When Fahad Alharthi traveled from Saudi Arabia to southern California in April of 2015, by himself at 20 years old, he knew no English. But he did have a scholarship guaranteed by the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission, to use to learn English and then attend a US college.
Over 18 months, he lived with American host families and friends, studied English at a language school and at California State University, Long Beach, and took the International English Language Testing System exam. On a scale of 0 to 9, he scored a modest 5, but he was accepted at three colleges.
Alharthi chose Tennessee State University in Nashville, a historically black university — where his classmates are black Americans, Egyptians, Kurds and Somalis as well as other Saudis.
In 2008-09, Tennessee State had 77 international undergraduate students. By the fall of 2016, the year before Alharthi enrolled, it had 549 — 8% of its undergraduate student body of about 7,000. Other historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are sparking similar rapid growth in their numbers of international students — for the same reasons.
In addition to the tuition money they often bring — many foreign students pay the full sticker price, often aided by their home countries’ governments — there are benefits for the HBCUs’ American students. Many are from low-income families and cannot afford study-abroad programs. Having international classmates exposes them to cultures very different from their own. Also, when they graduate, they will join an increasingly globalized workforce and could benefit from understanding the perspectives of their international peers.
“It is important to have different cultures on a campus because we can’t send all of our students to study abroad, so we find unique ways to bring the world to them,” said Jewell Winn, executive director for international programs at TSU.
The spike in international students is also happening at Morgan State University in Baltimore and Howard University in Washington, D.C. — institutions similar in size to Tennessee State — and at some smaller HBCUs, like Central State University in Ohio.
Among HBCUs with 10 or more international students, as of the 2017-18 academic year, Morgan State had the most, with 945 students; Howard was second with 920; and Tennessee State third with 584, according to the Institute of International Education. The three campuses are similar in student population as well as size — at least 70 percent of their students are African American and about half receive federal Pell Grants (usually given to undergraduates whose household income is less than $40,000).
But those demographics are changing, as more foreign students bring their languages, clothing, and customs to majority-black schools. And while some African American students question whether the culture of their campuses is changing too much, others welcome the chance to interact with foreigners.
As Tennessee State’s Winn pointed out, “When they leave this campus of an HBCU, they’re not going to work at an all-black Nissan or an all-black Deloitte or anything like that. It’s going to be a very diverse workplace.”
The influx of foreign students to HBCUs includes a large number from the Middle East, thanks in part to government-funded scholarships. Indeed, Saudi Arabia is fourth among the top places of origin for international students in the US, according to the Institute of International Education. (China is No. 1, followed by India and then South Korea.)
“Having an international student who is fully funded, whose government guarantees their tuition, is the best-case scenario for any university trying to attract a student who pays out-of-state tuition,” Yacob Astatke, Morgan State’s assistant vice president for international affairs, explained. In many cases, the foreign government pays full-fare room and board costs as well.
An out-of-state student from California, however, might still need financial aid from Morgan to cover some of the cost. With every out-of-state student the university tries to attract, Morgan has to think carefully about how much aid it is willing to give them. Not so with international students whose tuition payment is guaranteed — “a big plus for our institution,” he said.
Astatke said Morgan State’s president, David Wilson, focused on boosting the international student numbers, and that between 2014 and 2017, international enrollment tripled, from about 300 to 900 students — “mainly from Saudi and Kuwaiti students,” he said.
Morgan recruits through the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission scholarship and also hosts meetups for Saudi students from colleges throughout the D.C.-Baltimore region. Most of its international students study engineering; the university recently increased the number of engineering classes offered during the summer to help international students graduate within their scholarships’ timeline.
“In the last five years, we have offered more summer classes than the last 20 years combined,” Astatke said.
In Saudi Arabian culture, there has been a push for citizens to become more educated, in general, and to obtain a more Western education, in particular, said Marybeth Gasman, the director of the Rutgers (formerly Penn) Center for Minority Serving Institutions.
“Once word gets out about an institution, and if students are having a good experience, then I think that you’re going to get more people attending,” Gasman said. “Those kinds of communities of who goes abroad are fairly small in other countries. And they’re very connected.”
At Tennessee State, where many Saudi students get the government scholarship that Alharthi got, their numbers grew so large that in 2017 the Saudi Arabian scholarship program stopped sending students to TSU, Winn said, fearing that living among so many fellow Saudis could dilute their English-immersion experience. (But in April, the scholarship program allowed its students once again to apply to TSU.)