During the fall 2021 semester, as the UofA reached record-high enrollment, the smallest number of international students in a decade attended. However, officials are hopeful the trend brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic will soon turn around.
There were 914,095 international students enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities during the 2020-2021 academic year, a 15% decrease from the previous year, according to a report by the U.S. Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the Institute of International Education. At the UofA, the number of international students enrolled fell to 1,180 this fall, a decrease of 2.8% from fall 2020, and 16.2% from fall 2019, according to the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment.
“We saw a major decline with undergraduate students and some with the graduates as well,” said Michael C. Freeman, director of international students and scholars. “The undergraduates are mostly depending on their parents regarding the fees, and COVID-19 affected (their incomes).
Freeman thinks some parents also chose not to allow their students to travel abroad because of safety concerns. The pandemic also posed logistical issues that complicated travel and applications for U.S. student visas, and he expects international student enrollment numbers to rise as restrictions loosen over time, he said.
ISS employees have worked to attract more international students to the UofA with social media outreach and virtual recruitment efforts, which help fill the void left by representatives' inability to participate in overseas conferences and recruitment events. While COVID-19 has restricted department members’ ability to travel, recruitment efforts are still strong, Freeman said. ISS staff members have been using online tools including virtual lectures to promote UA programs for international students during the pandemic.
Staff members also meet virtually with admitted students before they come to Fayetteville, so the students know what to expect while studying at the UofA, and current UA international students work to form close relationships with new students to help them feel welcomed, Freeman said. He thinks they do a great job of making the new students feel like the UofA is their home away from home.
Wenwen Ding, a graduate student from Hangzhou, China, had to defer her admission to the UofA from fall 2020 to fall 2021 because of the pandemic. As she flew from China to her layover in Chicago, she was nervous about living in a small city like Fayetteville, but after arriving she quickly realized attending the UofA was the right decision, Ding said.
“Now I feel more relaxed in Arkansas, so I can concentrate on my study for four years as a Ph.D. student and not get distracted by the noisiness and the modern technology in big cities,” Ding said.
Sulaiman Albinhamad, a graduate student from Saudi Arabia, feels grateful for the continuing opportunity to study at the UofA, he said. He appreciates the efforts UA officials and ISS staff have made to keep international students a part of the campus community, especially after the Trump administration in 2020 instituted restrictive policies including a mandate that international students take in-person classes to remain in the U.S. during the pandemic.
“It was a critical time for all the international students, but thanks to the UofA and ISS (for) working hard with us to make sure that we were legally staying here by offering us in-person classes,” Albinhamad said.
Ding said she is glad to be at the UofA and thankful that she can ask for assistance from UA faculty and staff members if she ever needs help navigating her program.
“I just have many courses this semester, which is (so) much for me, but other than that everything is okay, and I am doing great with my colleagues and friends,” Ding said. “We help each other and do homework together as well. Also I have another difficulty with the English language, but I think after this semester (of practice), I am doing better.”