Attracting International Students, Penn Welcomes the World

Today, more than 5,000 international students call the University of Pennsylvania’s campus their academic home. This year, the number of undergraduate international student applications increased by 10 percent and on Aug. 28 Penn welcomed a freshman class with students from 72 countries.

During the last three decades, Penn has increasingly worked to attract and retain international students. As an early adopter of global engagement, the University has seen exponential growth in its international applications, says Elisabeth O’Connell, senior associate dean of undergraduate admissions.

In the early 1980s, international students accounted for about 1.5 percent of the undergraduate class, on par with peer institutions. By the 1990s, that number had grown to 10 percent. This year, it's 15 percent.

“Now we have voices from all over the world,” says O’Connell, who came to Penn as an international student from Sweden before joining the staff in admissions more than 30 years ago.She says Penn’s appeal to international students can be attributed to its one-of-a-kind research opportunities for undergraduates, the variety of academic programs and its global reputation.“Penn’s financial-aid policies for international students help us to reflect a real diversity from within nations.”

Global engagement is a key part of Penn President Amy Gutmann’s strategic vision as outlined in the Penn Compact 2020.

“Our commitment to global engagement is essential to what I call ‘educational diplomacy,’” says Gutmann. “Now more than ever, we are bringing Penn to the world and the world to Penn.”

The University’s grant-based financial-aid policy backs up the strong commitment to diversity and access under Gutmann’s leadership.

Penn’s financial aid, diversity and clinical exposure for undergraduates stood out to Sandra Urusaro, a junior in the School of Nursing and a Penn World Scholar from Kigali, Rwanda.

After participating in PennCAP, a pre-freshman program, she lived in Stouffer College House, which encouraged her to leave her comfort zone. She also joined student organizations, such as the Penn African Students Association and the Society of African Internationals at Penn, which she says helped her adjust socially and culturally.

“Wherever you come from, transitioning is a process that requires patience,” says Urusaro. “Eventually, everything starts to make sense.”To help the University’s growing international population succeed in the Ivy League, Penn launched transitional assistance programs, including the Intercultural Leadership Program, International Student Advisory Board, International Student Table for Advocacy and Relations, as well as the International Partners Outreach Group, which allows students to meet with administrators from various campus offices twice a year.

Rodolfo Altamirano, director of International Student and Scholar Services at Penn Global, came to the United States from the Philippines in 1983 as an international student and has shaped support programs for international students at Penn since 2006.

“The Intercultural Leadership Program brings new international students together with American students, both graduates and undergraduates. This clarifies misunderstandings and dismantles stereotypes,” he says. “You miss your home, friends, family; you’re coming to a place where the academic system, language, food and weather are all very different. Adjustment for international students should be easier and our philosophy is critical.”One of the newest programs supporting international students, Forerunner, is a one-day orientation seminar for accepted students living in India and China, which is offered in those countries. The program is designed for the students and their parents as a hands-on way to learn from current students and alumni. More than 100 people attended the Forerunner India program last summer, and the third annual Forerunner China program held in July at the Penn Wharton China Center in Beijing’s Central Business District yielded a crowd of 250.

Feizheng Liu, now a second-year student pursuing his master’s in intercultural communication in Penn’s Graduate School of Education, attended the Forerunner program in his hometown of Beijing and says it enables prospective students to start building connections.

“I met some classmates at Forerunner and we became good friends from then on,” says Liu, who hopes to volunteer as an alumnus when he returns to Beijing. “It provides a warm welcome with a comprehensive introduction to Penn and its culture in advance.”

Charu Gupta of Hyderabad, India, who will finish her master’s focusing on Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages from Penn GSE in 2018, attended Forerunner in New Delhi last summer. It alleviated her family’s concerns at a critical time.

“Many in India were worried, as hundreds of students were being sent back or held at customs for document verification. It was a great source of comfort for my parents to know what resources were available for me,” says Gupta. “New students should come in with an open mind and be ready to use every experience as a learning opportunity, not just academically but socially and culturally, too.”

Through programs arranged by ISSS and its partners, Gupta says adjusting was easier because of the support from understanding the visa process to navigating cultural norms.

At the beginning of the academic year, Penn holds an International Student Orientation in addition to New Student Orientation. During ISO, the Assembly for International Students partners with ISSS to host “Flashtalks,” casual discussions about what’s available on campus, from Counseling and Psychological Services to the Weingarten Learning Resource Center.“Holistically, international students should feel welcome, and we’re here to support them academically, culturally and emotionally,” Altamirano says. “I know how it feels.”“Penn is a welcoming place for international students, where they feel at home and it resonates with them,” O’Connell says. “We have a critical mass of alumni all over the world. Our students, parents and alumni are our best ambassadors.”

On and off campus, Penn’s diverse international community and global footprint enrich the University’s academic community. From Sept. 25 to 29, the second annual Penn Global Week will highlight the University’s world engagement, showcasing international activities on campus and overseas, hosting free workshops and celebrations with food.