ORONO — A usually sizable segment of the foreign student population was notably absent from an orientation program held earlier this month at the University of Maine.
East Asian students traveling to Maine for educational experiences have long been a fixture in orientation classes held every semester for international students. But with successive economic crises driving down currency values across the region, organizers of the get-to-know-Maine sessions were hard-pressed to find Asians in the crowd.
“There were two Chinese and one Malaysian student,” recalled Audrey Acton, international student adviser.
Usually, Acton says, there are many new East Asian students arriving every semester at the university, representing all of the major countries in the region. “There are almost always students from Korea,” she said.
At the University of Maine and institutions of higher education across the country, administrators are grappling with the impact of an Asian economic crisis that got rolling in November, leaving in its wake currencies such as the Korean won and the Thai baht valued at half their previous levels. The result has been fewer students able to afford American studies and those already in the country struggling to make ends meet.
“I didn’t expect that it would happen so quickly,” says Myoungkyu Yoon, a senior accounting student at UM who hails from Taegu, Korea. “The only thing I could do was reduce my expenses.”
No more movies or downhill skiing trips, Yoon says, and summer travel plans have been canceled.
The 26-year-old says that because his degree is almost complete, and because his family in Korea is willing to continue supporting him, he will stick it out in Maine. A tuition waiver from the university also aided his efforts to stay.
Fortunately for Yoon and his fellow Asian students, most of the region’s currencies have halted their free fall, and some economic stability has returned.
“I think it’s getting better every day,” says Ki-Surk Park, a graduate engineering student.
Some students, though, point out that the decline has changed the whole dynamic of their stay in the United States.
“I think that some students might study harder and try to get scholarships,” says Paul Choe, a junior biology major from Seoul. “If the economic situation doesn’t get any better, I will have to get scholarships and part-time jobs and work full time in the summer.”
While international economic and political changes alter its makeup, a pool of foreign students has played an important role in bolstering enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities. Competition for the students has increased lately with schools recognizing the economic benefits of international students as domestic student populations steadily decline.
At the University of Maine, international students on average have accounted for about 5 percent of the student body over the past five years. Of those 450 or so students, about half typically hail from Asia. The numbers are about the same at Husson College in Bangor where close to 100 of the 2,100 students are from outside the United States, in most cases Japan and Korea.
“It’s been pretty difficult for a few students,” says Paul Husson, who helps head recruiting at the college that bears his family’s name. “There were students who planned to stay longer but couldn’t.”
Husson and UM administrators are bullish on Asian economies, expecting that their fortunes should rebound quickly. Neither school is planning to retrench in its efforts to recruit Asian students.
“Are we still going to keep our presence in Asia? Definitely,” says Husson. “I think we need to keep our presence there especially during difficult times because they’ll remember it.”
With a Korean recruiting trip in August under his belt, Husson plans to return to the region in March, visiting Japan where he’ll meet with alumni of the Bangor college and with groups that help send students to the United States. He also will fly to Korea from Japan for additional college fairs.
The University of Maine will be represented at college fairs in Korea in the spring as well.
“East Asia has been a good market,” notes Karen Boucias, director of the Office of International Programs at UMaine. “Everyone’s hopeful that this will turn around quickly.”