By Arlene Kiyomi Dennistoun
Northwest Asian Weekly
Many of Green River College’s faculty and students are fuming and feeling left behind.
There have been loud, organized protests since 2015, no-confidence votes in the college’s president and board of trustees, accusations of retaliation against faculty union members, and ever-spreading rumors about programs getting eliminated.
Cuts have been made, and more potential cuts to programs and classes loom ahead based on low enrollment and budget woes.
Protests and calls for the resignation of the college’s president have rocked the small, woodsy college campus in Auburn, once known as a “community” college. Recent focus on the revenue brought in on the backs of international students, primarily from East Asia, have marked that revenue as a target for protesters, who demand a balanced student body and concentration on the needs of domestic students.
Colleges and universities nationwide welcome international students and the diversity they bring to campuses, not to mention the revenue. Green River’s international students pay 2.5 times more in tuition than residents, and are not eligible for student aid.
So, for every $1,000 paid by a resident student, an international student pays $2,500. Green River administrators, particularly its president, Eileen Ely, have clashed with some faculty members about the way the college spends its international student dollars. Protesters want to know why the college won’t use that money to save cuts to programs or teachers.
Green River College has one of the highest enrollments of international students in the state (second only to Seattle Central Community College). International student programs are on the rise nationwide, but cuts are still being made at the expense of programs, like auto body and geographical information systems, which serve mostly local students. International students generally major in business, science, technology, engineering, and math. Eighty-five percent transfer to four-year universities in the United States, with a median grade point average of 3.46.
A December 2015 Time Magazine article put Green River College at the top of the list for the biggest increase in diversity between 1990, when the student body was about 91 percent Caucasian, and 2014, when Caucasian students numbered around 42 percent.
Green River College also came in tenth on the “Top 40 Associate Colleges Hosting International Students.”
Wooing international students can be competitive.
Green River publishes a flyer letting students know it costs $34,278 to attend the University of Washington, while it costs $9,900 at Green River. Green River’s total enrollment for all students during fall 2015 was 11,500, with international students totaling 1,746. The college says that’s 15 percent, which has held steady for the past year or so. The school’s international program provided a breakdown of enrollment by students’ countries of origin. The majority of international students at Green River are from East Asia.
The international student program officially started at Green River in 1988 with 17 international students. Wendy Stewart, Dean of International Programs and Extended Learning, said by 2001, they had 504 students. Enrollment dropped after 9/11, but began climbing to 1,746 students in fall 2015.
Some faculty thinks that’s too high a number, not because they don’t welcome international students, but they wonder whether these students are given priority over local students, and whether the school is moving away from serving the local community.
Some faculty members worry about the college’s refusal to use the profit from international students for the school’s general fund, for faculty (salaries and instruction), and for programs on the chopping block.
“Why don’t they use the money to save programs? The administration still hasn’t explained why they can’t use international student dollars for faculty, and to save auto body and other programs,” said Dr. Steve Kinholt, a math teacher who’s been teaching at Green River for about 25 years. He agrees the international student program may be caught in the crossfire between labor disputes and how college administrators spend its money.
Kinholt insists he’s not anti-international student. He wants the Asian Pacific Islander community to know he’s always been supportive — international students bring very positive things to the campus, diversity of course, being one. But there has to be a balance, says Kinholt. “Where’s the tipping point? What if the school were 50 or 100 percent international students?” He wants people to ask themselves whether there could ever be too many international students. Kinholt is convinced the college has switched its priority from education to revenue, and plans to do more recruiting for international student money.
“I just spoke to someone who flew to Dubai to recruit Middle Eastern students for the aviation program.” Kinholt wonders if Green River is making similar efforts to recruit local students. Boeing is a neighbor, after all. He firmly believes international students are being used as a revenue stream, rather than for diversity. “We have a lot of classes that are 65–75 percent international students. It changes the curriculum.” When asked whether it makes sense for the college to change its financial model in order to stay relevant, Kinholt simply says, “That’s fine, but there needs to be a balance.” Kinholt compares Green River’s student population to available seats on an airplane, with first class seats reserved for international students, and domestic students crowded in coach, and possibly running out of space.
“We don’t have any say on what happens with the money that comes from international student revenue,” says Stewart. “We are a revenue-generating part of the college, but the college determines how the money is spent.” Stewart says as far as expansion and a tipping point, “We really only exist to serve the college, so we really meet the needs of the campus, and at this point, the college is not asking us to increase our revenue production, our enrollment, to meet the needs of the budget.” The current goal is to maintain and moderately grow — at most that would be 3 to 5 percent. Kinholt believes even that is too much.
“Our role in the program is to provide cultural awareness and to provide an international experience for all students. We take that seriously,” adds Stewart. She agrees it’s not a given that because the college has diverse students, meaningful interaction between those diverse students happens. Stewart strives not just for integration, but for “meaningful involvement” among diverse students. “Now more than ever, we want to focus our attention on the diversity of our student population. We’re currently serving a lot more refugees, immigrants, and second generation immigrants. In the Kent School District, for example, there are 140 different ethnic groups or languages spoken.”
Stewart encourages the API community to contact Green River College for information on the international student program. The college has looked at what has and hasn’t worked. It recently hired an international recreational coordinator to put activities together for all students, and a soccer team was born. Now the college has three “super diverse teams that are like a United Nations of soccer. It’s just fantastic!” Stewart said. “You can’t tell from looking at their (soccer team members) faces whether they’re local or from overseas, and they’re playing together and interacting in super meaningful ways.”
Illusion of a Cadillac
On a recent visit to the Auburn campus, a lone, but loud protesting student shouted in front of the newly built student center building. The 71,000-square-foot building, financed in part with profits from the international student program, houses a cafeteria, bookstore, athletic and recreation center, Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and other offices. The student protester, who asked to remain anonymous, thundered aloud her demands for the college’s administration to be transparent, honest, and to save programs from getting cut. She said there’s talk of eliminating counseling and health services, and she believes decisions have already been made about ending certain programs.
“The City of Auburn offered to pay the college to keep the auto body department, and (President) Ely said NO!” yelled the angry protester. The student stopped protesting long enough to talk about international students getting “rock star” treatment as a by-product of the high tuition they pay. Yet, she insists these same students are being exploited and used by having to pay higher tuition, and is adamant the college has failed to adequately support them. “Look at that student who committed suicide,” referring to a student from China who was found dead on a trail in March 2014. We made several requests for a statement about the international student program from President Eileen Ely, through the Executive Director of College Relations, without success.
It’s an “illusion of a Cadillac” that the international students are getting, the protester continued. The college refuses to funnel revenue from the international student program to pay for faculty salaries and local student needs, so it “pits domestic and international students against each other.” When asked how or whether international students have harmed domestic students’ needs, she mulled the question over. Yes, she replied, having international students on campus “makes us think harder about other cultures and having to learn others’ customs. It’s the college’s job to integrate students and they’re failing to do that.”
“If I didn’t think the international student program was benefiting the college, I wouldn’t be doing this, said Ross Jennings, vice resident of International Programs and Extended Learning.
Jennings has been involved with international student programs for about 25 years. When informed of concerns about local students getting bumped from class because a seat was taken by an international student, Jennings, his voice soft, yet filled with conviction, replied, “I’d like to know one instance where this has happened. Can anyone give me a student’s name where this has happened?” International students get two or three seats reserved for certain classes, but this is offset by later registration dates.
Jennings believes the controversy over the growing number of international students is based on long standing labor disputes originating in the 1970s and continues today. As far as the perception of international students getting “rock star” or privileged treatment, Jennings says the students pay a higher tuition, and they receive support to assist them in succeeding at the college. “Look, I was an exchange student in Beirut and I had opportunities to learn about the culture that local students didn’t.”
International students at Green River must take classes such as International College Experience, Foundation for Success, and some must also take intensive English classes before they are even admitted, if they can’t demonstrate proficiency in English.
Mohini Khanal, a 22-year-old nursing student from Nepal, has been studying at Green River College for two years. She doesn’t pay international student tuition. She has resident status, so she’s also eligible for financial aid. Although there are good colleges in Nepal, Khanal says, students come to American schools because of better opportunities. Khanal has heard about perceptions that international students are wealthy, but she and other Nepalese students struggle financially. “We have to work, and I have to cook and take care of my three younger brothers while my mother works.” Khanal began her nursing studies only after gaining residency in Washington. Khanal says there’s a strong Nepali community in Seattle and she hopes they’ll continue to help new Nepalese students by helping them to get jobs.
Zack Apiratitham, a former Green River international student, wishes he had made more American friends during his time at the school. He’s since transferred to the University of Central Florida, where he is working toward a bachelor’s degree in computer science. Apiratitham comes from a small town in Thailand and chose Green River over other colleges because he liked the location outside of the city and it “looked nice and green.” He said his experience was positive because the computer science/IT instructors were all really great and supportive. He didn’t feel like he ever received any special treatment, and if it seemed like he was, he said it was because he wanted to build a solid resume and so he got involved in lots of campus activities. Campus involvement is a large part of the international student program, and Apiratitham did a lot of photography and other work for the college.
Despite Mohini and Zack’s positive experiences at Green River, the backlash has begun. “International students with minimal English skills are being chucked into regular classes in order to try to meet the promises made by our foolish administrators,” a person posts online in response to a recent article about Green River’s international student program.
Another person writes, “Recent history shows how they only consider their international students as a pipeline of money.” But many others see job opportunities and the “pipeline” of financial and educational gifts offered by embracing the inevitable and fascinating upward trend of a global community. Green River College and its international student program appear destined to stay, and perhaps grow, relative to the real world.
Arlene Kiyomi Dennistoun can be reached at email@example.com.