Academics & Globalization

A close-up look at the benefits of international students at Florida universities, from multiculturalism to economic impact.

Luis Aparicio, Salvadoran Diplomat, greeting former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington, D.C.

“UCF gave me the building blocks for the career that I have now after 30 years,” says Luis Aparicio, counselor for political Affairs at the Embassy of El Salvador in Washington, D.C.

He recounted his years in Central Florida fondly and the networking and mentoring relationships formed there, including that of his former political science professor and mentor at the University of Central Florida, Dr. Waltraud (Trudi) Morales. And like many international students that come to school in Florida, Aparicio came because he had family living in Orlando.

“I arrived in 1980 to Central Florida. I attended Valencia (Community) College first for two years and then transferred to UCF where I majored in journalism with an emphasis in public relations,” said Aparicio. “I couldn’t study journalism in my country because the national university was shut down by the military.

“It was such a blessing, to have the school radio station and the library with its reservoir of resources,” said Aparicio. As president of the International Student Organization, he was involved with a number of different speakers brought to campus. One vivid memory was that of picking up former Prime Minister of Jamaica Michael Manley from the airport. “We had the campus police escort Mr. Manley and it reminded me of the political conditions in my country at that time.”

Hispanic Heritage Parade
UCF annual Hispanic Heritage Parade

The number of foreign students studying in the United States and Florida continues to grow. Florida ranks seventh in the nation for the number of international students. Delivering a profound economic impact, there is so much more occurring when young people from different countries and cultures come together in the classroom and the campus.

“It’s really quite amazing that we have all these cultures here and everyone seems to pretty much get along in unison,” said Magnus Mootoo, a native of Trinidad and Tobago and a senior at Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, where he is studying ocean engineering.

Florida Tech, based on student population, is the most multicultural university in the state. Its international student body has grown 53 percent since 2009. Of the college’s 4,478 total enrollment, 1,462 of those students are international, accounting for nearly 33 percent.

U.S. News & World Report recognized Florida Tech as the No. 2 National University in the country for fostering international student experiences. Mootoo enthusiastically agrees. “It’s really unique that we have a school here in Florida that has cultures from all over. It’s so diverse and we have something called the International Festival in the spring semester … Students come in, display their food, their clothing and perform songs and dance. They have plays and teach you about their cultures.

catanese“Students speak five and six different languages, it’s not uncommon to see that,” said Mootoo.

Dr. Anthony J. Catanese, president and CEO of Florida Institute of Technology, is proud of his school’s multiculturalism. “As one of our students said in another A-list accolade we received, this one in the 2015 Fiske Guide to Colleges, attending Florida Tech is like traveling the world in four years. And what will be more desirable in the workplaces these students are preparing for? Someone who is versed in the interactions of the world’s citizens, as our students are, or someone who has spent the last four years surrounded by homogeneity, in and out of the classroom?

“So when a Florida Tech student interacts with another student from one of the 112 countries we have represented here right now, when he meets with a professor who is informed by a global perspective, when he dines at one of our International Dinner Series events highlighting authentic cuisines from eight different international regions, we are developing a person who will be equipped for what is coming, academically, socially and beyond,” said Catanese.


The benefit of international students coming to Florida has a ripple effect. Frequently family members and friends will visit the student and voilà — the university’s metro area is officially on display to an increasing global audience.

Many students who spoke with FORWARD FLORIDA mentioned the word of mouth factor with friends and family in their home countries. And several of them chose Florida because of their own visits to the Sunshine State.

“I also have family who lives nearby in Florida, in Cocoa and also Fort Lauderdale and Miami. I’ve been here a lot of times before my university studies, so I was pretty familiar with the area. Trinidad is only a 3-hour flight away and I visited regularly. So I was very familiar with the customs and such,” said Mootoo.

Global students can lead to families buying real estate in Florida, relocating here and ultimately working and starting businesses here. Then there’s the full-price tuition foreign students pay. Colleges and universities reap significant financial benefits from their attendance.

The Brookings Institute conducted the first-ever study of the economic impact upon 118 metro areas in the United States and the results were impressive. Palm Bay (Florida Tech) was a highly ranked metro for STEM. Foreign students spent $538.7 million on living expenses and $907 million on tuition between 2008 and 2012.

The most foreign students are coming from countries whose economies are on the rise.China currently sends the most students to the United States, followed by India.

According to 2013 data from Open Doors, there was an increase in foreign students studying in the United States for the seventh consecutive year. The number of international students enrolled in U.S. higher education increased by 7 percent to 819,644 students in 2012 to 2013, with 55,000 more students than last year enrolled in colleges and universities across the country. There are now 40 percent more international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities than a decade ago.

The growth is largely driven by students from China, particularly at the undergraduate level. Chinese student enrollments increased by 21 percent to almost 235,000 students. That included an increase of 26 percent undergraduates.

“Because of the development of the economy, many more Chinese families can afford to give money for their kids to study in western countries,” said Xiongwei Cao, doctoral student in UCF’s inaugural Security Studies program. Cao is from Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang Province in Eastern China, located between Shanghai and Ningbo. He received his master’s degree in political science from UCF in 2009.

Xiongwei Cao and Chen Cai, graduate students at UCF. China has the most students studying in the United States and represents the most international students at UCF, USF and UF. PHOTO BY DANIELLE TAUFER

“When I first came to Florida, I really started to love this city [Orlando] very quickly. People here are very nice, the weather is great, not cold, and everything is so interesting. I’ve been living in foreign countries before, but I felt so at home here. That’s the most important reason that I decided to pursue my Ph.D. degree again at UCF,” said Cao.

Cao arrived at UCF originally through a cooperative program with the university and the Chinese National People’s Congress, where he had worked. “Many of my colleagues have studied here, and I also have the honor and the pleasure to study here.

“There’s a little bit of a language barrier for me. I think students pursuing degrees of arts — such as philosophy, history, political science or economics — the language is trickier. I’ve got a lot of Chinese friends who are studying here too. For those who are in computer science, in those technological fields, maybe they had an easier time with the language than I did,” said Cao.

STEM fields have more universal language skills required. “I think Chinese students have an advantage of good mathematics and better training, I would say in general than American students. There’s some data showing that Chinese students got higher scores, especially in the GRE on the mathematics part.”

And while Chinese students are studying abroad, there is competition. The majority of Chinese students in the United States are studying in New York. It’s no surprise that globally recognized metropolitan or state “brands” are garnering the attention of students.


“If you want you can use the quirky line — location, location, location. If you read articles about countries trying to attract international students, they talk about making their brand known. And Florida and especially Orlando has the advantage in part because the brand is already known for other reasons and then you can just bridge that into educational opportunities,” said Dr. Waltraud Morales, professor of political science at UCF.


Another educator discussed Florida’s competition being fierce with Texas, California and Indiana. And of course, when it comes to international education pursuits, the Big Apple lives up to its name.

“When you talk about students being in New York City, particularly NYU, that’s another major glittering city with global awareness,” said Morales.

In an attempt to compete with other states, there is a growing movement to work together. One example is Study Florida — the working name of an organization that is just now taking shape. It’s a Florida coalition intended to use joint marketing and share resources to bring international students to campuses. It will work in collaboration with the Florida Consortium for International Education (FCIE).

Another selling point for Florida is the 2+2 matriculation agreement, which guarantees entry into a state university upon graduation from a state college/community college. “You’re guaranteed admission into one of the 12 state universities, so we’re selling a pathway,” said Dr. David Moore, executive committee member of the FCIE.

A success story to illustrate this is the Salvadoran career diplomat Aparicio, who received his associate degree from Valencia (Community) College and then transferred to UCF. “I could not afford UCF from the very beginning and the community college, I believe, is a great way to get kids started in the academic world,” he said.

The state passed a ceremonious International Education Policy Resolution HR 9033 on April 28, 2008, designating Nov. 17-21 as International Education Week in Florida. International Education Week is a joint initiative of the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Education to promote programs that prepare Americans for a global environment and attract future leaders from abroad to study, learn, and exchange experiences in the United States.

Currently 23 states participate. Universities throughout Florida take part in events and celebrations of their international student cultures.

“In the world’s consciousness, I really do believe in the kind of spider plant analogy. How the spider plant branches out. I think when a colony or a small group of students from a particular part of the world organize themselves and settle in a particular place, I think it becomes a link for other students to follow,” said Morales.

Economic development seeds falling straight from the apple tree.

World View of Security


New PH.D. in Security Studies at UCF

Given today’s ever-changing global climate, recent Ebola epidemic and terrorism threats, the University of Central Florida is offering the only program in the state, and one of a few in the country, broadly focused on security. The three-year Ph.D. program trains students for careers in national security, international affairs, world politics and transnational issues.

The program is offered through the political science department and the first class will graduate in 2016.

“This is a very diversified program. People are coming from different places. For example, our first cohort — there’s someone from the Defense Ministry, someone from the Navy, a former faculty member of UCF, and two international students — myself and a student from Brazil,” said Xiongwei Cao, a Chinese doctoral student in the program.

He added, “In the second year we attracted someone from the National Security Council.”

The Ebola epidemic and ongoing crises in the Middle East reinforce the need for such a program. The curriculum includes courses on a range of security-related subjects, such as environmental security, peace studies and international drug policy. It also features coursework on genocide, poverty and inequality, AIDS, cause of war and peace, scientific study of war, causes of terrorism, psychology of international security and national security space policy.


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for political science research is growing due to increasing interest in politics and foreign affairs. Political scientists will use their knowledge of political institutions to further the interests of nonprofit, political lobbying and social and civic organizations.

Agencies such as the CIA, list multiple employment opportunities suited for graduates of this program. In addition, the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security would be prime employers for Security Studies graduates. And the state of Florida requires people with advanced security studies training for employers that include U.S. Central Command, U.S. Southern Command and other military installations, the Kennedy Space Center, aerospace and industries tied to international business concerns.

The program is a natural fit for UCF as the defense industry in Central Florida produces a $52 billion economic impact on the state.

In other related news, the university was awarded a $1.85 million grant to establish a center focused on intelligence and national security within the political science department. UCF will be among a few universities nationwide to house an Intelligence Community Center of Academic Excellence. The grant from the Defense Intelligence Agency is the largest ever received by political science at UCF.



Minnesota born and bred Jason Christensen, a 22-year-old doctoral student in the Security Studies program at UCF, is a great example of internationalization in education. He has studied in 15 countries in the past three years and is enthusiastic in his advice to American students to study abroad.

“International travel and cultural immersion brought me knowledge that I could never get from a textbook. If you choose an optimistic and dauntless approach to life and academia, your curiosity will lead to new perspectives and a more informed world view,” said Christensen.

He is currently with BMG Models in Miami, and while he views modeling as a great addition to his life, it is not his focus.

His close-up will come when he walks onstage at UCF in 2017 to receive his doctorate.