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About a week ago, Misaki Iwao, 21, boarded a plane in Japan to fly several thousand miles for a crash course in English language and culture. Though the communication culture major studies English at Atomi University in Japan, she came to Longview to refine her skills.

Iwao is one of seven young women taking part in Lower Columbia College’s short-term, cultural immersion program for Atomi University students.

The four-year-old program usually takes place each February. This summer, though, LCC is hosting an additional group of Atomi students so they could attend the Japan America Society of the State of Washington Grassroots Conference in Seattle. Atomi is near Longview’s Japanese sister city, Wako.

LCC’s special effort to accommodate their Japanese visitors this summer fit into a broader push for a larger, more diverse international student population on campus — despite recent challenges for international recruitment caused by the national political climate.

International enrollment at LCC has grown consistently since the college officially established its international programs department in 2012. This fall, LCC will match its all-time high for international students enrollment, with 24 students. Eight of these are new, while the others are returning students.

“This is significant because we also graduated our first batch of students this spring and summer, with eight graduates,” said Marie Boisvert, director of LCC’s international programs.

While the program has seen steady growth, Boisvert noted that it faced challenges with recruitment in 2017. That fall, only one new student enrolled in the program.

“This was a major drop off from fall 2016, when we had eight new incoming students,” Boisvert said. “We do think the election and general downturn of application of international students to the U.S. was part of the anomaly for fall 2017.”

NAFSA: Association of International Educators reported in a May that the United States saw a 3 percent drop in international student enrollment in 2016-17, while other countries dramatically increased international student populations.

“More and more data are rolling out that show how the negative rhetoric and policies from the White House are putting the United States at risk of losing its status as a premier destination for international students and scholars,” according to the association’s blog post.

Boisvert said LCC has not experienced a downturn in applications, but it has seen increased denials for visas. Overall, the college has experienced a “chilling effect” on international students’ enthusiasm about coming to study in the U.S., Boisvert said.

While other countries were “rolling out the welcome mat,” the U.S. was looking less inviting for international students.

“With recruitment it was interesting, because right after (the Trump Administration’s travel ban) started to happen … I was getting asked a lot about this. And there was a lot of speculation going on overseas,” Boisvert said. “There was a lot of uncertainty about exactly what was going on.”

The Atomi program hasn’t been directly impacted by the “chilling effect,” though, and LCC is starting a long-term study abroad program for Japanese students from Atomi University. Instead of visiting Longview for three weeks, like the current program allow, students will attend classes at LCC for multiple terms, Boisvert said.

The structures are already in place, and LCC is “just waiting for the first students who want to sign up for it,” Boisvert said.

But in other areas of recruitment, the college has decided to pull back.

The college had planned to increase recruitment from Nepal, but recently put the country “on hold for active recruitment for the time being,” because obtaining a visa has recently become more challenging for Nepalese students, Boisvert said.

LCC redirected its attention to Southeast Asia, with a specific focus on Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, but no major demographic changes in the international student population at LCC are expected this year.

“It’s all about relationships, and relationships take time and investment. It takes a little time for them to really start bearing out as far as what you would call shifting demographics for students who are here,” Boisvert said.

Currently, LCC’s international population includes students from Kenya, China, Taiwan, Brazil and Saudi Arabia, among other countries.

LCC’s primary recruitment strategy is to market the program to its selected demographics by looking at “what LCC does best,” Boisvert said.

“Because we are small and because we are in a smaller town, we basically tout the fact that you get a lot of personalized attention and support at LCC,” Boisvert said.

For the seven Atomi University visitors, their favorite part of LCC so far was the campus tour led by President Chris Bailey, who gave them special access to some of the college events.

“I saw the volleyball game,” Koma said. “It looked like (the movie) ‘High School Musical.’”

One-on-one interactions with members of their host family also rank high.

“My host family is very kind and very energetic,” said Mizuki Okada, 19, who cooks dinner each night with her host family. “They are taking me camping this weekend. I’m so excited.”

“For us, it’s just everyday things, but for them it’s very special,” said Keiko Pedersen, LCC international program coordinator.

Creating meaningful, cross-cultural connections is a central theme for the entire international program at LCC. Boisvert said she pushes the students to “purposely interact” with other international students and the local community through efforts such as international student lunches and employing students through an on-campus job program.

“The more the connections we can make (the better). We don’t want the students existing in a little bubble. We want them interacting with others,” Boisvert said.

The seven young women from Atomi University have a going away party on Thursday before leaving for the conference in Seattle. There, they will share their experience with American culture with the other Japanese guests and speakers they’ll help chaperone.

“It’s my first time (at the conference). I can’t wait,” said Kurumi Koma, 20.

Despite the excitement, Boisvert said she expects a few tears from the students and their host families during the going away party.

“Last time, some of the young women were saying, ‘I don’t want to go. ... I want to stay in Longview,’ ” Boisvert said.

“That’s the kind of really meaningful connection they end up having,” Boisvert said.

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