Alaa Massae, a senior biology major, is always studying. She’s mentally reviewing her notes while making the daily drive to UMass from her West Springfield home where she lives with her parents.
While she’s eating lunch, she’s thinking about what questions to ask her teaching assistant or professor after class. At home, nearly every free moment she has is spent telling her parents about her education or reinforcing the knowledge she’s gained that day.
Massae is an Iraqi refugee who emigrated to the U.S. with her brothers and parents in 2009 after fleeing the Middle East for safety and the American Dream. Her family left their home in Iraq, which is four miles outside of Baghdad, out of fear for their safety and settled in neighboring Lebanon. Her UMass education is her top and only priority.
“It was too dangerous to stay in Iraq because of the war and it still is bad,” said Massae. “A degree from an Iraqi university means nothing over there, but an American degree means so much.”
According to data from the UMass Office of Institutional Research (OIR), Massae is one of 537 students at UMass, or 2.4 percent of nearly 20,000 undergraduates, that are international students. UMass continues to increase the number of international students enrolled on campus each year and plans to reach its short-term goal of five percent of all undergraduates being international within the next few years.
“We feel that five percent is a good place to plateau for the short-term,” said Jim Roche, associate provost for enrollment management. “We try not to lose sight of our mission as a state university.”
Out of all state colleges and universities in Massachusetts, UMass Amherst has the second most international students after UMass Boston. About 17 percent of entering freshmen in fall 2013 at the Boston campus were international, with a total undergraduate population of about 12,300.
The Boston campus has a higher percentage of international students because of its relationship with the Massachusetts International Academy (MAIA). International students who are not proficient at speaking or writing English upon entering the U.S. are sent to MAIA to help them improve.
“We want them to be able to succeed the second they walk onto this campus and we’ve found that MAIA helps them do that,” said Roche.
Located in Marlborough, MA, students can spend between six months to one year at the academy before being cleared to start classes at their university. UMass is continuing to build its relationship with MAIA and many of the university’s international students have to go through MAIA before coming to campus, according to Roche.
Roche said that it’s a common belief that UMass wants to attract more international students for the money, and he claims that isn’t the case.
“The revenue is nice, but we could just get more kids from out-of-state if we really wanted the revenue,” he said. “Part of going to college is experiencing and learning about diversity, and the more international students we have on campus, the more our students will learn about the world.”
Students like Jess Morris fit Roche’s international student profile for helping American students become more informed about the world. She’s from England and lived in Ghana for five months before starting college at the University of Sterling in Scotland. While in Ghana, she taught children how to play soccer and learned what daily life is like.
“It was an incredible experience, I was just so thankful to have clean drinking water and clean water to shower in,” said Morris. “I learned to better appreciate my life back home in England after my time in Ghana.
Roche also added that the countries with the highest number of UMass applicants taking the SATs are China and Lebanon. UMass usually ranks in the top 100 best post-secondary institutions in the U.S. According to Roche, last year UMass was ranked 62 in the country in terms of degree programs and research opportunities.
He’s also noticed that there have been a higher number of applicants from China and South Korea because students in those countries they are choosing not to take the national standardized tests for college and feel they have a better chance of being accepted to an American university. UMass also continues to have a good reputation in Europe as well.
“I heard about UMass at my university back home and I have some friends who studied here too, they all recommended it and said the research opportunities here are amazing,” said Jan Konig, an industrial engineering grad student from Germany.
Massae is also helping to bring more international students to UMass. She feels she has to give back to the campus that gives her hope that one day she will be a doctor in Iraq. She has translated informational pamphlets about UMass into Arabic and has taken them with her on overseas trips to the Middle East and Asia.
“I’m proud to be an ambassador for UMass abroad, but while I’m here I’m also an ambassador for my country,” said Massae. “I want to be a doctor someday and I saw a lot of opportunity at UMass to help me get there.”
In being an ambassador for UMass, she hopes to leave her mark on campus.
“I’m not here to waste my time,” said Massae. “If you treat this country like your home country and this campus like your home, you can accomplish so much. I’m here to do my best, and if everyone did their best we can help bring more Iraqis to American schools like UMass.”