Before he jumped on a bus in the Philippines in 2016—the first step of his journey to the United States–his mother whispered in his ear, “Do not go home empty-handed.”

He cried as he thought about the $1,000 in spending money his family had scrounged up, all the work they’d done to get him here. They inspired him to earn a master’s degree in accounting last year and seek a second master’s degree in information systems at NIU. He wants to give his family a better life, hope to others back home.

“I grew up from a very humble family. My father is a farmer. My mother is a grade school teacher. I always told myself, ‘I’ll never go to the U.S. We’re just poor. I’ll never go,’” said Mayubay, a 23-year-old graduate assistant in the Division of Administration and Finance.

“I need to be strong. Everything I do is based on how I can help my community and family.”

For Mayubay and many of Northern Illinois University’s international students, degrees take on added meaning. They’ve traveled far, often alone, often for the first time. Many have come carrying the dreams of generations before them. Everything around them is new — the country, the campus, the culture.

“The students don’t take things for granted. They’re just soaking up all the experiences they can get,” said Sim Chin Tissa, director of the International Student and Faculty Office. “I see them blossom over the years.”

#YouAreWelcomeHere

About 1,000 students from at least 70 countries were international students last year. Of those students, about 75 percent were graduate students, while the rest were undergraduates. They’re a diverse group hailing from countries from A to Z, literally, “from Albania to Zimbabwe,” Tissa said.

“There’s a more concerted effort across campus to consciously put international students on everyone’s map,” Tissa said.

The efforts are ongoing in the university’s Division of International Affairs, International Student & Faculty Office and International Training Office, but also throughout campus in Undergraduate and Graduate Admissions, study abroad and exchange programs and each of NIU’s seven individual colleges. Professors help to draw international students through their research and teaching, as well as international trips.

A #YouAreWelcomeHere campaign summed up the college’s message.

“Really, recruiting involves everyone on campus,” said Anthony Preston, director of Global Programs for the College of Business, which has a Master of Business Administration degree program in China and added a Master of Science in Financial Risk Management there this fall.

Not Stuck in a Box

What international students bring to campus is as important as what NIU offers them.

“It definitely adds to the learning in the classroom,” Preston said. “You’re sitting with people with different mannerisms and different ways they do business.” But it can be, at times, a bit of a culture shock on both ends.

Tomiloba Ogundipe

Tomiloba Ogundipe, 26, came to NIU from Nigeria to earn a master’s degree in information systems. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in communications at Babcock University. He was used to the buzz of a bigger city when he arrived in the summer of 2017. “DeKalb was an adjustment,” he said. “When I came here, I was like, ‘What?’”

“They were extremely welcoming for me,” he said of everyone he encountered on campus and through the International Student & Faculty Office. “They’re always willing to help, even when I don’t ask for it.”

He said he applied to several colleges in the U.S., but picked NIU mainly because it was affordable and he’d heard about it from a friend of the family.

“The key reason the United States appeals [to me] is the diversity,” he said. “You don’t want to be stuck in a box.”

High Return of Investment

The promise of opportunity draws students to the United States, while reputation brings them to NIU. Along with academics, NIU offers numerous programs and events tailored to a diverse audience.

Day trips to the city, or even Jonamac Orchard, and Chai Chats aim to make students feel comfortable, while the big event is the annual Thanksgiving dinner for international students at the Holmes Student Center.

“I think we do an excellent job of taking care of our international students here, and we’re affordable. It’s a high return of investment,” Preston said.

There will be students who want to come to the United States because they prefer the U.S. educational system, Tissa said, but international student enrollment throughout the country has flattened as many head elsewhere.

“The happy neighbor is Canada,” Tissa said. “The U.K. [United Kingdom] and Australia also benefit.”

Because of restrictions put on student visas, 22-year-old Wataru Hashimoto, ‘18, originally from Tokyo, Japan, switched his NIU major from physics with an education emphasis to applied physics.

He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in May and has found a research mentor in John Shelton, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering. His next goal is a master’s degree in mechanical engineering.

Because the degree is STEM-related — or pertaining to science, technology, engineering and math — he can get a two-year extension on his post-completion optional practical training (OPT), a work benefit allowed to international students in F-1 immigration status in the U.S. That would give him more time to apply for a work visa.

“The more time I have, the better chance I have,” Hashimoto said. “I can go back to Japan, but here — you become an engineer, you’re pretty much set. It’s not the same in Japan.”

Alumni Accolades

Given the chance, international students are among some of NIU’s most successful alumni.

Among them are Jian-Chuan Zhang, ’13, head of the nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers’ China Operations; Anies Baswedan, ’07, the recent governor of Jakarta, Indonesia; and Amirah Ali, ’09, an award-winning international pop singer and songwriter from Malaysia.

“What they’ve done when they graduate shows we have had an impact on their lives and their success,” Preston said.

Leonard Zongo

Among the most recent NIU alumni is 31-year-old Leonard Zongo, ‘18. Originally from Burkina Faso, West Africa, he earned his Master of Science degree in adult and high education with a specialty in student affairs administration this past May. Having worked as a graduate community director at Northern View Community, he landed a job as a residence hall director at Kent State University in Ohio.

Before graduate school, Zongo worked for the U.S. government in South Africa coordinating counter-terrorism missions. “At some point, I realized I really wanted to work with students,” he said.

A friend from Western Michigan University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in secondary education in 2009, recommended NIU. Staff and mentors guided him through several internships, including one with the Office of Student Conduct at NIU and set a positive tone from the beginning. A single message became clear throughout his campus experience: “We come from different places. We have to be respectful of each other’s beliefs.”

‘Wow, what a country’

Mayubay credits the help he’s received along the way from fellow students, area families and professors — who’ve provided him with a place to live, food, even money for books — with his success.

He first visited NIU in 2012 through the Southeast Asia Youth Leadership Program offered in the Center for Southeast Asian Studies. His efforts at age 15 as a youth chairman in his small village of Badoc — and later to help start a nonprofit organization for troubled youth — had caught the center’s attention. After that brief visit to campus, Mayubay vowed to return as a student.

“I realized from that moment, ‘Wow, what a country,’” he said.