WASHINGTON – Seven months after the fact, Montgomery College registrar’s associate Naheda Kaibni is still astonished when she tells the story of the phone call from her cousin in Ramallah.
Her cousin, an English teacher at Birzeit University, had been talking to students about colleges in the United States, and one of the schools that came up in conversation was the community college 6,000 miles away in suburban Washington.
The Mideast mention of Montgomery College may be surprising, but it reflects the worldwide reach the school has gained through word of mouth and a surging international student population.
“Once anybody walks on this campus, you can’t walk 10 feet and not see the international flavor of our population,” said Sherman Helberg, the director of admissions, records and registration for Montgomery College.
In Maryland, Montgomery College is second in international student enrollment only to the University of Maryland, College Park, which has about 12,000 more students overall. College Park had 3,711 foreign students in the 2001-2002 school year and Montgomery College had 3,217, according to a report by the Institute of International Education.
Helberg would like to take credit for attracting so many international students, but said the college simply mirrors the international population of Montgomery County. Foreign-born persons made up 28 percent of the county’s 870,000 residents in 2000, according to the Census Bureau.
“Many of our students are relatives or friends of people working in embassies,” Helberg said. “We’re a great school, but being great is not enough – – location and cost is a huge factor.”
Montgomery College boasts students from 170 countries, with the highest number from India, El Salvador, Vietnam, Korea and Peru. Helberg said there are only a handful that come to the school without any ties to the region.
Unlike some other community colleges, however, Montgomery College has not had to recruit overseas to boost international enrollment.
“If we don’t step over the line in Montgomery County (to recruit from other counties), why would I step over the line as the ocean goes?” Helberg asked.
“Our purpose is to serve this community right here. We think we have clearly defined our mission and we are fulfilling that mission, and it does include international students. But they’re international students who in one way or another are already a part of our community.”
For students like Robert Jirikdjian, the benefits of Montgomery College are clear: an affordable, quality education that is simply not available in his native Lebanon.
“In the United States, you can work and study at the same time; in Lebanon, you can’t do that,” said Jirikdjian, 25, a photography major at Montgomery College.
He joined his three sisters in the United States in April, and splits his time between classes at Montgomery and work at a dry-cleaning store. He said seeing so many other international students on campus has eased the transition.
Helberg, who has worked at Montgomery College for 23 years, said the school’s international student population began to surge in the 1980s and is still rising.
“All the parts of the world where you have strife, 10 years later you are going to see permanent residents (in this country),” he said.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, officials at all colleges worried that international students would have a harder time coming to the United States. Stricter regulations for obtaining a student visa have made it harder for foreign students to enter the country, but international students are still flocking to Montgomery and other schools, studies show.
“Even with the Sept.11 stuff, INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) crackdowns, and now there’s a lot of hoops you have to go through, there has been no let up at all,” Helberg said of his school’s foreign enrollment.
But while international students kept coming, some reported verbal and, in some cases, physical abuse at the diverse community college after Sept. 11.
“I wasn’t treated the same way after 9-11,” said Sam, 24, a student from Yemen, who declined to give his last name. “On campus, people took action against me. Either they cut their friendship with me, or were throwing stuff at me.”
Sam, who came to this country six years ago and graduated from nearby Richard Montgomery High School, said those confrontations have stopped for the most part.
But bringing more foreign students to campus could help prevent those sort of tensions in the future, Helberg said.
“The more kinds of people we actually interact with, the more we know that no action by any party represents that entire group that they stand for,” he said. “If there is ever going to be world peace in our lifetime, it is because of that, not anything we can teach.
“It brings an element to education that we cannot provide . . . at all,” Helberg said. “And before we had it, we didn’t know we were missing it.”