FLORENCE — Walking into Rice Hall at the University of North Alabama feels like walking among the United Nations, said Chunsheng Zhang jokingly.
“Multiple languages are spoken there,” said Zhang, the senior vice provost for International Affairs.
Rice Hall is home to several of UNA’s 359 on-campus international students. A total of 783 international students are enrolled this semester, up 288 from last year.
That’s nearly 10% of UNA’s total enrollment for this fall.
The university began opening up floors in the building last year to accommodate the increase in international students. It opened up a couple more this year as on-campus residents reached a record high.
UNA has made gains this fall in its goal to become a “global campus,” something Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Ross Alexander attributes to the overall quality and vibrancy of the university.
“While international enrollment trends have declined significantly nationally, we’re increasing in a significant way as UNA truly becomes a global campus," Ross said. "We see that as a sustainable model for the future.”
In the last five years, the highest number of countries represented was 41. This year, that number hit 45.
China is still the largest-represented country with 142 students enrolled either on campus or online. The next largest is Japan with 45. India, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam round out the rest of the top five countries.
In addition to the traditional undergraduate and graduate programs, UNA offers an Academic English Program (AEP) to help students learn English.
EducationUSA is a United States Department of State network with offices in more than 175 countries. It promotes higher education opportunities in the U.S.
Zhang said UNA has hosted a few EducationUSA advisors this year, including some from Tunisia, Morocco, Myanmar and Peru.
Faouzi Seba came to Virginia from Algeria in January to pursue business education. He was looking for the right fit when he learned of the Tunisia and Morocco advisers visiting UNA.
He had never heard of UNA, but after some research he discovered the MBA program, which offered a concentration in Information Technology.
“I was amazed by the program because, first of all, it’s accredited,” Seba said. “Second of all, it offers the concentration that I want.”
Seba was admitted as a graduate student, and received full housing and partial tuition scholarships.
Zhang said several university offices have collaborated to make studying at UNA “as affordable as possible.” Many international students receive a Global Learning Community (GLC) scholarship.
UNA can provide up to $6,000 to help with the out-of-state tuition costs.
“We try to reduce the out-of-pocket cost as much as we can, so that’s why fundraising for us is a big challenge and big task,” Zhang added. “Fortunately, President Kitts and Dr. Alexander are all very supportive of our work in this office because, as we say, we bring the world to UNA and to Florence.”
Melissa Bonilla Parra, a freshman from Costa Rica studying music performance, first heard about UNA when she attended Huntsville’s Tennessee Valley Music Festival camp at age 15. There, she met music professor Daniel Stevens.
Stevens recognized her talent as a violinist and introduced her to the possibility of coming to UNA.
“Last year, I graduated from high school, and he started sending me all the paperwork I needed to do to came here,” Parra said. “For me, it’s a new experience. Everything’s new. I like all the environment, the people around me — they are very nice — (and) the teachers. I think I am doing a pretty good job here.”
Parra said something she loves about the music program is the talent she sees in other students.
So far, Seba said he is also enjoying all Florence and UNA have to offer.
“I like the campus,” he said. “It’s really beautiful. It’s small, and I like the city also. I don’t like crowded cities because I am from a small city, so I like that kind of city.”
Zhang said international students stimulate the local economy, supporting about 40 jobs and generating more than $6 million. According to NAFSA: Association of International Educators, that number is close to $300 million across the state.
Both Seba and Parra said being the first students to represent their countries at UNA is exciting, but comes with responsibility.
“When you do something, or say something, you are presenting your country, so it means a lot,” Seba said.
Alexander said the international students make up just one group experiencing growth this year. Alexander said many students are drawn to UNA lately because of the programming both on and off campus.
“Our online graduate programs are continuing to show market demand,” he said. “The quality of our programs and faculty have a direct impact upon our significant and necessary growth.”
While on-campus numbers have traditionally been higher than online, this year saw more online international students — a total of 424. That includes students enrolled in UNA’s China MBA program.
In early October, UNA held a session for faculty and staff on the best practices for teaching international students. Seba and Parra, like many others, noted how the university’s smaller size allows their professors to be more accommodating, and dedicate more individual attention to students.
Seba said UNA’s extracurriculars are also appealing. One of his professors even introduced him to a local soccer team he could join.
“So far, I find all the things that I’m looking for,” he said. “The student organizations here are really active. At the end of the day, when you go to the real world, you face some challenges that you cannot find in the classroom. … If you do not have those skills, you will not succeed in your work.”