By Dan Nienaber
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — Anuka Rodrigo has packed many memories into his time as a student at Minnesota State University.
During his 3 1/2 years in Mankato, Rodrigo has made dozens of friends from around the world, worked his way through three business-related majors and found his wife, a woman from his home country of Sri Lanka. They met during freshman orientation and were married a couple of years later.
“Mankato has been good to me,” Rodrigo said. “It has been more than I planned. It’s been a pretty good environment here. It’s a home away from home.”
Rodrigo and his wife were two of six international students from Sri Lanka who started attending MSU in spring 2010. They are all preparing to graduate soon. He said he wanted to attend a university in Minnesota because of the state’s reputation in education. A friend suggested MSU.
That’s an example of the word-of-mouth promotion the university has used to build its base of international students from 447 students in 2005 to 768 students this year. With students from 86 different nations, MSU ranked 38th nationally for international student enrollment in 2011.
An analysis completed by Open Doors and The Association for International Educators estimated that international students and their families contributed $16.2 million to the Mankato economy during the 2011-2012 school year.
“Traditionally we hadn’t done a lot of advertising, although we are doing more now,” said Tom Gjersvig, MSU director of international student and scholar services. “Mostly we rely on what we call armchair recruiting. Word of mouth probably still remains our No. 1 way of getting the word out. People tell their friends and relatives about us.”
The university is doing more than enhancing advertising to meet a goal of increasing the number of international students to 1,000 or more by 2017. Gjersvig said his office also sends information about MSU to embassies around the world and recruits from the growing number of international students who are starting their college careers at community colleges. It’s not uncommon for community colleges on the West Coast to have more than a 1,000 international students, he said.
Once they receive inquiries from potential students, Gjersvig and his staff start focusing on service.
“It can be quite a maze for an international student to go through the admissions process and the visa process,” he said. “We also have a strong international student organization on campus. It makes students comfortable to know people going through a similar situation.”
Tuition costs were a draw for Rodrigo. With assistance from the Cultural Contribution In-State Tuition Scholarship, he pays the same tuition a Minnesota resident would pay. The incentive cut his tuition costs in half.
The reputation of MSU’s business and marketing programs also caught Rodrigo’s attention.
For parents of international students, it helps that Mankato is a friendly community, Gjersvig said. As an example, many MSU international students were invited to join local families for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner last week.
“It’s a safe community and parents aren’t concerned,” he said.
Statewide, the Open Doors and Association of International Educators study estimated that international students and their families contribute $320 million to Minnesota’s economy. Gjersvig said MSU and other universities in the state have started working with the Minnesota Trade Office and the Department of Commerce to attract more international students.
“It’s just in the beginning stages, but we’re developing a joint effort that will be a way to export education,” Gjersvig said. “Minnesota has a very strong education reputation, both nationally and internationally.”