International Students Bring Brain Power and Much More to Maryland
Story by Tom Ventsias
Photography by John T. Consoli
International Students at the University of Maryland this semester include (from left to right) Alok Priyadarshi, Elizabeth Miheikin, Yang Wang and Nina Koffi.
On warm weekday evenings at the University of Maryland, a lively game of softball or Ultimate Frisbee often takes place on the athletic fields across from the engineering school. Come weekends, however, these traditionally American outdoor pastimes take a back seat to dozens of foreign students enjoying their own favorite sport--an intense game of cricket.
“Cricket is almost like religion for many of us at home,” says Alok Priyadarshi, a 28-year-old graduate student from India. You won't see many people in their offices on the days of major matches, they will be at the stadium or watching at a cafe.
The informal cricket matches at Maryland are very popular with Indian and Pakistani students, Priyadarshi says, with teams from other universities as far away as Harrisonburg, Va., often invited to come and play.
Priyadarshi is just one of the 3,790 international students from almost 150 countries who are currently enrolled at the University of Maryland. The majority of these students--all but about 700--are graduate students pursuing advanced degrees and conducting important research.
"Science is not a single country," says Timothy Ng, associate vice president for research at the university. "And these international students have only helped to broaden our entire spectrum of academic and research programs."
In the past two decades, an upswing in the number of foreign students at the university has directly paralleled its rise as a top public research university. Indeed, certain academic departments, predominately in the physical sciences, engineering and business, have relied heavily on non-U.S. students to expand their graduate enrollment and initiate new research programs.
For Priyadarshi, the opportunity to explore new areas of research was a prime consideration in his decision to attend graduate school at Maryland. After earning an engineering degree from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, he spent a year helping to develop new computer-aided design (CAD) software with an international software firm in India.
He contacted associate professor S.K. Gupta in the A. James Clark School of Engineering, specifically wanting to collaborate with Gupta on developing new CAD software that could automatically generate multi-piece mold geometry at the click of a button. "I recognized that this new CAD software could make designing molds for complex, organic shapes a viable option in industry," says Priyadarshi, who graduated last spring with a master's degree in mechanical engineering and is now working toward his Ph.D.
An unexpected twist in his academic journey has been the formation of Spatial Software Solutions, a software development startup comprised of Priyadarshi, fellow graduate student Rohit Kumar, and Gupta. The startup company won first prize in the university's 2003 business plan competition and has received substantial investor funding from the state of Maryland.
Getting Involved, Sharing Ideas
A diverse base of international students not only brings a tremendous amount of academic talent to a university, says the research division's Timothy Ng, but it also contributes to the free exchange of cultures and ideas that define any great institution of higher education. "If we are talking about the depth and breadth of education," Ng says, "then the educational and cultural background of all our students--where they come from, their academic orientation, the values that they hold--must be taken into account."
This sharing of ideas and cultures takes place at the undergraduate level as well, particularly with many of the living-learning programs at Maryland like Global Communities or the Language House, where 21-year-old senior Elizabeth Miheikin currently lives. Miheikin is a native of Estonia, a small country in Eastern Europe, and is fluent in English, Russian, Estonian, Serbo-Croatian, French and some Spanish. She plans to finish her degree at Maryland and then attend law school with a focus on international law.
What has made her undergraduate experience particularly rewarding, Miheikin says, is an involvement with extracurricular activities like the Russian Club, which sponsors trips to Russian art museums and theaters as well as Russian literature readings. "It's very important for these student cultural clubs to exist, because we're all here trying to learn about each other," she says.
Nina Koffi, a native of the Ivory Coast, says that she was at first "overwhelmed" upon arriving on campus two years ago as a 19-year-old freshman, especially when realizing that she was the only student from Africa in the entire residence hall. "Just being the only oneÑthe only different person in a groupÑthat was hard at first," she recalls. "But it was also good, because it gave me a chance to explain and share more of my own culture with others."
Koffi became active with the African Student Association last fall and, it is there, she says, that she learned to "be myself, to express myself, [and] to be proud to be African." Now a junior with a dual major in government and politics, and Japanese (French is her native language), Koffi wants to attend law school and work in the area of international law and children's rights.
Want to learn more?
Join the University of Maryland Alumni Association now to automatically receive TERP Magazine and to stay connected to the University of Maryland community.