Growing up poor in Pretoria, South Africa, Lesego Ellis Makhubela watched with frustration as foreign aid flowed into his Continent. His fellow Africans didn't need a handout, he believed, but rather higher education to help advance their economies. "What Africa needs," Mr. Makhubela, 22, says, "is skills."
So when he spotted a notice at a library operated by the U.S. Embassy there about a new State Department scholarship programme to provide foreign students practical training at American community colleges, he leapt at the chance. He won one of the awards and spent the 2007-8 academic year studying computer science at Parkland College, in Champaign, Ill.
Educational exchanges and Fellowships are not new, of course; the best known, the Fulbright Programme, is more than 60 years old. But the Community College Summit Initiative Programme, as this fledgling effort is known, reflects a growing recognition among American government officials that the US must do a better job in its public-diplomacy outreach to those who are not members of their countries' socioeconomic elite.
"There were certain gaps in our exchange activity," says Thomas A. Farrell, deputy assistant secretary for academic programmes at the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. "This was one of the glaring missing elements."
The programme, now in its second year, also underscores the view that community colleges, with their expertise in workforce education, may often be the best places for future leaders in developing economies to get training. Between the 1999-2000 and 2006-7 academic years, international-student enrolment at two-year institutions increased by 22 percent, according to the Institute of International Education, which tracks such figures in its annual "Open Doors" report. The State Department hopes that the project will favourably expose foreign governments and educators to the community-college model.
For community colleges, which typically are limited in their ability to recruit abroad or send their students overseas, the programme offers an opportunity to bring a greater international perspective to their campuses.
"For our students, the programme is a reminder that we live in a world with lots of different people," says Heather Murphy, coordinator of global education and outreach at Johnston Community College, in rural North Carolina. "It's opening the door for us to another part of the world."
Meeting critical needs
The programme grew out of the first U.S. University Presidents' Summit on International Education, in January 2006, at which Karen P. Hughes, who was then Under Secretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs, announced plans to double the number of foreign students attending community colleges in the U.S. Community Colleges for International Development, a national consortium of two-year institutions also known as CCID, then submitted a successful proposal to run the programme, which covers students' tuition and fees, housing, and other study-related expenses while they complete a one-year certificate or a two-year associate degree. (Most study for a single year.)
From the outset, the State Department, CCID, and foreign governments sought to tie the effort to fields that have labour shortages or that are seen as critical to economic growth, among them agriculture, health care, and hospitality and tourism. Fulbright commissions in the participating countries - Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, South Africa, and Turkey - nominate the students; the community colleges, which are asked to shoulder 25 percent of the cost, decide whom to admit to their programmes. Eighty-four students made up the first class, in the fall of 2007, at a cost of $3.1-million.
While a few colleges enrolled these students in their regular degree programmes, most crafted special tracks, combining academic course work, English-language study, and a regular session, required by the State Department, on American civics and government.
Dawn Wood, director of international programmes at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, one of six original host institutions, says community colleges, with their experience in adapting curricula to respond to changing economic conditions, are well suited to such work. "We can be more flexible and quick to act," she says. And unlike large universities, community colleges can do "hand-holding," she adds.
The initial host colleges all had track records in serving foreign students, but they soon learned there were differences in dealing with students from often-unfamiliar countries, most of whom had never lived, or travelled, abroad.
For one thing, the programme's creators originally called for the students to live with host families. While some students say they enjoyed the experience, others, particularly those who were older, with families of their own, chafed at the requirement, says Carol Stax Brown, the programme's national director.
Placed in group apartments, others, accustomed to living with parents or a spouse, struggled with basic household chores.
And because the effort specifies students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, many have struggled with English proficiency. "I didn't talk for two and a half weeks," says Claudia Pereira, a 30-year-old Brazilian who studied computer science at Parkland. "I was ashamed. I was lost."
The programme grows
Now, in the programme's second year, the number of participating colleges has nearly quadrupled, to 23, and the number of participating students has climbed to 303. Many institutions, like Johnston Community College, in Smithfield, N.C., a town of 12,000 that is 45 minutes southeast of Raleigh, are newcomers to international education. The college is playing host to two Egyptian students, one studying international business and the other in the college's air-conditioning, heating, and refrigeration-technology programme.
Mr. Farrell, of the State Department, says one goal of the programme is to more deeply involve community colleges in international education and build such experience at a greater number of two-year institutions.
Ms. Murphy, Johnston's global-education director, says she has benefited from regular conference calls with more-experienced international-programme coordinators. She says she also has been gratified by local response, particularly in a community that has been hit hard by job losses as a result of globalization. In fact, she says, multiple families have volunteered as mentors, taking the students to movies, inviting them for holidays, and even driving them to Raleigh for meals that meet Muslim dietary standards.
Ken Riha, Dean of business and information technology at Kirkwood, says it is easy to embrace students who are so engaged in their studies and in campus activities.
One of his students, Michael Abdalah, from Egypt, earned accolades at a statewide business-club competition, joined the Student Senate, and started a campus chapter of the U.N. Student Alliance, which educates students about the United Nations, all while maintaining a 4.0 grade-point average over the last year and a half. "I don't want to miss an opportunity," says Mr. Abdalah, who hopes to use his business degree to start a nongovernmental organization to aid impoverished children.
At Highline Community College, outside Seattle, international-education staff members sing the praises of Sanderson Sousa, a gangly 19-year-old from Brazil, who sends out weekly e-mail updates with photos of his field trips and volunteer activities. So far, one of his favourite things about the United States, he says, is Thanksgiving. "I like the idea that the holiday is only about people gathering," he says.
Indeed, Mr. Farrell says the State Department has been so impressed by the quality of the students in the community-college programme that officials hope to recruit some of them back to the U.S.as Fulbright scholars.
The department also plans to expand the pool of participating countries, adding Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Ghana, and Nicaragua, and increase the number of students to 564 in the 2009-10 academic year. Support for the programme will increase to $20-million and will come from a variety of sources, including the United States Agency for International Development, Mr. Farrell says. But with just one alumni class back home, it is not yet clear what the impact of the effort will be. Some students say studying in the U.S. has helped them land better jobs. Ms. Pereira, for one, her English now much improved, found well-paying work with a technology firm.
One critical challenge for the colleges, says Kathleen Hasselblad, director of international programmes and grants at Highline, will be to remain in contact with programme alumni. "We need to know what was effective, what didn't work well, and how to adjust things," she says. "We need to make sure that what we're doing is relevant." Some students say that the U.S. credential isn't enough. Mr. Makhubela has been looking for a job since he returned to South Africa in August and has been supporting six family members on what money he can earn as a freelance Web-page designer. His hope, he says, is to find a way to return to the U.S. for another year and earn an associate degree.
"One year is not solid enough to open doors in the corporate sector," he says.
Still, Mr. Makhubela says he sees the programme's goals as "noble." "In a way, I guess I was getting a fuller understanding of the global world and a glimpse of what America is about," he says.