Silu Jia, 24, a USC electrical engineering graduate student from China… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)
For the last decade, USC has enrolled the largest number of international students of any college in the country: 8,615 last year. The Los Angeles university worked hard to achieve that — recruiting students from China, India and South Korea, among 100 countries in all, and providing services for the foreign students once they get here.
Now campus officials are faced with the slayings this week of two graduate engineering students from China in a shooting about a mile off campus. While mourning this tragic event, they also hope the school won't lose its top position in international enrollment and that students from across the world still will consider the University of Southern California both academically excellent and safe.
Peggy Blumenthal, an official at the Institute of International Education, said she does not think there will be any significant dip in foreign enrollment, especially as USC moves to calm fears. "I think most students are aware that there are safety challenges in any big city and Los Angeles is not an exception," she said, adding that most Chinese and other foreign students in the United States also come from major cities.
More than salesmanship, she said, keeps USC the favorite for so many international students. The university sends students home as happy alumni and they become "walking advertisements for recruiting new students," said Blumenthal, whose group with the State Department compiles annual surveys of foreign enrollment in U.S. colleges.
But Barmak Nassirian, an official at the American Assn. of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said the slayings of Ming Qu and Ying Wu, both 23, could affect overseas perceptions if news coverage portrays Los Angeles as dangerous. Although the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, which left 32 victims and the gunman dead, was viewed across the United States as the actions of a deranged individual, Nassirian said it is unpredictable how Wednesday's killings will affect the attitudes of foreign families.
"What may have been a very random event may turn into an impression that Southern California is not safe in general, whether that is accurate or not," Nassirian said.
Students who have been accepted as fall 2012 freshman have until May 1 to decide whether they will attend and USC has not heard that any potential students, foreign or American, have pulled out because of safety concerns, according to admissions dean Timothy Brunold. USC is sending messages to potential freshmen worldwide this week about the deaths and explaining security measures that the school offers along with statistics showing that crime has decreased in recent years.
"What we are trying to do is to respond to people who may have questions and help them make their college decisions," Brunold said. USC's graduate schools, which enroll 80% of USC's international students, may take their own separate measures.
USC has offices in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Seoul, Taipei and Mexico City, which are used for recruitment, alumni relations, fundraising and research. Admissions officers also travel to many other cities. About 13% of USC's undergraduates and 25% of its graduate students are from overseas, although that is much higher in some graduate divisions, such as engineering and some sciences. Overall China is the top feeder nation to the university, with 2,500 students; followed by India, 1,300; South Korea, 700; Taiwan, 400 and Canada, 300, and others.
Brunold said USC has a mission to equip students to work in a global economy and to attract the brightest, no matter what country they're from. '"Not only are we looking for those capable students, those capable students are looking for us," he said. "The demand is there."
Foreign undergraduates help provide revenue for USC since they are not eligible for need-based financial aid, although they can compete for merit aid. Some master's divisions, particularly engineering, are known for generating large amounts of tuition from foreign students. However, most students in doctoral programs receive fellowships.
Foreign students find comfort in the size and diversity of USC's international community, said Yan Ting Lye, a junior from Malaysia. "You probably will find someone from your country here," she said. "You will have a social support group."
Lye, who is executive director of USC's International Students' Assembly, described a pipeline of students encouraged by older relatives and friends. "USC has a big name around the world ... graduates tell their friends back home and the word keeps building," said Lye, whose older sister attended USC.
However, Lye too said the slayings could hurt future foreign enrollment, depending on how well the university calms fears. "A lot of people back home are very concerned about the situation," she said. "And for parents sending their children all the way overseas, safety is the major concern."