University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Minnesota Dreamin'

When the pandemic took hold, U of M international students faced a difficult choice—remain on campus or return home. Incoming students also needed to decide if they wanted to begin their college student experience online or postpone for a year. But as the U of M reopens, these students are quickly returning to campus.

Photo Courtesy Giovanna Takano Natti

On a morning in the middle of June, Giovanna Takano Natti, who hopes to graduate with a B.A.S. in 2024, was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief. After a year of studying engineering from her bedroom in Londrina, Brazil, and several agonizing months of waiting for word on when the United States would allow international students to enter the country, her student visa arrived in the mail. Eighteen months after accepting admission to the U of M’s College of Science and Engineering, Takano Natti learned she would finally be able to study in person this fall at the Twin Cities campus.

Over a Zoom call earlier this summer, Takano Natti grinned as she explained her plans to arrive in Minnesota in August, and to move into Pioneer Hall for her sophomore year. She was looking forward to in-person classes and experiencing life on a campus bursting with the energy of young people making their way in the world.

“It was pretty frustrating not knowing what would happen each semester,” she says of her freshman year and the constantly changing news about the virus. “It was just one day at a time.”

While Takano Natti did begin her U of M studies online, others in her position chose to delay their start at the school because of the online format. According to associate director of International Admissions Jenny Mealey (M.A. ’03), in 2020 an estimated 68 international students decided to delay their freshman year until 2021 or take a gap year.

Even though she was in Brazil in her bedroom, Takano Natti did her best to meet fellow Gophers online. She joined the U of M’s Brazilian Students Association (BRASA) and the International Student Ambassadors to socialize with peers, something difficult to do in her online classes because many students turned their video cameras off. She hopes the relationships she formed will continue after her arrival on campus.

Of all the U of M communities impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, perhaps none experienced the displacement and uncertainty as keenly as the approximately 6,000 international students who arrive on campus each fall. (For comparison, the entering fall 2021-22 freshmen class numbers 7,500.)

And according to the Institute of International Education, the U of M has ranked in the top 25 among colleges and universities in the number of international students it attracts for four of the past six academic years.

In a normal year, these international students contend not just with the bureaucracy of visa applications and international travel, but also culture shock, varying levels of English proficiency, and sometimes, a sense of displacement that comes from feeling like an outsider.

Those challenges only intensified in March 2020, when the U of M switched to remote learning. While the University allowed international students to remain in their dorms—and an estimated 130 chose to do so (55 of them were freshmen)—others returned to their home countries and switched to online classes, complicated in a number of cases by being in a different time zone.

A survey study commissioned by the U of M’s International Student and Scholar Services and the Minnesota English Language Program found that international undergraduate students said they were satisfied with their online experience— recorded and closed captioned-lectures turned out to be an unexpected bonus for non-native English speakers because they could review the lectures and also rely on written prompts, as opposed to deciphering accents they may not have understood. But students also struggled to feel connected to their classmates. Some who returned to their home countries reported sleep challenges and trouble keeping track of class schedules and deadlines because their classes occurred in the middle of the night to match Minnesota’s Central Time Zone. Still others said it was hard to stay academically focused and motivated when they weren’t able to be in a physical classroom.

Today, hopes are high that in-person classes and the on-campus experience will alleviate those problems

Fran Liu

Growing up in Beijing, Fran Liu (B.A. ’12, left) remembers her mother returning home from a business trip to America and telling her about hosting a training program at the University of Minnesota. “As a 12-year-old girl, I knew about New York and San Francisco, but Minnesota was a unique pronunciation [challenge],” she recalls with a laugh. “She told me a lot of names, like Minnehaha, Minnetonka, Minneapolis—[and] I thought, Someday, I’m going to go there.” When it came time for college, Liu started at St. Cloud State University and then transferred to the U of M to study journalism.

Today, Liu is the director of the University’s China Office, based in Beijing. She hosts information sessions and meets with high school students across China and also works on alumni engagement and development. Last year, the China Center hosted 70 Chinese U of M students, allowing them to study and live together as a cohort at a Beijing facility that is normally used to house American students during their study abroad programs.

In mid-summer, Liu remained hopeful all of the Chinese students interested in the U of M-Twin Cities campus would be able to return this fall; China started processing student visas this past May for August travel. But, she added, she had also been fielding calls from some Chinese parents asking if their children could put off travel to the United States for another semester until a higher percentage of the American population is vaccinated. Parents were also concerned about headlines detailing crime rates in Minnesota following the murder of George Floyd and rising incidences of anti-Asian hate crimes across the country in the wake of the pandemic.

In early August, the University was remaining flexible for fall semester, monitoring coronavirus variants and offering a gap semester or year for students having challenges with their paperwork. For students who couldn’t make it to Minnesota but still wanted to begin their studies, the U of M offers asynchronous and online courses. And every international student will be able to get a U.S. approved vaccine when they arrive if they choose.

“These students are so resilient,” says Beth Isensee (M.A. ’07), assistant director of student engagement and intercultural initiatives at International Student and Scholar Services. “They are traveling across the world during a pandemic because they feel so strongly about their academic goals and to have this intercultural experience.”

Administrators say that having a strong international student community benefits the University in many ways. “International students coming to campus bring a little bit of the world to us,” says Jenny Mealey (M.A. ‘03), the associate director of international admissions. “They are part of that diverse community of perspectives and viewpoints that we value because we are an educational institution.”

Aimee Thostenson

Visa Challenges Delay Returns for Some

Although Minnesota had largely reopened by early August as the state’s vaccination rate hovered close to 70 percent of residents 16 and over who had received at least one shot, many countries throughout the world remain mired in crisis because of Covid-19. In addition, future developments remain unknown as deeply concerning variants, such as delta, bring new challenges.

International students had to navigate that tricky path this summer as they tried to secure visas from their governments in order to travel to the U.S. and Minnesota.

While U of M administrators were optimistic that most sending countries would be able to process student visas in time for fall semester, the situation remained fluid.

“It’s changing every moment so it’s sort of like this big puzzle, especially because we have a double cohort now of students who didn’t get their visas last year, and the students that want to get their visas for this year,” says Aimee Thostenson (M.A. ’06), director of international student recruitment. “So, [you're getting] this huge bottleneck at the embassies.”

Healthy Overall Enrollment After a Difficult Year

According to the University, not only international students are flocking back to campus.

In mid-June, the U of M Board of Regents was told that overall, systemwide confirmations for students coming directly from high school to the U of M jumped roughly 12 percent from the same time last year and were up about 7 percent over the University’s five-year average.

At the campus level, Duluth and Morris both saw notable increases, while the Twin Cities’ total was an all-time high.

However, long-term trends may affect future enrollment numbers. Among these is the anticipated decline in the number of Minnesota high school graduates beginning in approximately six years and going forward.

Projections show that most regions of the United States will experience a decline in high school graduates over the coming decade, including a projected 5 percent decline in the Midwest.

A History of International U of M Students

The University of Minnesota has been welcoming international students to campus almost since its founding in 1851. The first students were typically from Norway, and students from China have studied at the University for more than a century, starting in 1914 when three Chinese students enrolled and played on the school’s championship soccer club.

Today, the most popular sending country for international students to the University remains China, followed by India and South Korea.

According to Aimee Thostenson, director of international student recruitment at the U of M, the top colleges at the U of M for international students are the College of Science and Engineering and the Carlson School of Management.

Further, in the College of Liberal Arts, which attracts roughly 1,800 international students in an average year, the most-chosen majors are psychology, economics, and communications, according to Thostenson.

Read More