Central Valley

Foreign students add flavor to UC Merced, Stan St.

Merced and Turlock aren't known as tourist attractions, but the universities in each city appeal to students and teachers from other countries.

Ryo Saito traveled to the United States to absorb diversity; the 23-year-old is in his third year studying cognitive science at the University of California at Merced.

"Japan is a uni-race. I wanted to learn about diversity; I wanted to learn something new," he said.

Recruiting students and professors from outside the United States is one quality that sets UCs apart from other public universities. Still in its infancy, UC Merced is ramping up its international program. It has more than 40 students from other countries enrolled in classes.

Nearing its 50th anniversary, California State University, Stanislaus, has 67 students studying overseas and 82 foreign students on the Turlock campus. Foreign countries with the most students visiting Stanislaus State are China, France and Japan.

Both campuses also have a handful of professors from outside the United States.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks, the United States got tighter with its visa screenings, dropping the number of international students at U.S. colleges. The country also faces competition from universities in Western Europe and countries investing in higher education to keep their brightest at home.

Still, many American hallmarks draw college students.

"In this country, if you work hard, you are recognized -- it's in your hands," said Christiane

Pailo, bioengineering master's student at UC Merced. "You can see that a lot in the university -- if they see you want to learn, they support you, they push you."

Most international students are in the United States with student visas and are not eligible for financial aid from the U.S. government. Pailo uses scholarships to cover her tuition and relies on financial help from her ex-husband, parents and occasional work.

Professors come to the United States for its diversity, but also for the freedom the country offers researchers, said Miguel Carreira-Perpiñán, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at UC Merced.

"It's important to get exposure to different ways to doing things," he said.

After studying and teaching in the United States, Europe and Canada, Carreira-Perpiñán said studying abroad is not only beneficial for the students and their receiving countries, but such swaps should be mandatory.

Two-way or one-way street?

Because many international students return to their countries after studying in the United States, opponents of studying abroad complain that resources in the United States are drained to other continents. Proponents refer to the travel as an exchange because the United States sends students to other countries, too.

Challenges for foreign students and professors in the United States include adjusting to different food, language, accents, plus homesickness and finding money to pay bills.

Thanksgiving was new, Saito and Pailo said. It was Pailo's first time having stuffing and Saito's first time eating turkey.

"It's my favorite dinner ever," Pailo said.

Another feature of U.S. culture is its residents' allegiance to their country, students said.

"The patriotism is amazing. They love their country so much that it makes me want to love it," Pailo said.

Saito noted violence in the United States is more widespread than in other countries.

"I'm scared about all the boys carrying the guns. In Japan, there's almost no guns," he said.

As a Muslim, Stanislaus State's Reem al-Awadhi's is required to prayer five times a day, so scheduling classes is difficult. Although Kuwait supports educating females, unlike some Middle Eastern countries, al-Awadhi said she couldn't find environmental science programs in her homeland so she came to California.

College is about learning, and having foreign students on campus is about learning other cultures. The exchange of experiences, viewpoints and information is one of the most valuable parts of opening up colleges to international students and professors, foreign and U.S. students said.

U.S. students and professors are curious about foreign perspectives, and making connections between the cultures helps correct misconceptions, students said.

"All most people know about Japan is sushi and Toyota," Saito said. "I also want to go back to Japan and bring my experiences in America to Japan."

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.