Passport to the Liberal Arts

International students seek higher education in the United States as F&M expands its global reach


There was a trip to Hong Kong in September. To Calcutta and other destinations in India in mid-October. A few days in beautiful Muscat, the capital of Oman, in November.

They are just a few places Penny Johnston, Franklin & Marshall’s director of international admission, visited last fall on recruiting trips for the College. As a key cog in the College’s efforts to attract students from around the globe, she is constantly on the move—or about to be. She estimates she’s made approximately 100 trips for F&M overseas. You might find her in China one week, Lancaster the next, and Jordan a few weeks later.

She might also be in Myanmar, as she was in 2003 when a 14-year old soldier refused to let her leave the airport to go home. “I was so nervous. I didn’t know what to do,” Johnston recalls in a quiet conference room at F&M’s Wohlsen House, home of the College’s Office of Admission and a world away from the Southeast Asian country.

Penny Johnston

Penny Johnston, F&M’s director of international admission

Johnston eventually boarded her flight, thanks to help from a local university student. It was one of countless adventures she has had in three decades traveling the globe to meet with counselors and prospective students—work that has been rewarding, both for Johnston and F&M. “You get to know counselors overseas, and they get to know the College,” Johnston says. “They know we do a fantastic job educating their students.”

Johnston has witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of international students at F&M throughout her career, especially recently, with nearly 17 percent of the Class of 2017 hailing from outside the United States compared to 9 percent of the graduating class just three years ago. Overall, 293 international students from 48 countries attend F&M this academic year. The international boom on campus is part of a national trend, as the Institute of International Education reported in November that a record 819,644 international students studied at American colleges and universities in 2012-13.

F&M has been ahead of the international student curve, says Daniel Lugo, the College’s vice president and dean of admission and financial aid. The College has been educating students from overseas since the mid-19th century, with the first international students arriving in the 1850s.

“In comparison to our peers, we have always had a substantial international student body,” Lugo says, noting that the percentage of international students in the Class of 2017 was higher than the College expected, and that the Class of 2018 will likely have a slightly lower percentage. “We want to build on our long-term strategy to be a leader in international education. We’d like to expand the diversity of countries from which our students originate. We’re not looking at international students as one homogenous group, but as many students from all over the world.”

Expanding Global Reach

It’s a frigid December morning, and light snow is falling on the F&M campus. Hector Ferronato ’17, a first-year student from São Paulo, Brazil, is taking pictures of the wintry scene in front of Shadek-Fackenthal Library.

“This is the first time I’ve seen snow in my life,” Ferronato says, holding an umbrella in one hand and a camera in the other. “It’s so beautiful and amazing.”

Ferronato is an example of the College’s efforts to recruit more students from countries not historically represented in high numbers at F&M. While the College has drawn deeply from China and India over the past two decades, Lugo says it is turning more recruiting attention to South America, Africa, Europe and Southeast Asia.

The deciding factor for Ferronato was F&M’s brand of liberal arts education—access to professors, small class sizes, and opportunities for undergraduate research.

“In Brazil, you don’t have liberal arts education,” he says. “A 17-year-old graduates from high school and then has to decide what to do for the rest of his or her life. That’s not enough. You have to experience things first. I know many people in Brazil who would love a liberal arts education because they don’t know what they want to major in [immediately after high school],” he says.

Ferronato is considering majors in computer science, philosophy and psychology, but he says that could change. “I really like art as well, and this semester I’m taking my first art class. Maybe I’ll fall in love with art.”

Lugo says education systems in many countries focus students on individual disciplines, while the liberal arts approach directs them to a range of disciplines that allows them to connect the strands of various fields necessary for leadership, a learning process that empowers students.

“Vast regions of the world are becoming aware that having a liberal arts education is a value, to their students and to their future leaders,” he says. “As a result of that we, as a liberal arts college, benefit tremendously.”


International students carry flags on College Avenue prior to the inauguration of F&M President Daniel R. Porterfield in 2011.


Ambassadors Abroad

While Lugo is F&M’s admission version of a secretary of state and Johnston an ambassador, the international students are the College’s “diplomats,” sharing their F&M experiences with family and friends back home.

“We now have F&M graduates from around the world who are making an impact on their communities,” Lugo says. “The world is a very small place these days, and the power of our recruitment is only as good as where we have representation.”

Those representatives include China native Lin (Vanessa) Nie ’10, who in 2009 co-authored “A True Liberal Arts Education,” a book written for Chinese students considering college in the United States The first 8,000 copies, distributed in China’s large cities, sold out within a few months. Nie wrote about the analytic nature of the liberal arts; higher education in America tends to be more abstract, she says, than what Chinese students typically experience.

“Creativity and self-reliance are stressed at F&M,” Nie said when the book was published. “I tried to reflect on the culture, the people, and the academic and social environment. I thought a lot about what influenced me, and how.”

Nie’s book reflected what Johnston says is China’s increasing interest in liberal arts and F&M. “They are becoming so much more aware of the liberal arts,” the international admission director says. “They are recognizing there is such a real value in it.”

The liberal arts message has also spread to Ghana, home to F&M student Mawupemor “Kofi” Alorzuke ’16. An economics and applied mathematics major, Alorzuke learned about F&M from friends in the West African nation. “F&M is a college that is known to be prestigious,” says Kofi, who grew up in the Atlantic port city of Tema. “I also had some friends attending F&M.”

Alorzuke, who graduated from Ghana’s international high school, said he chose F&M for its challenging academic programs and the opportunities to contribute to the local and global communities. He is one of a dozen international students working with Patricia Ressler, the College’s international records associate, sharing their F&M experiences with prospective students overseas through email and social media.

Tekla Iashagashvili ’17, a native of Georgia in Eurasia, began helping F&M’s recruiting efforts overseas during her first semester on campus. “It’s very interesting to get to know the people who want to apply here, but it’s also a great responsibility,” says Iashagashvili, who hails from Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. “You’re making a contribution as to whether a student is accepted or not.”

Having current international students conduct social media and email outreach has had a positive effect on recruitment, Ressler says. “I think that personal touch is what made the difference last year in recruiting the largest international cohort in F&M’s history. That’s when we expanded the students’ role to interviewing prospective students.”

While email and social media outreach helps the College recruit students overseas, Johnston has shaped F&M’s international recruitment efforts by developing connections with school counselors around the globe. “We have really benefitted from Penny’s hard work and the recognition she has brought through her leadership,” Lugo says.

Johnston arrived at F&M 25 years ago, and her journey to director of international admissions began when she was assigned to read the applications from overseas applicants. She had much to learn, such as what the grades from the overseas schools actually measured. An F&M professor from India helped her understand applications from Indian students. “He really got me started with the Indian applications, and then it just expanded as the applicant pool grew,” Johnston recalls.

Johnston soon began traveling overseas, first in groups with other recruiters and then independently. Now F&M alumna Carly Mankus ’07, assistant director of international admission, also travels overseas for the College.

The key to Johnston’s recruiting success has been her relationships with the counselors, who are often American, British or Canadian expatriates who like to move from one country to another, exploring different cultures. The counselor who invited her to Myanmar in 2003 was an American she had first met in Japan.

Johnston also knew a different American counselor in Myanmar who departed the Southeast Asian country several years ago. Suddenly, Johnston says, Myanmar applications dropped off, but Ethiopia applications started coming in—and Johnston knew where the counselor landed a job. An Ethiopian student is among the international students in the Class of 2017.

Cultural Exchange

The results of F&M’s recruiting efforts are on display every August during convocation, the formal ceremony welcoming the incoming class to the campus community. Colorful international flags flank the Convocation stage, representing the home countries of new students and signifying the cultural exchange set to take place on campus during the next four years.

The exchange takes place in College Houses, in the dining hall, in classrooms, and countless other spaces where students of different cultures converse. It often happens in the Joseph International Center, a central resource for international students that hosts coffee hours, organizes events and provides visa and immigration advising.

Iashagashvili has been at the center of the sharing on a regular basis. Her homeland of Georgia, at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, has been a conversation starter because it bears few cultural similarities to America’s southern state by the same name. Iashagashvili often introduces American students to her native country when they hear its name without the southern accent.

“A lot of people are very curious about Georgia,” Iashagashvili says. “It has helped me meet people, and I’ve found other students to be genuinely interested in my country. I’ve said, ‘If you ever get to Georgia, just give me a call.’”

As an overseas student, Iashagashvili’s experience reflects one of the purposes of the College’s international recruiting efforts—exposing students to world cultures, and allowing them to trade ideas and viewpoints. “We all look at the world from different perspectives,” she says.

Ferronato has had similar experiences in his first months as an F&M student. “My roommate tells me every day that not only is he teaching me about American culture, but also that he’s learning from me about Brazilian culture,” Ferronato says. “It’s giving us both a broad education.”


Continuing an International Tradition

Franklin & Marshall has educated international students since the mid-19th century, just after the merger of Franklin and Marshall colleges.

According to records in the College's Archives & Special Collections, the first international student at F&M was F. Strassner of Bremer, of Germany, who enrolled in 1854. Michael Lear, archives and special collections assistant, says A.C. Hoehing of Heilbron, Germany, followed Stassner in 1859. Two students from Switzerland arrived in 1860 and 1861.

F&M’s affiliation with the German Reformed Church created a bridge to Asia, where the church’s missionary work in China and Japan opened access to several Japanese students in the 1880s, according to Lear.

Masataka Yamanaka appears to have been the first Asian international student. He arrived at the College in 1881, graduating in 1885. “Others included Takeo Noya (1890), George Kinzo Kaneko (1891) and Kenjiro Satow (1892),” Lear says.

Around the same time, F&M developed a strong connection with Tohoku Gakuin University in Sendai, Japan. TGU was founded in 1886 under the aegis of the German Reformed Church by Masayoshi Oshikawa and an F&M alumnus, William Hoy (1882). Another alumnus, David Schneder (1880), served as the institution’s second president. The relationship between TGU and F&M continues today, as the schools have had a formal exchange program since 1986.

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1 Response »

  1. There are many people involved in international education around the world. But Penny is one of the leaders. She has friends and connections all over the globe. Her knowledge about issues important to international students and their families is wide and deep. Her experience and familiarity with schools around the world makes her an expert in the field. She has been an exceptional ambassador for F&M. She’s changed the lives of many students by getting them to pursue a great education on your campus.

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