The number of new international students enrolled at U.S. institutions declined last school year on the heels of a new push for their recruitment from the University of Montana.
UM has not had an international recruiter since December 2016, and last school year, the provost placed the responsibility for international recruitment under the office of vice president for enrollment and student affairs Tom Crady, who came on board summer of 2016.
Crady said a travel budget was not available last school year so UM held off on hiring an international recruiter. He recently received a green light to launch a search for the recruiter and believes the necessary travel funds will be in place.
"It's a market that we really need to pay attention to, and I think we can do really well at," Crady said.
International students help create a campus that's culturally rich, but they also bring in big money. UM has experienced budget problems as a result of a decline in enrollment that started in 2011, and international students seeking degrees pay full tuition.
Different offices on campus count enrollment different ways. Mary Nellis, with International Students and Scholar Services, said generally the international students who hold F1 visas are the ones paying full fare. In 2015, UM counted 396 of those students, and in fall 2017, it counted just 267.
That drop is a significant one for the budget, with income going from an estimated $9.9 million a year to $6.7 million a year from those students. And Nellis said her office is among the places that feel the pinch; she's trimming expenses based on initial enrollment projections for the fall.
"Our operating budget is directly tied to the number of international students. And it's an imperfect system, but that's the frustration," Nellis said.
Campuses across the United States have been heavily recruiting students — and their wallets — from abroad as numbers of high school graduates at home have started to stagnate or fall in some states. In the decade after 2006-2007, the number of international students in U.S. higher education grew 85 percent, according to the Institute of International Education.
The institute counted 1,720 foreign students in Montana in 2017 with an estimated economic impact in the state of $52.8 million. The not-for-profit institute was founded in 1919 by three scholars including two Nobel Prize winners and is dedicated to international education and peace.
A report from the organization noted that the 2016-2017 school year marked the 11th consecutive year of growth in the total numbers of international students in higher education in the United States, with a record of 1.08 million students.
However, the same report noted that the number of new international students who enrolled in the United States declined in the fall of 2016, and the drop was the first in 12 years since the institute collected such data.
"The factors driving the slowing of growth include a mix of global and local economic conditions, and in some cases expanded higher education opportunities at home and declining populations," said the report.
Roughly a year ago, President Donald Trump announced a travel ban on majority-Muslim countries, a policy since modified and pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. In a discussion this year about immigration policy, he derided immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and Africa, wondering why the U.S. accepted people from "shithole countries."
The slip in new international enrollment in the United States started before the election of Trump, but the travel ban and shift in foreign relations have affected the country's political climate. Crady, though, said he does not believe interest in UM has been affected.
In fact, he believes UM can still attract international students given the status of the campus, an attractive and academically strong research institution in a safe community. Safety, he said, is the No. 1 factor for parents sending their children abroad.
"I don't think there's any shortage of students who want to come, and I don't think people are scared off by it," Crady said of the administration's policies.
Here, community members show kindness as well, Nellis said. Every year, at least one foreign student lands early at the Missoula airport, and before the arranged driver arrives, a stranger helps.
"Somebody just gave me a ride to my dorm," Nellis said she's heard year after year from international students.
Alex Bonsapia, 20, is from a small quiet island in Indonesia, and he wanted to live in a similarly peaceful city in the United States so he could focus on his studies. Missoula and UM fit the bill.
"I made a best decision ever," Bonsapia said.
When he heads back home to Biak Island to visit, friends and family don't ask him about politics or racism, he said. Their top questions are: "What do you eat there?" "How is the snow?" "How are (your) studies?" (He still eats a lot of rice, as he did at home; the snow is different; and the studies are difficult.)
"I said for sure it's hard. Second language is not easy at all, but it's better to try," Bonsapia said.
In Missoula, people are curious about his culture, he said, and the name-calling in the dorms takes place among friends.
"We say bad words, but it's for fun," Bonsapia said.
His experience is an indication that one person's interactions in a place can have a ripple effect. One of his sisters is going to come to UM this summer, he said, and next year, another sister will study here on his recommendation, moving from her current study-abroad program in New Zealand.
At UM, Bonsapia is studying tourism because he wants to know how to develop the industry on his island while protecting its natural resources in the face of climate change, and from the effects of garbage people dump in the ocean. UM offers great education in his field, he said.
In the end, he doesn't believe the United States will deter international students, and he thinks the economics weigh against travel bans.
"These students bring money to this country," Bonsapia said.