Enrollment of foreign students at American universities has risen slightly in recent years – even as the international economy has faltered. USC enrolls the most international students of any university in this country. The university runs an English-language program they hope will pave the way for university studies here.
For two years, 27-year-old Sebastien Leira worked in Paris and saved money to attend the USC Language Academy. The decision surprised some of his friends who criticized American politics and culture. "Oh, no, no, me, I’m a USA addict, if I can say it this way. I really love this country. It’s my dream country. USC is my dream school," Leira said.
In Paris, Leira earned a bachelor’s degree in communications. A USC graduate degree in the same field, he said, would open doors in France shut to people of African heritage like him. "That’s one of the reasons why I decided to come here, because black people, Arabic people and Asian people, we have troubles to get involved, to work even," he said.
Leira and about a hundred other students crowded a ballroom near campus to mark the completion of the six-week USC Language Academy. The course is an intense lesson in English-language writing, grammar and conversation skills.
Most students in this course enroll from Taiwan, China, South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia. Some are deficient in English conversation while others have a tough time with grammar.
All, said program director Kate O’Connor, want to improve enough to enroll in American universities. "Certainly there are higher education systems that are comparable in other nations, but there is the perception that there is not only a high level of academic pursuit here but academic freedom as well," O'Connor said.
Taiwan native Han-Jen Hau has lived in the U.S. long enough to know that freedom. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology at USC in the spring. She’ll begin a USC graduate degree in communication this fall.
In Taiwan, she said, university culture is not as straightforward and open as it is here. "We don’t talk anything bad about people, we always praising each other or complimenting each other about everything," and that doesn’t do much to advance learning, she said.
Advanced students in the language academy learn how to format research papers and avoid plagiarism. Electives and field trips feed their curiosity about American culture.
For Faisal Alasiri, from Saudi Arabia, trips to the Hollywood Bowl and Disneyland erased warnings from his friends back home. "Before I came here, a lot of people from Saudi Arabia told me, don’t go to the United States – go to Canada, they told me, the United States is not a safe place," Alasiri said.
He’s fascinated by American idioms that have no equal in Arabic, such as “What’s up?” and one he heard recently as he ordered an iced coffee. "If you want to order something from Starbucks and you don’t need the coffee full of ice, 'easy on the ice,' I like this one," he said.
Alasiri said he’s determined to master the language in his pursuit of a graduate degree in engineering.