Harvard Wants You

FM investigates the forces that draw international students to the 02138.

Emma R. Carron

When Majahonkhe M. Shabangu ’14 was picked up from Logan Airport seven months ago, he was hungry. He had been traveling for days, and he couldn’t remember where he ate. He picks up the salt and pepper shakers sitting on the table in front of him—the restaurant was near a structure that resembled them.

—The Charles MGH Bridge?

—Yes.

“I had a sandwich—a bread sandwich.There was bread and chicken and a lot of stuff,” he recalls.  “But then what was interesting was when I said I wanted a sandwich the waiter started to ask me all these questions. ‘What type of bread do you want?’ and I said, ‘You have types of bread?’ You know, we only have one type of bread in my country.”

After finally arriving from Swaziland, Shabangu shared his first meal in the United States with Robin M. Worth ’81, a woman he says knows basically everything about him. As director of international admissions,  Worth’s institutional memory matches her knack for recalling faces and first meetings.

Situated in her office on Brattle Street, Worth sits in front of a Persian tapestry given to her by an Iranian woman class of ’76 now living in the U.K. When asked, she identifies each of a dozen  items on her desk, statuettes and boxes from all over the world, all gifts from former students at the College or contacts she met on the numerous trips she’s made abroad to increase international enrollment.

Over the past 10 years, the percentage of the international Harvard student body has risen from 6.76 to 10.01 percent. Worth is proud of the increase. Harvard was the first school in the Ivy League plus Stanford and MIT to have an African country rank among students’ top ten countries of origin. Since coming to the College as an undergraduate from her native Texas, she remarks that the biggest change in international admits is not in number—which has recently hovered around nine to 10 percent of the undergraduate population—but in the diversity of backgrounds.

“I think that is the whole Internet revolution, that we really have people applying from their neighborhood high school and coming to us. So that for me, from the time I was a student here to now, has been the biggest change,” she says.

But the impact of the Internet is a recent phenomenon, complementing an existing framework. Worth describes international students’ motivation to come to Harvard in a “push me, pull me” context. Drawn by the globally recognized name and the appeal of a uniquely American liberal arts education, and pushed by lack of higher educational opportunities in their home countries, international students come to Harvard under a variety of forces not exerted upon their American peers.

For some international students, Harvard’s unrestricted financial aid has special allure. Applicants from the poorest of backgrounds can come to campus without paying a penny. According to Worth, these students—no matter their educational circumstances at home—are evaluated within the context of their environments.

“One of the hardest things to explain about Harvard admissions is that it’s not a reward for what you’ve done, its sort of an investment in what you will do. Admissions is really about looking forward, not looking backward,” says Worth.

Be that as it may, many international students are both pushed and pulled. They aren’t afforded the luxury of the admissions office’s blinders.

“I’m on financial aid. But here now that’s not really what’s pushing me. What’s pushing me is what’s behind me,” gestures Shabangu, glancing over his shoulder. “It’s what’s back home. It’s what I need to do back there.”

POINT OF ACCESS

For international students who don’t attend international schools or one of the 13 United World Colleges (UWC), ignorance of opportunity is as limiting as geographic distance and financial feasibility. UWCs award two-year scholarships to top students selected to attend by National Committees in nearly 130 countries.

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