ECU International Faculty Population Sees Growth
By Christine Neff
This summer, Rhonda Brown, immigration specialist for East Carolina University, knew she had been busier than usual obtaining visas and organizing immigration documents.
But she didn’t know how much busier until she tallied up her list of faculty and staff members from foreign countries.
“103,” she said. “That’s a record.”
In recent years, ECU has seen continued growth in its international faculty population, and the campus community has benefited from the world of experiences and perspectives this group brings with it.
“From my perspective, having you with us enriches our faculty in so many ways,” Marilyn Sheerer, interim provost and vice chancellor for Student Life, told a recent gathering of international faculty.
“You bring to us your different perspectives and give our students such a wonderful opportunity to learn something about you and where you’re from, as well as your area of study and research,” she said.
Brown assists those faculty members and staff who require non-immigrant visas to live and work in the United States. These individuals are hired through the normal recruitment process for academic and research positions, both tenure track and fixed-term.
Brown has seen an increase in the number of international hires at ECU since she started working with the group in 1992. “When I first started, the east campus had very few departments that were hiring internationally,” she said. “That has changed within the last five years.” Now, she said, nearly all academic departments on campus have international members.
Just this semester, 32 non-immigrant, international scholars joined ECU’s faculty. Together with returning international faculty, a group more than 100-strong, they represent 30 different countries, from Bulgaria to Belize, Pakistan to the Philippines.
James Gehlhar, associate vice chancellor for International Affairs, expects this growth to continue as more foreigners complete doctoral degree programs. “As a research university, we really rely on international faculty,” he said. “They bring diversity to campus, and they bring skills we can’t always find in the U.S.”
They enrich the campus and greater community in other ways, too, he said. Their families diversify the Greenville area; their children attend area schools where they teach others about their culture. And, they enhance their academic departments’ research opportunities, Gehlhar said.
“Scholars like these inspire our faculty to collaborate on new projects and think about things in new ways,” he said.
Michael Dingfelder, assistant professor of physics, knows the importance of collaboration. In his field, he said, research nearly always involves colleagues in other countries. “All collaboration is international now. It’s the only way to survive,” he said.
A native of Germany, Dingfelder came to ECU six years ago from Barcelona, Spain. Moving from a European city to rural North Carolina proved to be a “pretty big shock,” he said, but he has enjoyed his time here.
He is a member of the International Faculty and Staff Committee and helps students in the German and Spanish clubs with their language skills. And, he has found compatriots far from home: two of his colleagues have German wives.
Lakshmi Narasimhan, a new member of the computer science faculty, came to ECU from Australia for the research opportunities available in the United States. His field of software engineering “calls for diversity” among scholars, he said.
“This field is applicable all over the world, in all types of ways. A rich diversity among researchers further promotes it,” he said.
Narasimhan said a diverse student population is beneficial, too. More than 200 international students attend ECU this semester. In one of Narasimhan’s recent classes, a student from Korea provided insight into a Korean-based cell phone technology. “The learning experience was enhanced for me, as well as my students,” Narasimhan said.
ECU will celebrate its international faculty, staff and students during International Education Week, Nov. 17 to 21. Activities include information sessions on study abroad and Fulbright scholar programs, activities for area elementary school teachers and social events.