A Global Crossroads

Partnership creates an international destination for learning
By Rosalind Fournier • Photos by Steve Wood
Illustration showing globe of international flags; headline: A Global Crossroads
Partnership creates an international destination for learning
By Rosalind Fournier • Photos by Steve Wood
Last fall, 137 international students got their first taste of Alabama at a barbecue hosted by UAB. Before the new arrivals sampled sweet, spicy sauce and creamy potato salad, members of the Marching Blazers greeted them with a rousing performance of the UAB Fight Song.
What happened next surprised David Hofmann, executive director of INTO UAB.
“We invited the band members to stay and eat,” he says. “I thought the band might stay on one side and our students on the other, but they totally integrated with one another—having conversations, asking questions. It was incredible to watch. I’ve been thrilled from day one by the openness the community has shown our international students.”
UAB has long been proud of its commitment to fostering an internationally diverse campus. In fact, it currently boasts more than 600 faculty and staff from around the world. But there is still room to build a larger global presence among students, says Suzanne Austin, Ph.D., UAB senior vice provost and senior international officer. In fall 2015, 3.6 percent of UAB’s student body hailed from countries outside the United States.
Photo of Shuiling Qiu and Rohan Ramesh ChaudharyIn its first year, INTO UAB has recruited students from five continents, including Shuiling Qiu of China and Rohan Ramesh Chaudhary of India.
But what’s the best way to reach potential Blazers who live oceans away from Alabama? In 2015, UAB launched a joint venture with INTO University Partnerships, a private global educational company that works with 22 leading universities worldwide. While UAB already had a small staff focused on international recruiting, “INTO brings an incredible pipeline with connections all over the world—something we could never replicate on our own,” Austin says. The students at the barbecue—and the 106 additional students who started classes in January—come from China, India, Saudi Arabia, Colombia, and Azerbaijan, among other places.

The Path Forward

Once the newly recruited students reach Birmingham, INTO UAB’s involvement continues to ensure a successful transition. “Historically in the United States, international students would study academic English, and then they would start a degree program,” Austin explains. “INTO UAB’s pathway program allows a student with fairly good English skills to continue taking academic English while also enrolling in entry-level courses that will count toward their degree, so it helps them progress toward their degree more quickly while entering the academic stream a little more gradually.”
That pathway drew Shuiling Qiu from Beiliu, China, to Birmingham. “I wanted to learn English quickly,” she says. “I want my world to be bigger; I want to travel a lot. But the first thing is to have good language skills. In almost every country, people can speak English. Here, I knew I would get better faster because you hear it all the time.” Qiu plans to earn a master’s degree in accounting at UAB.
The INTO partnership aims to enroll as many as 700 international undergraduate and graduate students by its fifth year, and the boost in diversity on campus will contribute to a richer diversity of ideas, both at the university and in the community, Austin says. “That’s what universities do,” she explains. “We bring different people to our institutions and make them better places.”
She adds that UAB is equipped to accommodate this level of enrollment growth, and that no qualified Alabama resident will be denied admission as a result of the international recruitment emphasis.

Selling the South

With one of the nation’s largest public medical centers and a renowned research enterprise, UAB enjoys a strong reputation worldwide among scientists and health professionals. But Hofmann wondered if there might be some resistance from potential students whose image of Alabama relied on an outdated reputation. In fact, as a recent transplant himself (from St. Louis), he admits that he initially viewed Birmingham with skepticism when he began pursuing his job.
Photo of David Hofmann and Suzanne AustinBy leading efforts to strengthen an international presence among students, David Hofmann and Suzanne Austin are shining a global spotlight on Birmingham.
“I had the typical Southern stereotypes—it’s not metropolitan, it’s not sophisticated, those types of things,” Hofmann explains. But his research into Birmingham’s “growth, the revitalization, and the vibrant food scene” intrigued him. “Once I got here and started meeting people and learning more about UAB, I was ready to spread the word” about Birmingham, he says.
INTO UAB encourages others to become ambassadors for Alabama, inviting recruiters from around the world to visit UAB and Birmingham so they can give students a firsthand account. Last spring, nearly 100 attendees, from as far away as Australia and Indonesia, got a three-day tour of the campus and city that proved to be popular, Austin says. Their social media feeds buzzed with photos of UAB labs and the Campus Green, Blaze, Vulcan, the Alabama Theatre, and the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum, among other highlights.
Rohan Ramesh Chaudhary, a graduate student from Mumbai, India, who is studying computer and information sciences, says that even in India, he had heard some of the common negative perceptions about Birmingham. Then he met someone who had actually traveled to the city. “He told me, ‘When you go there, you’ll see what Alabama actually is,’” Chaudhary remembers. “He said the UAB campus was excellent. When I saw what UAB offered, I thought it was a good place to pursue my master’s.”
Chaudhary says that other UAB students are eager to welcome and get to know INTO students. “They ask, ‘How is your culture different? Is it hard over there?’ They want to know if we’ve found the good places to eat in town, and they offer to take us to them.” Meanwhile, he and his INTO classmates are reaching out to other international students to help them adjust to life in the United States.

Support Systems

Together, UAB and INTO offer students a host of programs—everything from tutoring to counseling services—to help them succeed. In addition, INTO UAB has renovated the second floor of Mervyn H. Sterne Library for its new home, with classrooms, lounges, a kitchen, and a multifaith room. The facility welcomes both international and American students, encouraging camaraderie and casual interaction.
Those connections can’t be forced or manufactured, Austin notes. But like Hofmann, she says the response to the newcomers has been inspiring, with some UAB student groups even organizing their own peer-mentor programs to help acclimate the international students.
“The students who have come to us so far have felt welcome,” Austin says. “They’re doing well academically and socially, and I’m proud of how the UAB community has embraced them.
“But I’m not surprised,” she adds, “because that’s the kind of place UAB is.”

Published March 2017