Every year, at about this time, I (and over 10,000 of my fellow alumni) interview applicants to Penn's undergraduate degree programs. Penn seeks to offer alumni interviews to all of its undergraduate applicants -- this year, that number is over 40,000. It's a major logistical exercise, and works only because Penn is committed to it and because alumni freely volunteer their time.
This year, both out of personal preference (I was an international student at Penn) and also because such was the need, I have mostly interviewed international students. Looking at my list, I find that I've met, usually over Skype or FaceTime, students from the Bay Area, Brazil, India, New Zealand, Tunisia, Syria, Sudan, Iraqi Kurdistan, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Greece, Jordan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Korea, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Ghana and Russia. This has given me an unusual window into the landscape of international applicants for an American undergraduate education.
Each interview is different for each applicant is different, but there are some common themes. They all believe that American universities provide an approach to education that is superior to almost all other systems in its flexibility. There is an affinity for the interdisciplinary nature of the Penn undergraduate experience, and an appreciation for Penn's focus on combining theory and practice. Finally there is a sense around the world that Penn is exceptionally welcoming to international students.
When they are done with their education in the US, no matter where it is, the vast majority of these students will go back to their homeland. They will take with them a piece of the United States in their hearts, and a better appreciation for American values than could be obtained from any other source. And they will leave a piece of their homeland in the US, in the Americans whom they've touched and left a cultural imprint on. They come in small numbers -- no more than about 300 in each class at Penn, a small fraction of the total -- but they have an outsize effect.
Students have their choices. I have no doubt whatsoever that authorities in the UK, in Australia, in Canada -- all countries with strong English-language universities -- are busy figuring out how to take advantage of America's current dispensation to attract the best and brightest to their own shores, absorb their values, contribute to those countries, and return to their homeland with a set of relationships that will ripen over a period of decades.
Universities such as Penn operate on very long timelines, for the students of today will achieve their peak accomplishments ten, twenty, thirty years from today. Decisions made now about whom we welcome to our shores have a long fuse. America's influence in the world comes from many hidden sources, and this is one of the most powerful. Having these students on American campuses is good for the United States in so many ways; I hope they keep coming and keep being welcomed, as I was many years ago.