1999, for example, ten (10) CSLA students will study at other universities, and thirty-five (35) students from other universities around the United States will study at CSLA. All students are on a full academic year exchange. Again the role of International Student Services had expanded beyond limitations imposed by "international" and had responded to institutional and student needs for expanded co-curricular services. Also, in the mid-1990's International Student Services established a service-learning project on the Colorado River Indian Tribes Reservation in western Arizona. This project, now in its 6th year, has provided over 200 CSLA students (both foreign and domestic) with the opportunity to combine hard, physical work with learning about culture and service. This project, conducted with the support of the Rotary Clubs of East Los Angeles, San Marino, Alhambra and Monterey Park has become a model for university/community partnering.

Although International Student Services sat at the nexus of international activity at CSLA, it did so without portfolio. Even though that worked in most cases because of the personal relationships developed over many years between the Director and individual faculty and academic administrators, too much depended on collegial good-will and friendship and too little on organizational structure and planning. That is why, in 1999, the office of International Student Services, with the support of the University President, metamorphosed into International Programs and Services. The new name accurately acknowledged the role of the office in all aspects of international activity at the University. In addition to a name change, a new administrative position was created. This position puts the direct "student services" such as visa student and study abroad/exchange programs under one umbrella and assures that the Director of International Programs and Services can focus more attention on the development of projects and programs that build the international competency of the University as a whole.

The office still has long way to go to develop the resources needed to provide affordable, opportunities for CSLA students to participate in international and/or domestic programs and to provide co-curricular opportunities that bring local students into direct contact with the great wealth of cultural diversity on the campus and in our local communities.

The reformulated mission of the office of International Programs and Services is as follows:
To support the academic mission of the University by providing the CSLA community with a variety of opportunities for deepening understandings of, and making contributions to, the world's cultural, civic, organizational, and intellectual diversity.

The goals of International Programs and Services have been defined as follows:

Goal 1: To provide a cluster of high-quality support services to international students and scholars at CSLA that relates to those persons' special status in the USA and at the University.

Goal 2: To promote scholarly exchanges of faculty, staff and students.

Goal 3: To serve as a catalyst for the development and support of international and domestic exchange programs and projects for students, faculty and staff.

Goal 4: To strengthen ties between the University and the local community.

Goal 5: To support specific initiatives of the University's Priority Strategic Initiatives plan.

For the first time, the University has hired a person to specifically oversee all aspects of enrollment management. This may result in a decision to maintain the status quo (i.e. no recruiting overseas) or in a decision to limit recruiting to countries and regions with few representative students on campus (Europe, Africa, Middle East) or to go after any and all who possess the requisite academic and financial qualifications

Whatever happens, we look forward to continuing to define and refine the delicate balances that exist between domestic and foreign; import and export; in and out; alien and terrestrial. We certainly don't have the answers.

Ideally? I'd like to see us admit international students who can't wait to learn from our local students what it's like to live an American life; ones who can't wait for the first vacation so they can take the Greyhound across country and stay at youth hostels and national parks; who volunteer to work at a local Boy's and Girl's Club; who go to free jazz nights at the MOCA; who wonder what it's like to be poor in America. In short, we want our international students to be adventurous and courageous and to encounter us Americans in all our many guises and to take home more than a college degree.