By: Benjamin Koslowe  | 

From Near and Far, International Students Flock to YU

There are currently around 140 international undergraduates at Yeshiva University, 57 of whom are non-native English-speakers. According to Ms. Geri Mansdorf, Director of Undergraduate Admissions, this is “a number consistent with the enrollment we have seen over the last few years.” International students have travelled to America to study at YU for many years. Over the past ten years alone, over 500 international students from over 30 countries have attended the undergraduate programs. According to trend charts provided by Rabbi David Pahmer and Ms. Jennifer Golden, the International Student and Scholar Advisor, just under a majority of the international student population consistently hails from Canada. The next-biggest senders are Israel and France at 8% each, and Panama and Morocco at 5% each. Other countries of origin include Chile, El Salvador, Spain, Russia, Belgium, Colombia, Switzerland, and Venezuela, all of which currently have undergraduate students enrolled in YU.

“YU is blessed with dedicated and committed lay leaders,” reported Rabbi Kenneth Brander, Vice President for University and Community Life. “In multiple conversations with one of them we discussed a unique opportunity for admissions to expand its reach through focusing on certain Jewish communities outside of North America. Thanks to a generous grant from this lay leader, Yeshiva will now be able to more actively recruit in previously untapped international markets.” Ms. Mansdorf added that “the grant developed by Rabbi Brander includes a new recruiting initiative for the undergraduate colleges focused on South America, England, and Australia based on the interest of international Jewish communities. The grant gives us the resources to meet prospective students and their families at their schools and synagogues and discuss the opportunities that come with the education and experience at YU.”

“This latest recruitment effort will hopefully yield an increase in our international population,” noted Ms. Norma Silbermintz, the Coordinator of Academic Affairs for International Students. Ms. Silbermintz, who has been working with international students on Wilf Campus for over 30 years as the full-time academic advisor, as well as the ESL (English as a Second Language) instructor for the past eight years, added that the current effort “may warrant the investment of additional funds to aid in these students’ academic, social, and religious acculturation.”

Indeed, part of the recent recruitment efforts involves the addition of Rabbi Ari Solomont to the team. Rabbi Solomont, the new Associate Director of International Admissions and Recruitment, began his current role just this past September. Based in Israel but traveling worldwide, Solomont explained that “my role is to develop the international recruitment process in communities outside North America and work with these same yeshiva high schools, parents, and communities to introduce the benefits of a Yeshiva University education to prospective students.”

“The global community needs more YU graduates,” described Rabbi Solomont regarding what he feels the goal is in reaching out to overseas students. His feeling is that the program can “provide the unique education that only YU can offer to students beyond our traditional markets. If you look at communities across North America and across the globe, you will find YU graduates at the helms of leadership positions and making a difference in the Jewish world and in every industry.” Much of Solomont’s job involves building global partnerships created by the CJF (Center for the Jewish Future), developing meaningful connections with schools and communities, and even meeting personally with students and their communities. In the next few weeks alone, he will be developing such connections on trips to Panama and England. “The best spokespeople for YU,” though, as Solomont noted, “are our current students and alumni and they are capable and willing to lend their enthusiastic voices to the process of introducing YU to their communities. We'll need to reach out to communities and develop a similar admissions process that we have in North America and learn the needs of each country and how we can best serve their academic aspirations.”

“It varies from country to country,” answered Ms. Silbermintz when asked why she thinks non-American individuals decide to spend their college years in Yeshiva University. “In some countries, it's impossible to function as a religious Jew in a university. The political or social climate on some campuses also may not be conducive to an observant life. Many, though, are drawn to the synthesis of Torah and madda that YU represents.” Ms. Golden similarly explained that international students, much like domestic students, are attracted to YU for “top notch Torah learning and a great Jewish environment.” She added that “for many international students, a U.S. education is still considered the ‘gold standard,’ especially at the graduate level. International students also want the experience of living in the U.S. and many believe that a U.S. diploma from an excellent school, such as YU, will give them the upper edge in the job market once they return home.”

“Many international students never had a Jewish experience or haven’t had the chance to go to a Yeshiva,” said Alex Wascher. Wascher, who is from Vienna, Austria, and is currently a Yeshiva College senior majoring in economics and sociology, is the head of the International Student Committee at YU. “Here in YU,” explained Wascher, “international students have the chance to get [a Jewish experience and a yeshiva] and on top a great education that prepares them for their professional endeavors.” Melanie Hes from Chile, who discovered YU on an NCSY trip when she was 16, related similarly that she “chose YU/Stern because it is a small ‘family-like’ Jewish school located in the middle of New York City. It is my last semester in Stern and although I am excited to start a new stage, I am clearly going to miss this place.”

Being an international student is certainly not without its challenges. “These students don't necessarily need ESL instruction,” said Ms. Silbermintz. “Most are mainstreamed into First Year Writing, but they do sometimes experience some challenges in terms of language and background.” Wascher described how in his first few weeks at YU, even though native students were very friendly and outgoing, “I felt a complete culture shock and did not feel well here in the United States. After a couple of weeks this went away and I found my place in YU and feel like I found the perfect fit for me.” Rabbi Solomont also conveyed that “navigating the various language barriers can be challenging, but at the end of the day, we have the collaborate support of Rabbi Brander and the Office of Admissions, who have been working with international applicants for decades. All of our prospective students share a common interest in pursuing an unmatched academic and Jewish experience.”

“All international students are required to be proficient in English to qualify for a student visa,” said Ms. Golden by way of comparing outreach techniques for students who don’t speak English as a first language, with those who do. “English language capability plays less of a factor in how I reach out to students. In fact, I find that Canadian students are often the most difficult to reach because they do not necessarily consider themselves international by definition.” “In my opinion,” she added, “cultural adjustment issues, such as helping students become more comfortable with U.S. teaching styles, fast-paced lectures, living in Manhattan, and understanding U.S. cultural nuances, play a much larger role in shaping international student outreach strategy.”

The goal of the International Student Committee, according to Wascher, “is to give the students a sort of guidance and community. Many are fortunate to have distant family here, but most do not. So we try to make them part of our big community. Also, we try to give the international students a voice and represent them to the best of our abilities.” Of course, the community of international students interacts all the time with the American students. “Students are very helpful to us,” expressed Wascher, “and are positively intrigued by having us around. It is great to see when they build friendships and become one of them, almost.”

“The international students are fortunate to be part of multiple communities,” remarked Ms. Silbermintz. “Unlike the domestic students, the international students are not coming with a chevra of camp and yeshiva friends. They do, however, form mutually supportive groups on the basis of country of origin and native language. The international undergrads as a whole are a wonderful group. Whether a student is from Panama or Morocco, all international students face similar challenges in terms of language and acculturation, and they often serve as resources for one another. After the first one or two semesters, the international students are able to intermingle quite well with the domestic students. At a certain point, the college experience becomes less of an issue of where you are coming from and more of an issue of where you are headed; a pre-med student from Paris and another pre-med student from Chicago have a great deal in common!”

“International students need to continue to feel valued for the unique perspectives they bring to campus and the community,” offered Ms. Golden. “Student Life is very committed to these ideals.” Inversely, Ms. Silbermintz commented that “inasmuch as internationals benefit from YU, without a doubt, the YU community benefits from having the international students who contribute a wonderful diversity in terms of language, culture, history, and minhag. Having these students as part of the YU community brings that diversity out of the textbook and into the classroom.”

“It has been one of my greatest privileges in life,” mentioned Rabbi Solomont, “being part of a team that introduced non-yeshiva high school students to YU. I've been able to play a small role in the admission of several exceptional students who may have otherwise never considered attending YU. I have subsequently watched these students build inspiring Jewish lives and become role models for others. It is without a doubt that many students that I'll meet during my travels will never believe at first that a YU education is possible. I hope to slowly change that paradigm and welcome these students to YU.”

The only concern for Wascher is that “it is hard when YU goes through the financial troubles and has to reduce the resources. It is a tough time for the University right now and we can just feel that. I’m just hoping and waiting for the time that it gets better again.” But his overall sentiment about YU and its environment for the international community is ultimately optimistic. “The University really is doing a lot for us and is helpful on many different levels.”

“I hope that YU continues to actively work to attract students from around the globe,” concluded Ms. Golden. “This is precisely the purpose of this new initiative. International students are able to bring a fresh perspective to the classroom and hopefully become advocates for both YU and the United States once they graduate and return home.”