Penn Interview: Penn Admissions, Episode II

This blog features an intermittent series of posts on American universities, with a focus on Penn, my alma mater. Here I speak again with Eric Furda, Dean of Admissions at Penn, joined this time by John McLaughlin, who oversees Penn Admissions’ efforts in India. Eric also blogs here -- check out his wonderful Convocation 2014 welcome.

My thanks for their time and courtesy. And because it's buried down below, I want to highlight here a free online course offered by Penn on U.S. college admissions. And now to Eric and John.

Ramanan: I was an international student from India as an undergraduate at Penn in the late ‘80s. It was a wonderful experience for me, but that was a while ago and Penn, like all universities, has changed significantly. What keeps U.S. universities relevant and “special” for international students?

That doorway is the entrance to Penn Admissions' offices in College Hall, facing Houston Hall.

That doorway is the entrance to Penn Admissions' offices in College Hall, facing Houston Hall.

Eric: I overlapped with you, Ramanan, as a graduate of Penn’s class of 1987, and as I think back, it strikes me that what makes Penn special for international students today compared to the 1980s is the same that makes Penn special for all students, regardless of background. To me it is a much more intentional shaping of the curriculum, research opportunities and physical spaces for learning and community building across the full campus and city environment. Given the national and geographic breadth of our student body, all of our students are surrounded by diversity, which means you would really have to make an effort to isolate yourself from the rich exposure of ideas and backgrounds present at Penn.

John: I think American universities have worked hard to make their institutions more responsive to the needs of international students. Through my own experience as an international student (in England), I appreciate the challenges and opportunities facing international students considering higher education in the US. There are logistical considerations (e.g., securing visas, travelling to/from home, etc.) and cultural considerations (e.g., where can I celebrate my faith, culture, and cuisine?), and both are equally important in order to make the most of the experience. 

I can obviously also speak specifically to some of what Penn does. For example, Penn Global is our online portal for all things international. Students can find a wealth of information and links on everything from securing visas to details on upcoming Diwali celebrations. With over 1,400 international students from over 100 countries, Penn’s campus and leadership thinks globally and it is this global mindset helps students find a home at Penn.

Ramanan: John, you oversee India for Penn Admissions, and Eric, you’ve been there multiple times during your tenure as Dean of Admissions. I know that one of Penn Admissions’ goals in India is to try and find a truly diverse set of applicants (and therefore a diverse set of admitted students). What does diversity mean in an international setting for a U.S. university? Specifically for Penn in India, what does it mean?

John: We do aim to find a diverse set of applicants within and beyond India, and it’s important to understand there are multiple dimensions of diversity that transcend and intersect with national identity. We want diverse perspectives because we appreciate how different perspectives promote understanding and learning between individuals. Therefore, we want diversity of race, ethnicity, class, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, political orientation, religion, and more—all of which contribute to a diversity of thought and understanding on campus.

We know very well that India is not a monolithic entity, and that there is incredible diversity within India. There are 1.3 billion people in India -- Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians; Gujaratis, Bengalis, Tamilians and Punjabis; and that only begins to scratch the surface. I think of it as 1.3 billion unique perspectives. Our goal is to reflect this incredible diversity among the Indian students at Penn. We work hard to reach out to communities across India in order to achieve this goal.

Eric: The composition of a great university's student body should be a reflection of the world students live in and the world they will need to navigate as adults. Demographics, geographic mobility and technology influence every aspect of modern day life. Local colleges became regional; regional institutions became national; and national student bodies became international; now we are in a period of not just international diversity but a better understanding of the immense diversity within national borders on a map.

Now the evolution I just described is simply the history of the last 270 years at Penn, and we are just in the early stages of what should become greater social mobility for talented students from around the globe. The very hard work of Penn Admissions is to expand the reach of the institution in ways that our faculty and students will ultimately benefit from, by creating a richer learning environment, and not merely by putting pins on a map to represent that diversity.

Ramanan: Eric, I agree with you and those are inspiring words. But John's and your descriptions make this sound like what it is -- a very large  task. How do you go about not just the logistics of “coverage”, but building deep knowledge about the country and its educational system?

John: Indeed, it’s a massive undertaking. Last year, we received over 36,000 applications from the US and abroad. Because we understand there are differences among educational systems both across and within national borders, we have divided the globe into regional territories. I am the Regional Director of Admissions for Central & South Asia (including India). Therefore, it is my job to understand the nuances of the Indian educational system. I navigate the alphabet soup of AISCCEs, IBs, IGCSEs, NIOSs, etc., to better understand the academic experience of our applicants. We are fortunate to have a number of people in the office, and alumni partners on the ground who can provide additional insight on the educational system in India. Furthermore, we are constantly seeking to develop relationships with counselors and community organizations around the world to better reach and support international students. 

Also, the process of education goes both ways. As we familiarize ourselves with the landscape in India, we see Indian students familiarizing themselves with Penn and other US universities. In fact, we’ve developed a free online course for students interested in applying to US universities. This is a great resource for students looking for advice on the application process and the American system of higher education.

Eric: I would add here that Penn Admissions has been at the forefront of international admissions. As a young staffer I was amazed at the energy and presence of people like Dr. Ambrose Davis and Elisabeth O'Connell, who to this day spearheads our efforts abroad. You cannot forget the human element and relationship building that is critical in helping families and schools overseas in sending us their children and students. And the fact that Penn commits over six million dollars a year for international financial aid is just one example of our commitment to getting the best and brightest to Penn.

Ramanan: Admitting students is one thing. What does Penn do to help international students integrate and become part of the campus community? How do they belong to their affinity groups and yet avoid leading closeted lives while in the campus setting?

John: Studying in the US is an immersive experience for international students. International students will live, learn, go to football games, throw toast, and graduate with students from the US and around the world. We encourage this integration since it enhances the educational benefits of diversity (i.e. learning by interacting with others from different perspectives).

Eric: There is a mutual responsibility here on part of the students and the university. I played four years of a varsity sport at Penn and was captain my senior year. I spent a great deal of time with my teammates but I always chose to live with other people---different backgrounds, different interests, different ways of approaching their day. As with any university the resources are present and at times a student may feel the need to pull into the comfort of familiarity. The purpose of traveling thousands of miles to school is not to spend all of your time with people who share the same language, culture and values.

John: At the same time, we want to make sure our international students can find a comfortable, welcoming, and familiar place at Penn. We have a number of clubs and activities geared towards international students based on shared and specific international identity. There are general organizations that bring together international students from around the world (e.g., the Assembly of International Students) and groups that cater to more specific cultural groups (e.g., Penn Masala—the globetrotting Hindi a capella group).

One of my colleagues likes to say, “you can’t make a small college feel big, but you can make a big college feel small.” I think these organizations help Penn feel “small” (i.e., intimate) without giving up the resources that are part of a world-class university, and the experience of being in America and understanding American values.

Ramanan: While international students are a relatively small part of Penn’s undergraduate student body — 14% this past year — they still take a place that could be given to an American student. This is undoubtedly a sensitive subject. Let me ask the question in the following way: what’s in it for an American university, and American students, to have international students form part of the campus community?

Eric: I believe the answer of “what's in it for an American university" is implicit in the thoughtful questions you have already posed. I would say that having 1,400 students from outside the United States at Penn, from over 100 countries, benefits all 10,000 of our undergraduates.

John: We live in a world that is more interconnected than in all of human history (and getting more so), and we are obliged to cultivate educated citizens of the world. We would be remiss in our educational duties if we did not provide our students with an educational experience that reflects the broader world. This exposure helps create better scholars and leaders prepared to make an impact at home and abroad. This is true for our American students as well as our international students.

Eric: Penn's president, Dr. Amy Gutmann, had a number of students come up on the stage and introduce themselves at the Convocation Ceremony this year. The very first student was a young woman from Russia. I would venture to bet that an American student was not introduced at a similar ceremony in Russia. Penn and American universities are better places for her presence on our campus and she will be better for the experience. Let’s hope these are the people leading our countries and the world in the future.

John: I firmly believe that our students are our greatest educational resource. They are remarkably bright, talented, and eager to consume, create, and share knowledge. Best of all, they never stop! Our students are learning from each other every second of every day in class, in the dorm room, in the dining hall, on Locust Walk, and online. Therefore, we are committed to giving all of our students—domestic and international—the opportunity to interact, live, and learn from and alongside students from around the world. This is part and parcel of a Penn education and one of the best things that we can offer all of our students, American or international.