ERIE, Pennsylvania — Landon Han arrived in Erie on Aug. 18 with two suitcases and a backpack.
After three flights and 38 hours spent either in the air or in airports, he climbed into a car that took him directly from Erie International Airport to Penn State Behrend, a place he'd only seen on a computer screen.
Then, a whirlwind: lunch, room key retrieval, meeting with an adviser.
At 7 p.m. — 7 a.m. on Aug. 19 in his hometown of Nanjing, China — the 18-year-old fell asleep, exhausted.
College life had begun.
Han is one of 195 new international students at Penn State Behrend, part of a record incoming class that represents 33 different countries. Most — 109 — come from China, followed by India and Korea.
Gannon University, Mercyhurst University and Edinboro University of Pennsylvania all are seeing increases in international students as well, mirroring a trend playing out on a national scale.
New international student enrollment increased 9.8 percent in the fall of 2012 over the previous year, up to 250,920, according to the Institute of International Education's most recent Open Doors report. In 2012-13, the number of international students rose 7.2 percent to a record high of 819,644 students, the annual report found.
The increase was driven primarily by Chinese students, particularly at the undergraduate level. Chinese student enrollments increased by 21 percent in total to almost 235,000 students, and increased by 26 percent at the undergraduate level, said Rajika Bhandari, IIE's deputy vice president of research and evaluation.
China's one-child policy and a rapidly growing middle class mean more parents are able to invest in a "world-class education" for their child, Bhandari said.
"American undergraduate and graduate education is seen as the gold-standard by Chinese families, who feel that a U.S. education will be the best preparation for a career in the global economy," she said.
There also were large increases in undergraduate students from countries where the national governments have invested in scholarship programs to send students to the U.S. to study, including Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Kuwait, Bhandari said.
The U.S. is a preferred destination for international students because it is perceived to have the highest quality higher education system with excellent science and research facilities, she said.
"It is also considered a welcoming place for international students, offering a good lifestyle, outstanding student support services and many scholarships opportunities," Bhandari said.
The increase is good news for local colleges as they look to address an ongoing decline in the number of Pennsylvania high school graduates, caused by a shrinking number of high school-aged children. Even though numbers are up, recruitment isn't stopping.
Gannon's total international enrollment has grown from 199 in spring 2009, about 5 percent of the total enrollment, to 545 in spring 2014, or 13.2 percent of enrollment, said Bill Edmonson, the university's vice president for enrollment.
The university recently started an English-as-a-second-language program for students to prepare them to take courses that will count toward a degree, and also brought together under one umbrella several offices that work to recruit and support international students.
Gannon "has a bit of a growing reputation internationally," Edmonson said. "A lot of students think they want to go to Harvard and then realize that's just not going to happen. We work really hard to get Gannon as an option in front of them."
Sometimes students and parents help with that work.
"It's word of mouth," Edmonson said. "Some of the cultures, once you start turning on the pipeline, it continues to flow."
That's true at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania as well, said Jeffrey Hileman, director for university communications.
"There's an Edinboro tradition in some countries," Hileman said.
International student enrollment at EUP has risen from 88 in fall 2012 to 112 as of Sept. 9. The students represent 41 countries.
The university is part of a Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education initiative for recruitment in China and India. And it recently has hired a new assistant vice president of enrollment to help build a strategic plan around international recruitment as part of an overall recruitment strategy.
"We feel that having students from a broad background, including a large number of international students from a number of countries, enhances the education of all of our students," he said.
Creating a diverse campus is part of Mercyhurst's mission, President Tom Gamble said. The university tied for 11th among northern universities with the most international students in U.S. News & World Report's annual rankings released earlier this month.
"We have really become convinced that a global awareness is really an essential part of a contemporary higher education," Gamble said. "We want every grad of Mercyhurst to be able to engage in the world in a thoughtful and informed manner, and those direct contacts are really important.
"It's hard to have a shallow or superficial understanding of people and other countries when you know them," Gamble said. "That's what drives our commitment to doing this."
The main campus now enrolls 264 international students, including 80 new students representing 24 countries.
Phuong Vu, a 19-year-old junior from Vietnam, remembers when she was in their shoes. She'd chosen Mercyhurst based on what she saw on its website and Facebook chats with current Vietnamese students.
"For international students studying abroad, it's like a bet," Vu said. "I was lucky, and I'm really happy about that."
Now she's an ambassador, giving student tours. She tries to connect students and answer questions on a Facebook page devoted to the incoming class, paying special attention to international students.
"Even domestic students have a hard time adapting to college, not to mention international students," she said.
When Landon Han's father told him he needed to go to college abroad, he didn't question him. He started researching and found a name already familiar to him: Penn State. He was accepted at Behrend.
"I'm lucky," Han said. "I can enjoy good American university life before I go to a larger university. I love it. This environment is really good for me."
Almost a month after he collapsed in exhaustion after arriving, he's starting to carve out his place and make friends. One surprise: the familiarity between students.
"People will say 'Hello,' 'What's up?' We will talk to each other even if we are strangers," Han said. "That made me feel comfortable."
Information from: Erie Times-News, http://www.goerie.com
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