Still pushing past pandemic, FIU sees spike in international student enrollment

While to most of us, COVID-19 is a distant memory, its effects have certainly outlived mask mandates and financial relief programs. Even three years after the world shut down completely, many families and businesses are just now recovering.

Florida International University’s Office of International Student & Scholar Services is no exception.

“The presence of F-1 [Visa] students at FIU validates our mission, our middle name and the internationalization of our campus,” said Thaddeus Randall, Associate Director in the office. “It emphasizes what has always been our focus: global learning for a world in which we can celebrate our differences, realize our strengths and rediscover our humanity.”

FIU ranks third among public universities in Florida with the highest number of international students, behind the University of South Florida in Tampa and the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Aside from giving FIU the diversity and inclusion the school prides itself in, international students also contribute significantly to the university’s economy. Tuition cost per semester for non-Florida residents averages $9,283, over three times its price for residents of the state.

At the national level, nearly one million international students in the U.S. contributed $33.8 billion to the nation’s economy during the 2021-2022 academic year—according to a NAFSA study.

“Incoming first-year students are more engaged in activities,” said Jody Glassman, Director of University Admissions. “They want more immersive experiences and crave more human interaction.”

When lockdowns were enforced in March 2020, international students already on campus were permitted to stay in the U.S. However, the pandemic took a significant hit in international first-year students due to arrive in Fall 2020.

“I chose [the Miami area] because I got a full scholarship,” said Bianca Román, third-year international student from Spain. “My first year, I did fully remote and it would have been OK had I not had to connect to live Zooms at 2 a.m. for three semesters. That really messed up my sleep schedule and caused health issues.”

For other students, however, the pandemic caused them to reevaluate their college plans and land at FIU as a result.

“I started my college studies at the University of London in England. When COVID first hit, I decided to finish my first year there and then my parents transferred me to Miami for my second,” said Britney Coox, third-year international student from Ecuador. “They chose the city because it was much closer to home, the currency was the same, and expenses were cheaper.”

According to Coox, she was not the only one at her school whose college plans changed as a result of the virus.

“Based on my experience with my first-year classmates, a lot of them decided to continue their college career in their native country or move to cities closer to home,” Coox said. “Probably a result of either the financial situations or fear of the virus.”

FIU ranks third among public universities in Florida with the highest number of international students, behind the University of South Florida in Tampa and the University of Florida in Gainesville. (Photo courtesy of FIU)

International student enrollment has fluctuated in the years since COVID first hit. Fall 2020 saw 4,120 international students. A year later, Fall 2021 had 4,034. Fall 2022 has been the highest so far with 4,368 degree-seeking international students, and the international community is expected to keep growing.

“We anticipate Fall 2023 to have larger numbers estimated at 1,000 new students,” Randall said.

But life returning to ‘normal’ isn’t the sole reason for FIU’s expanding international population.

The admissions center has resorted to different strategies to recruit and spark interest for FIU in foreign countries.

“We participate in curated tours abroad with specialized organizations, which allows us to go to college fairs and visits and meet with prospective students,” Glassman said.

FIU also offers a chat option with current international students to talk about their experience and answer any additional questions. The school is also active with Education USA, a network that promotes higher education in over 175 countries.

Many current international students are a result of those recruiting efforts.

“I’ve seen ads online back home,” said Rebecca Fajgenbaum, third-year international student from Panama. “They connect with some of the universities and high schools for dual enrollment and college fairs.”

However, others believe that FIU must do better in attracting international students, addressing particularly its financial aspect.

“Our main barrier is financing,” Román said. “If we don’t get 75 to 100 percent scholarships, studying in the U.S. isn’t feasible for most of us. If FIU wanted to prioritize international students, they would have more financing options for us.”

But ultimately, there’s no denying international students play a huge role in FIU’s identity.

“International students are what make FIU what it is,” Fajgenbaum said. “The diversity on campus and experiences available are unreal and I’m thankful to be a part of them.”

Sofia Colignon is a senior at Florida International University double majoring in English in the Writing and Rhetoric track and Digital Communication and Media in the Digital Journalism track. After completing her studies next summer term, she wishes to pursue a career within the entertainment field.