RICHLAND CENTER — In Catlin Topel’s Dodge pickup truck sat four Pakistanis. She drove. Bushra Aziz rode in the middle front seat so she could videotape the entire 90-minute drive down Highway 14 from Richland Center to Madison. Impromptu chair dancing broke out as a mix of Pakistani and American tunes played from the speakers.
The five saw “Dracula Untold” in Madison and ate at an Indian restaurant, Topel’s first taste of the cuisine. It was a bit spicy for the farm girl from Cambridge. She mixed leftovers with cheese and tortilla shells.
What may sound like a cultural tour is for them something else: college. They’re all students at UW-Richland, a tiny two-year campus in a rural setting. Topel, studying to teach agriculture to high schoolers, got matched with Aziz as her freshman roommate.
“We don’t think of it as she is from America and I am from Pakistan,” Aziz said. “We are just good friends.”
Topel completed the culinary exchange by cooking the Pakistanis pizza bagels and cinnamon rolls.
For decades, the school has welcomed a large contingent from around the world — at least compared to its peers. They mix with American-born students who hail mostly from surrounding rural communities.
This year, the school hit an international enrollment peak, with 52 foreign students from 20 countries on five continents. Total enrollment is 560. Nationally, the number of international students went up 8 percent last school year over the previous year. Since 2000, foreign enrollment on U.S. campuses has jumped 72 percent, according to a national Open Doors report released last week.
At Richland, the campus is so small that spokeswoman Dorothy Thompson can give a tour of every building that lasts 28 minutes.
“I’ve done it a thousand times,” she said.
Thompson started at Richland in 1985 and has seen the international program grow and change. Early on, she said, the dean made connections that led to an influx of Central American students. The school saw a similar boom in students from Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union. It has continued to reach more countries as school officials established relationships in different parts of the world and connected students with available scholarships. In addition, unlike many two-year schools, it has on-campus housing.
Today, China sends the most students, with 15. South Korea is next with 11. It’s helped that the community has embraced the new arrivals.
“It can be a little insular here,” said Thompson, who’s about halfway to her goal of visiting every country on earth, with many stops to see former students. “It’s kind of a breath of fresh air to have new ideas and new people.”
UW College officials see Richland as a model for growing international enrollment as native-born enrollment dips. The 13 two-year feeder schools had just 40 international students in 2010. This fall enrollment hit 144, led by UW-Richland. They’d like to be up to 500 in a few years, said international education director Tim Urbonya.
“Having those global connections and diversity in our small communities is essential,” he said. “And it generates much-needed non-resident tuition revenue for our campuses.”
Where’s the subway?
No matter the country or the continent they’ve come from, the students all tend to ask the same question when they arrive: Where can we catch public transportation?
“There’s definitely no public transportation, or even taxis,” Mick Cosgrove tells them with a smile.
“Unless you want to ride the garbage truck into town,” said his wife, Robin.
Since 1995, they’ve welcomed 31 students from throughout the world into their farmhouse six miles outside Richland Center. The first, Aki Kusayama, joined them from Tokyo. Now, nearly 20 years later, Aki’s younger brother Nori is staying with them while attending UW-Richland. Their father has established a scholarship for international students at the college.
“It’s brought the world to our house,” said Mick Cosgrove, a financial planner with a local Ameriprise branch.
Only one student, from Azerbaijan, didn’t last. The student was not impressed with the size of his bedroom and left after a day. Three days later the student returned home, they said.
Others have been more gracious. A student from Kazakhstan gave Cosgrove a traditional hat and dagger, placing the hat on his head as a gesture of respect. A former Swiss student now owns a chalet and begs them to visit. A Georgian covers the equivalent of their White House as a journalist. A Ghanaian is now a lawyer.
There have been more funny moments. The Swiss student spilled ink on the bedroom carpet while working on an art project. Without asking, he cut out the stained carpet patch, replacing it with one of equal size he carved out from underneath the bed. The Georgian called 911 when a family friend who looks like a lumberjack stopped by to borrow an amplifier. She assumed him to be a burglar.
They’ve watched with some amazement as the community has embraced the new arrivals, forming a close-knit group of volunteers and host families, and the new arrivals have embraced their small town.
“They learn we aren’t the bad guys, and other classmates aren’t the bad guys,” Robin Cosgrove said. “That’s our goal: How can we change the world from our own home? And they’re going out and changing the world in their own ways.”
Small town suits
Many of the new arrivals come from their national capitals and upon seeing their new digs respond with words like those used by Ahsas Malik Bermudez: “green, farms, not urban.”
Bermudez grew up both in Panama and India, living most recently in New Delhi. He had hoped to get into UW-Madison to study chemical engineering but just missed the cut. He chose UW-Richland partly because it, like all UW Colleges, offers guaranteed transfers to the 13 four-year universities in the UW System.
Moustapha Fane, 18, had a rough first week on campus this fall. He’s from Abidjan, the capital of his native Ivory Coast with a population of 12.8 million. Richland was eerily quiet and foreign, he said.
But as weeks passed he made new friends from abroad and here. He got plenty of time to practice English. He found it comforting that class sizes are small.
“If you’re not a native speaker you should go to a small college,” he said. “Professors know all the students. Any time you have confusion you can just go and ask them.”
Emery Wontor, director of international programs, sends all students a handwritten welcome note from her plus other notes from current international students when they declare they’re coming.
She arranges to have someone waiting at the airport for each arrival. A two-week orientation session gets them started comfortably, she said.
Wontor is from Richland Center and attended the college. She had planned to become a veterinarian but quickly changed course because of friendships she developed with classmates from Korea, Belgium and Ghana.
She moved on to UW-Madison with many of her international classmates, graduating in 2010 with a degree in English and a certification in teaching English as a Second Language.