Help American children value education as much as international students [Commentary]

UMBC is home to students from more than 100 countries and to thousands of students who are first- and second-generation Americans. I continually think about the experiences and perspectives these students bring to our campus and to Maryland.

One particular exchange stands out in my mind. "If I don't do well in my classes," a Jamaican student told me, "my younger brothers and sisters may not eat. I know I am not just here for myself but for my family."


There is hardship and worry in that statement, but at its center, there is hope. It expresses a profound faith in the power of education, as well as a firm belief that, in America, hard work and perseverance are rewarded.

About 820,000 international students attend U.S. colleges. International students come to the United States seeking to study with world-class faculty and peers from diverse backgrounds, and we benefit tremendously from the brainpower and diverse perspectives they bring.

Many international students return home, but others remain, going on to earn advanced degrees and to work in the United States. Foreign students earn more than half of all engineering, computer science and physics doctorates awarded by American universities, and two-thirds of foreign citizens who receive science and engineering doctorates from American universities stay in the United States. These graduates increase our nation's brainpower, productivity and creativity. A third of U.S. Nobel Prize winners are foreign born. Among engineering and technology companies, a quarter had at least one key founder who was an immigrant, and more than half of those foreign-born entrepreneurs first came to the United States for an education.

A significant number of U.S. college presidents and faculty across disciplines are foreign born. Recent examples range from the presidents of Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland College Park to MIT, Perdue and Cal Tech. Another example, Subra Suresh, president at Carnegie Mellon University, received his bachelor's degree in India before coming to the U.S. to earn his graduate degrees. A former director of the National Science Foundation, he is one of only 16 living Americans with membership in all three National Academies.

About 13 percent of the U.S. population and 14 percent of Marylanders were born outside the United States. Foreign-born people account for 18 percent of the state's workforce, more than a quarter of the state's scientists and 21 percent of health care professionals. Many share a common asset: a belief that America is a land of opportunity.

This sense of what is possible is a powerful force, particularly when combined with self-discipline, perseverance and a sense of urgency about the future. Perhaps we should look more closely at the success of immigrants in order to inspire ourselves, including our children. After all, we're talking about the American story. We're talking about millions of people coming here, through varying circumstances, and one generation dreaming about a better life for the next. Education has been the common denominator for those who have been most successful.

The future of our country depends heavily on all American families and children, including those from challenged communities, developing a sense of hope and confidence in the power of education. Twenty-six years ago, Mark Shriver, son of Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, partnered with UMBC to develop an innovative program to promote resilience in first-time juvenile offenders. The Choice Program continues today as a collaboration between The Shriver Center at UMBC and Maryland's Department of Juvenile Services. It has been so successful at reducing repeat offenses by adjudicated youth that the state has continued to provide funding for almost three decades.

When my colleagues and I think about the Choice Program, we think about talented young people who are not aware of their opportunities or what it will take to achieve their dreams. Before joining the program, many of these students have never gone farther from their homes than their schools. When they come to campus, they begin to see possibilities. Nothing is more moving than seeing these students recognize their own potential and the power of determination and hard work.

To be our best as a nation, we must continue to attract the best brainpower from around the world, but we also need a renewed effort to help American children from all backgrounds excel. We want every student and family to have the same sense of urgency as my Jamaican student. Education is just that important.

Freeman Hrabowski is president of UMBC. His email is

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