There’s a strip of astro turf-covered concrete on the southwest corner of campus where Imran Khan dreams of gathering the world.
Last year, the sophomore computer science major from Bangladesh convinced SVSU leaders to pour cement there to serve as the centerpiece for a cricket field, where he and his international student peers planned to play one of the planet’s most popular sports. But, almost simultaneously, a series of global headlines convinced Khan the cricket field could serve some grander purpose.
The Syrian refugee crisis. U.S.-Mexico immigration policy debates. A presidential hopeful proposing to close the border to an entire people. Each subject stirred a worldwide conversation centered on a single question Khan and his international student peers answer daily at SVSU: Can people from different cultures co-exist in the same space?
“Yes,” he said, “and they can learn so much from each other too. Like cricket.”
And so Khan elevated his ambitions from recreational coordinator to cultural mediator. Rather than simply coordinating games with his international peers, he began plans to recruit students of all ethnicities — Americans included — to participate in the games. With enough support, he may organize a full-fledged cricket tournament before year’s end.
“It is a great way to get different people from different backgrounds together, to understand each other and find out all the ways we are alike,” Khan said.
His big idea is a microcosm of the movement underway at SVSU. There, the international student population is growing at an unprecedented rate, increasingly exposing all of its students to a more globalized community.
In fall 2015, Khan was one of the university’s 909 international students, a group grown threefold in size since 2005. In the last year alone, the international student population increased 43 percent, now counting as 9.3 percent of the university’s total enrollment.
The expanding influence of international students has resulted in an intercultural education not included in any campus course schedule. And the students benefiting from these teachings aren’t all enrolled at SVSU. Some are living in the surrounding community the campus influences.
Among those students enrolled at SVSU who are influenced — and are influencers — in that intercultural education are Hawra Alkhayyat and Chi Weng.
Like many international students, Alkhayyat and Weng spent their first months at SVSU enrolled in the school’s English as a Second Language program. Alkhayyat, a native of Saudi Arabia, and Weng, born in China, knew little English before arriving in Saginaw County. The language and cultural barriers made adapting to the new surroundings difficult at first.
“When I came here, it was really difficult to communicate,” Alkhayyat said. “There was a new language, new cultures. I worried people wouldn’t accept me.”
For instance, Alkhayyat at first feared her Islamic faith — and the hijab she wears on her head as part of that faith — might make her an outcast among her American peers. That was not the case.
“As I took more and more classes, I realized the students were willing to work with someone with a different background from their own, and I became more sociable,” the Qatif native said. “People wanted to know more about my culture. They would send emails, asking more about my heritage.”
The welcoming air didn’t stop with questions or emails. The support of SVSU students, staff and faculty for the international population included donations of winterwear for those accustomed to warmer climates. Bicycles were donated to those who don’t own vehicles. Last year, along with the construction of the cricket field, SVSU leaders also approved installation of stations in Wickes Hall where Muslims could wash their feet in accordance with religious custom.
“It’s been such a great experience here,” Alkhayyat said. “People have been so helpful.”
She earned her bachelor’s degree in health science in December 2015, but enjoyed her time — and education — at SVSU so much that she intends to return this summer to pursue a master’s degree in occupational therapy.
Weng, of Shanghai, shared a similar experience. The initial language gap led her to spend many of her first months at SVSU in her on-campus residence.
“I was very shy at first, and I didn’t really talk to anyone,” she said. “Over time, as I learned how to communicate, I started to feel more comfortable and confident. I made a lot of friends.”
She even took on a leadership role when peers elected her to serve as a representative on the student government body, the Student Association.
Weng earned a bachelor’s degree in graphic design in 2013. As with Alkhayyat, Weng enjoyed her stay so much that she decided to extend it. She will graduate in May 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in computer information systems.
The variety of cultural backgrounds within SVSU’s international student population creates complex, multi-layered communities on campus.
Students from Saudi Arabia, Nepal and China were among the largest groups in SVSU’s international population in 2015-16. Those three countries — out of 42 total — equated to 80 percent of all international enrollment. Many of these students did not speak fluent English when they arrived at SVSU, leading them initially to befriend others familiar with their native tongue.
Alkhayyat belonged to this category when she arrived in 2011. Her first friends on campus were other Saudi Arabia citizens. Early on, they often dined and socialized at each other’s residences, creating a bond formed through the shared experience of coming of age at an American university. They traveled Michigan together, picnicking alongside lakes and visiting Mackinac Island. These friends even experienced their first grocery shopping excursions together at a Walmart near campus.
“If I were giving advice (to a new international student), it would be to find people who make you feel comfortable here,” Alkhayyat said. “This will help you discover other cultures. It would have been really difficult to go out and feel comfortable around other people if it weren’t for my initial friends (from Saudi Arabia).”
Weng shared a similar experience with fellow students from China, carpooling with many of them across the region during their first months at SVSU. Eventually, as those students learned English and became more familiar with their foreign surroundings, they integrated into the larger student body.
“You start to feel more confident and more part of the American culture,” said Weng, who now owns a vehicle and counts several Americans among her best friends.
At the other end of the international student spectrum are those who more seamlessly adjust to their new surroundings. Karen Izzo, one of 18 Brazilian students at SVSU during her freshman year, spoke fluent English when she arrived.
“My culture is not that different from America, so coming here was probably not as big of a shock as it was for others,” said the freshman marketing major from São Paulo. “I had a lot to learn about the cultures of other international students though.”
Among her first friends on campus were international students from countries outside of her homeland, including Spain, India and Kuwait. And campus programming further promoted intercultural learning.
“SVSU does a really good job in sharing the diversity we have,” Izzo said.
Among those campus programs are a number of annual gatherings including Intercultural Night, a talent show-like spectacle offered since 2002 that features musical performances and artistic demonstrations highlighting international student culture. Another popular program is the yearly International Food Festival, which transforms SVSU’s dining facilities into a global potluck for one day each November.
Experts say the region benefits from SVSU’s international student population, too. As the international population grows, so does the students’ impact on both the Great Lakes Bay culture and economy.
SVSU international students attend nearby mosques, churches, synagogues and other places of worship. They participate in festivals celebrating a variety of cultures. They support businesses and are regular customers at several markets and restaurants featuring ethnic food. The effect both enriches the region’s quality of life and helps grow the economy.
“The local economy has really benefited from having international students at SVSU,” said Bob Van Deventer, president of the Saginaw County Chamber of Commerce. “The international students buy everything locally — TVs, phones, food. They have such a positive impact in this area.”
SVSU estimates its international students add $26 million to the local economy annually.
Even with all the international student impact outside of the classrooms, the importance of the education happening inside the classrooms remains a priority for students such as Noor Alam.
Less than one year after starting classes at SVSU, the biochemistry major from Bangladesh began neuroscience research inside SVSU’s Brain Research Laboratory, a program that has bolstered the portfolios of several students later accepted at prestigious graduate programs across the U.S.
“There are so many great opportunities here; so many possibilities,” Alam said. “It’s a calm place here, not that crowded, and safe. It’s very welcoming for international students.”
Alam was among the international students who helped fellow Bangladesh citizen Imran Khan lobby SVSU leaders to build the cricket field on the southwest corner of campus. Like Khan, Alam sees value in finding ways to bring cultures together, whether they are gathering for a game of cricket or for a college course.
“When you don’t talk to each other, you don’t know that many of these people have the same affection for things, many of the same morals, and that every religion speaks to the same thing: they are for humanity,” he said. “These are lessons that are important for everyone.”
His experience as an international student at SVSU has provided valuable lessons to Alam and many of his peers.
“It totally opens up your mind,” he said of the international experience underway at SVSU. “It has opened up mine.”