Yi Li ’16 is a blur, juggling classes, mentoring new international students, producing the sophomore class newsletter she founded, attending Oldenborg Center language tables. The second-year student from China has also served this year as sophomore class president and treasurer of the five-college Chinese Drama Society and is helping to produce a website and an informational video for the International Student Mentoring Program. Over winter break, she interned with the Bank of China in her hometown, met with students at her Nanjing high school, and held an event for a startup company she and some fellow international students are forming to assist other Chinese students interested in studying in the U.S. “I’m a ‘yes’ type of person,” says Yi. “I always say ‘yes’ to new opportunities and challenges.”
Yi is one of about 50 Pomona students from China, the largest, fastest-growing group of international students on campus. Since Pomona’s first international recruiting trip in 2006, the College has seen applications from Chinese nationals grow from 24 to 250. Pomona has also seen fourfold increases in applicants from Korea and India.
The growing presence of students from India came even though Pomona admissions only recently made its first trip to the country. “We had never visited there and had not attempted to build relationships with schools or even tried to figure the country out,” says Seth Allen, Pomona’s vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid. But, he notes, “Having an international dimension is important today in the modern educational setting. The Board of Trustees has charged us to seek out, identify and enroll the very best intellects and best purveyors of talent among young people in the world.”
International enrollment comes in waves. At one point, for instance, Bulgaria was sending a disproportionate number of stu dents to the U.S. Then it joined the European Union and had easier access to other European institutions, and numbers declined.
In addition to building a greater presence in India, Pomona has made recruiting in Europe a priority and started reaching out to Africa and Latin America as well. Sammy Kiprono Bor is a second-year student from rural Kenya who says he was drawn to Pomona’s small-school dynamics and liberal arts approach. And, yes, by the location, too. He had applied to schools in Maine and Connecticut, but “snow seemed scary,” he says.
Robert Langat is also a sophomore from Kenya who was identified by a program seeking promising students to study in the U.S. In Kenya, he was accustomed to an educational system “where the teacher does all the talking and students take in everything.” His first few weeks in Claremont, he struggled through the required freshman seminar class—reading, writing, class participation—before adjusting to the demands of an American liberal arts college.
Both Robert, who is considering majoring in mathematical economics, and chemistry major Sammy cite financial aid as a big factor in bringing them to Pomona. So does Lazaros Chalkias, a sophomore from Greece majoring in molecular biology. Lazaros also found the consortium of the seven Claremont Colleges appealing, but only after arriving on campus did he discover how deep his involvement in the 7Cs would be—as a member of the consortium’s seven-time national champion Ballroom Dance Company. “It’s the best way the colleges come together,” he says.
Sagehens from abroad universally laud International Place, which supports the foreign communities on all of the Claremont campuses, and Pomona’s International Student Mentor Program, under which students guide new arrivals from overseas through tasks such as opening bank accounts, understanding cell phone plans, tackling homesickness and the rigor of studying at Pomona or helping them get off campus to explore Planet California.
Nick Eng, a junior economics major from Singapore, is giving back to the ISMP by being a mentor himself, even reaching out to students who are just considering applying to Pomona. “The Admissions Office passes on emails to us,” Nick says. “In a small college, culture and fit is so important,” so he tries to explain to prospective applicants what to expect at Pomona and the broader 7C community.
At Pomona, Lazaros says he found “limitless possibilities and people who care and want to work with you.” At the same time he feels that many students from abroad don’t take advantage of the opportunities here, something he’s noticed as commissioner for clubs and organizations in Pomona’s student government. the College has room for improvement, he says, in teaching international students about campus life and values, as well as writing term papers, something many internationals face for the first time after enrolling.
Other international students agree that the College could do more to ease their assimilation—Robert and Sammy felt trapped in their dorm rooms over the five-week winter holiday freshman year when dining halls were closed (they say with smiles that they’ve figured it out now). Yi Li, despite attending a foreign language high school in China and speaking superb English, was confused at first by some expressions she heard. “When I came here people were greeting with, ‘What’s up?’ and I didn’t know how to respond; I had learned ‘How are you?’ in China,” she recalls. “I would really have appreciated it if someone had taught me more about American culture, even if it was just daily slang, or how people interact with each other, or the drinking and party culture, or the academics: you have to speak up in class, that’s really important.”
Pomona continues to expand international recruiting, with an increased focus on Latin America and Africa, even as it becomes ever more selective. Pomona admitted 29.5 percent of 3,804 applicants in 2000, but only 13.9 percent of the 7,153 who applied last year.
“If we are not proactive in performing our own outreach in other parts of the world it would be very easy to have an international population that was solely from Asia, simply because of the interest and the sheer volume of applications,” says Allen, who before coming to Pomona in 2011 was dean of admissions and financial aid at Grinnell College in Iowa, which receives some 400 applications from China a year because of its early start on international recruitment. “So we are going out of our way to ensure there is even more variety of students coming to Pomona from outside of the U.S.”
Nevertheless administrators—and professors—say they are often astounded by the number of high-caliber students from Asia, obliging the Admissions Committee to delve into recommendations and extracurricular activities. “We look for cues that tell us this is someone who has multiple interests, is open to learning through class discussions, can contribute to conversations in the academic realm, and would be a good fit as a mentee or advisee for a faculty member,” Allen says. Often admissions officers rely on students they’ve met and have been able to assess in terms of quickness of mind and ability to articulate ideas. “Because of the strength of the applicant pool from China we can be choosy in setting the criteria very high.”
Financial aid can be the deciding factor. While Pomona does not conduct need-blind admissions for international students, funding for them has been significantly increased in recent years, and the College looks for about a 50–50 balance of international students who need and do not need financial assistance. For her part, Yi Li is focused on making every day at Pomona count. Even on winter break she was drumming up funding and clients in China for Succeed America, the startup she is co-founding. She garnered 600 subscribers to the startup’s microblog in two weeks.
Today she’s back to her studies and almost in awe that she was elected to Pomona’s student senate, on which two other international students serve. “That’s pretty amazing because if I were at a larger school I couldn’t really imagine American people would vote for me as an international and female student from China,” she says. “But at Pomona, that happened.”