John Pearson, assistant vice provost and director of Bechtel International Center, spoke on Tuesday about the trends, challenges and experiences of international students at Stanford.
The talk came in the wake of recent and upcoming changes in the visa policies affecting international students. Pearson provided a historical overview of the composition and situation of the international student body, drawing from data and qualitative accounts published previously in The Daily.
“The 1960s and 1990s saw a tremendous increase in international students — these were replicated nationally,” Pearson said. “Stanford has never been that different in increases over the years compared to the national levels.”
Pearson did, however, note one exception.
“One of the distinct differences between Stanford and many other schools in the country is that we have more graduate [students] than undergrads from overseas, “ he said. “It was only in 2001 that that was true nationally.”
Of these graduate students, most enroll at the School of Engineering, where internationals make up 44 percent of the student body.
Before presenting data on international student enrollment trends, Pearson mentioned one caveat. Stanford has not always categorized international students consistently — permanent residents, for example, were included in the data until 1987, but not since. This can affect the numbers in the data as well as comparative analysis.
There are currently 3,747 degree-seeking undergraduate and graduate students making up the international student body at Stanford, a number that has gradually risen from the 32 international students in 1910.
The first international student to obtain a degree graduated in 1894 as part of the first class, majoring in zoology. The Stanford Observer reflected in 1991 that in Stanford’s first year, foreign students — particularly Japanese students — outnumbered American-born minorities.
At this time, Chinese and Japanese communities were the largest. In 1900, 19 Japanese students, with the support of then-president John Casper Branner, formed a Japanese student association. Yet these students’ experiences at Stanford were not all positive.
According to Pearson, up to World War II, Asian students were not allowed to live in dorms with other students. In the early 1920s, a Chinese student living in Encina Hall was expelled by Caucasian students, which led to the creation of the Chinese Club House, which existed in the 1920s and 1930s.
In 1942, 24 Japanese-American Stanford students were sent to internment camps.
These problems disproportionately affected students of Asian origin, but broader challenges were simultaneously affecting the international student body at large, according to Pearson, who cited a 1949 School of Education master’s thesis on trends in international student enrollment.
The thesis concluded that issues facing international students included language difficulties, exchange rates, social adjustment, discrimination and difficulty in achieving intellectual exchange with American students and concerns over different approaches to academic work.
“All of those issues we still deal with,” Pearson said.
He highlighted problems understanding and dealing with the Honor Code and the fact that Stanford’s admission for international students is not need-blind.
As of fall 2011, the majority of international students — 59 percent — are from Asia. From higher to lower representation follows Europe, the Americas, the Middle East and North Africa, the Pacific Basin and Africa. Two students are politically stateless.
The regional proportions of international students represent a significant change over the past five decades. Following the 1949 establishment of the People’s Republic of China, no students from mainland China came to Stanford for 30 years.
“By far the biggest number of students now is from mainland China,” Pearson said. “It’s very hard to imagine a campus where there were no mainland Chinese students.”
“China going red” was not the only political happening to affect Stanford internationals. The 1979 Iranian revolution reduced the number of Iranian students “immediately and drastically,” Pearson said.
Two Iranian students from Stanford were involved in the takeover of the Iranian consulate in San Francisco. Prior to the revolution, the largest student population in the United States was from Iran, but from 1979 onward, the baton was passed to China.
Since Tiananmen Square in 1989, the political incident that has most affected internationals has been the Sept. 11 attacks.
“9/11 completely altered everybody’s world, but certainly altered the world of international students,” Pearson said. “We now have moved from really being advisors to being data analysts.”
“We report to the government every day on students,” Pearson continued. “Last year we sent 47,000 alerts to the federal government about international students at Stanford, mostly benign.”
Pearson mentioned changes in address and major as examples of alerts that must be sent to the federal government.
“Students now have to tell us, and we tell the government, not their address, but their room number in their dorm,” he added.
Despite these difficulties, Pearson noted the services Bechtel International Center provides to international students, including an annual orientation and a half-day workshop on learning styles to help students adapt to the American educational system.
He ended on a piece of legislation soon-to-be before Congress to help international students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields remain in the country post-graduation.
Attendees posed questions on the problem posed by cultural backgrounds in understanding the Honor Code, need-blind admissions and the international student admission pool.