The snack bar at Dickinson State University, in one of the least diverse states in the country, is a melting pot. International students from Armenia to Zimbabwe speak their native languages as they contemplate such American fare as fried chicken warmed under a heat lamp.
For about a decade, the southwestern North Dakota school has been trolling globally to boost enrollment, and the number of international students has helped Dickinson State set an enrollment record of 2,462 students last fall.
But some Dickinson State students say the record hasn’t come easy, and complain about diversity overload.
“Diversity is a good idea in theory, but right now it’s not working out,” said Jami Arnold, a sixth-year senior and former Dickinson State student body president.
Arnold is one of about a dozen students publicly criticizing the university’s Global Awareness Initiative, which recruits international students and faculty and makes scholarships available to qualified students.
“Honestly, at first it was really cool,” Arnold said. “But it’s kind of like too much of a good thing. Now we’re overwhelmed with diversity.”
A survey of 700 colleges and universities last year found that 60 percent are working to recruit international students to boost enrollment, said Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice president of the New York-based Institute of International Education.
About 583,000 international students were enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities last year, up 3 percent from the previous school year, she said. Students from other countries contributed more than $14 billion to the U.S. economy last year, through tuition and other expenses, Blumenthal said.
In 2000, Dickinson State had 20 international students from six countries. Last fall, the school reported 396 international students from 31 countries. China, with 167 students enrolled this year, tops the list, followed by Mongolia, Canada, the Bahamas and Russia.
Irina Grebenshchikova, one of 26 Russian students at Dickinson State, said the school is attractive to students from other countries because of its location, not far from the North Dakota Badlands and the Montana border.
“There is nothing here besides the school, no distractions,” she said. “It’s the perfect place for studying.”
Though none of the international students have reported violence, some say they have experienced insensitivity.
Most of the students critical of the influx of international students are from the Dickinson area. They say language barriers have slowed the pace of classes. They have alleged international students are cheating in class by speaking in their native languages during tests, and some have gone so far as to raise hygiene issues.
“We’re not on some big witch hunt and we’re not saying every international student should go away,” said Travis Booke, a fifth-year senior. “There has got to be a better way of introducing them instead of just dumping them here; diversity is not dumping 150 Chinese students on campus in just one or two semesters.”
International students do their best to win over the unwelcoming. Silvia Vigier is the sole student from France on campus. She came to the university last year on a volleyball scholarship.
“I see it as a great opportunity for them,” she said of Dickinson State students who are critical of the international effort. “You can learn so much from different cultures. But right now, they’re not seeing that.”
To help change their perspective, Vigier is part of a program in which she shares information about her country and speaks French to local students learning the language at their schools.
Nicole Moore, a Dickinson State freshman from Rawlins, Wyo., said she has learned from the international students.
“They are so disciplined — international students are here to learn,” she said. “A lot of us take education for granted; they don’t.”
Moore had rarely met anyone who wasn’t white or from Wyoming until she attended classes at Dickinson State.
“I had been to a Chinese restaurant but I never interacted with anyone outside the United States or minorities — I’d only seen them on TV,” she said.
Lee Vickers, who is retiring at year’s end after serving more than eight years as Dickinson State’s president, said the institution wouldn’t be doing its job if it didn’t prepare students for a global work force.
“Our goal is to bring the world to North Dakota,” Vickers said. “As you diversify a campus, it means change, and change is more difficult for some than others.”
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