MISSOULA -- Mohammed Al Shaikh Ahmed is studying at the University of Montana on a scholarship from Saudi Arabia.

Before he arrived some 18 months ago, his friends at home warned him that a school in the United States would want only one thing from him.

"They just want to take money and let you study by yourself," Ahmed was told. "They will not have good staff to teach you."

UM does want his money. However, Ahmed, who has a diploma in accounting and came to Montana through the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission to the U.S., considers himself rewarded.

"Here, when I come, I see the difference," Ahmed said.

At UM, Foreign Student and Scholar Services greets international students with its doors wide open, he said.

In fact, he said, so does the entire community of Missoula.

"When I come here, the people, they are smiling, and they are welcoming you and they are friendly," Ahmed said.

He's been hospitable, too. Here, he has cooked kabsa, a Saudi dish of spiced meat and rice, for his American family.

In the most recent school year, Ahmed was one of 832 international students enrolled at the University of Montana, and he represents an exception on campus in more than one way.

In a time of dipping enrollment, the number of international students hit a record high last year.

In a time of budget cuts, one of the few new positions UM approved is another recruiter for the Office of International Programs.

UM seeks students like Ahmed because they help create rich cultural diversity on campus, and a global connection that seeps into the greater community. At a time when budgets are dwindling, the foreign scholars also represent big money.

"If you put more dollars into international recruitment, you do get a lot more revenue. You cannot go wrong," said Paulo Zagalo-Melo, director of the Office of International Programs.

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UM's Office of International Programs is some 20 years old.

Just five years ago, it had enrolled 420 international students, most from Japan, Saudi Arabia and China.

Since then, enrollment has nearly doubled, with international students representing 81 different countries in the most recent school year. Yet director Zagalo-Melo said UM is only beginning to emphasize its international recruitment, with its first recruiter starting in January 2014.

"I think it just comes with the general growth of the numbers of international students in the U.S.," Zagalo-Melo said of the increase. "We are only now, during this school year, really changing our recruitment strategies and implementing new strategies, and hopefully getting some new resources for international recruitment."

UM vice president of finance Mike Reid said the final budget includes one new position for international recruitment. However, he said the university will not fund the position until it confirms its actual enrollment has matched projections, with solid numbers available toward the end of July.

International students pay out-of-state tuition rates, and Zagalo-Melo said it takes just a handful of them to pay the entire international recruitment budget of some $100,000 – or less than 1 percent of the students in relation to last year's count.

"You just have to take tuition money from five international students," Zagalo-Melo said.

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The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office tracks the number of foreign students in the country, and in February it noted the number had increased 68 percent from 2010 to 2015. Some 76 percent of the students come from Asia, with China being the largest contributor.

At UM, the countries sending the most students in the most recent school year were the Philippines, Japan, Brazil, China and Saudi Arabia. (See corresponding chart for data.)

China is among the countries driving the growth, and it's one of five countries where UM is focusing recruitment efforts, Zagalo-Melo said. Last year, 90 international students at UM came from China.

Parents who are part of the growing middle class in the Asian powerhouse want their children to have a deep understanding of other languages and of how the world works, he said. They send their children to the U.S. because they look at the higher education system here as one of the best in the world.

"They are very aware of the need their country has for global competence," Zagalo-Melo said.

Educational policies are the driving factor in Brazil and Saudi Arabia, he said. Both governments offer scholarships that pay for students to study in the United States, he said, although he anticipates a cut in the Brazilian program.

"They want to internationalize their future generation of researchers and scientists and university professors and professionals in general," Zagalo-Melo said. 

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UM isn't the only school chasing the market of foreign students, and the competition for those dollars is fierce.

Some universities station recruiters or agents abroad on a permanent basis, Zagalo-Melo said. Some have recruitment budgets that dwarf UM's at more than $500,000 a year, he said, and the payback is easy to justify.

UM also uses agents, but Zagalo-Melo declined to discuss specifics so as to not disclose strategy to other universities in the competitive market. However, he said UM works only with agents certified by the American International Recruitment Council.

Last year, UM visited three different countries, China, Japan and Brazil, and he said the pitch is all about strong academics. He said the sciences, health professions and environmental areas are a particular draw.

"If you cannot convince an international student with the quality of teaching and research at your university, you are not going to convince him or her with any other argument," Zagalo-Melo said.

"You can say all you want about the beauty of this place, about mountains, about wildlife and how amazing people are in Missoula and in Montana, but they want to know their investment is in a quality program, because it's a lot of money they will spend here, not only on tuition but in everything else."

UM has a small budget for recruitment, and last year, it did not visit its other priority countries, South Korea and Saudi Arabia.

Just one recruitment trip is very expensive, he said. On top of travel, UM pays the steep fees some university fairs charge, as much as $5,000 to $7,000 apiece.

But the travel pays off.

"You bring one student, and you've paid for (the trip). You bring two students, and the second student is already profit for the university," Zagalo-Melo said.

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Once the students land in Missoula, the community and campus sell themselves.

Here, Ahmed plans to pursue a degree in international business, and his experience on campus is preparing him well for a career in the field.

"What do you learn here? Here, I meet Brazilian people, Korean people, Japanese, from Ukraine, from Chile," Ahmed said. "I learn about different culture, many things, like how they daily live, what they think about, and also I transfer my culture to them, and they understand my culture."

He's connected with a conversation partner, he volunteers in the community, and he has two families who have adopted him, one a Christian family because Ahmed is a Muslim who wanted to learn about a different religion.

Ahmed has been to Miami, Orlando, Denver, Las Vegas, Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma, Washington, and Portland, Oregon. He's visited his sister in Michigan, and he's been to Dubai with friends.

"Still, I prefer Missoula, because here is quite amazing. The people are friendly, and anyone ask me, I would recommend to come here," he said.

He speaks English with an accent, and he has dark skin, but he deems the Garden City his new hometown, and he's ready to take on Missoula's sworn foe.

"I became a Missoulian, actually. And I notice our enemy, Bozeman," his voice trails off, and he laughs and balls his hand into a fist.

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Most international students are here for just a semester or two, Zagalo-Melo said.

"One of our goals with our current recruitment strategy is to increase the number of internal degree-seeking students," he said. "After all, we want them to live here and learn about Missoula for four years, not just for one semester, if they can."

Even in the summer, international cohorts have a presence on campus. UM participates in the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program of the U.S. Department of State, and last week, 12 fellows were in the midst of an English Language Institute course.

Yuxin Le, a lawyer from China, was giving a presentation on an opinion piece in the New York Times on death with dignity. The students debated the concept, and some said their countries consider life sacred and would not put a physician charged with healing in the position of aiding a dying patient.

Bruno Tano of the Ivory Coast had a different perspective. He shared the story of the relative of a friend who was living, but without any quality of life.

"The freedom of choosing is very important in everything," Tano said.

The group discussions can be spirited, said Josh Rosenberger, an instructor, who noted many of the international students enrolled at UM come through the English Language Institute as well.

This year's fellows include a high-ranking government minister, and they represent Cameroon, Benin, Togo, Madagascar, Haiti, Russia, Afghanistan and China.

In general, he said, people in Missoula know about the world, but the international students and fellows allow Missoulians direct contact. This year, one Humphrey Fellow has experience going into war zones with the United Nations to offer food and aid to victims, for instance.

"We're so enriched by this other aspect of diversity that we wouldn't necessarily have without the university and ELI and special programs," Rosenberger said.

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In the coming years, the Office of International Programs aims to increase the number of international students on campus. 

UM needs another recruiter to do so, said Michael Braun, business professor. Students abroad may know Yellowstone National Park, but they don't know it's in Montana, and they think more readily of Stanford University and Harvard University.

"There's a challenge getting the University of Montana onto the international radar, if you will," Braun said.

Once the students arrive, UM helps them get acclimated culturally, and it's important controls stay in place as more students with language barriers study at UM, he said.

He has taught a class of 35 students, with roughly five from overseas, and especially in business, exposure to the global community is important, he said.

"One of the things I like doing is just cracking open the world view a little bit," Braun said.

Although the number of international students has grown, the staffing level to support them has stayed relatively flat. To help the operations budget, international students will be paying a new $50 fee per semester, said Effie Koehn, director of Foreign Student and Scholar Services.

"That will help a little bit with resources," Koehn said.

UM has not set a target enrollment for international students, and Braun, on the international programs committee, said he believes the school still has the capacity for many more.

"I don't think we've gotten to the sweet spot yet in terms of the balance of international students and state and regional students that we attract," Braun said.

Zagalo-Melo, for one, considers the international community on campus pretty sweet already: "It's amazing to be on a campus where you talk to a Japanese student and two hours later, you are talking to a Brazilian student, and then you're learning from a Chinese student."

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