In summer 2020, a few months after the pandemic took hold of the country, Tomoko Miwa, 43, began to realize she wasn’t going to be able to travel to see her family, perhaps for quite a while. It was painful to think about not getting to share a meal with her mother and father, both in their 70s, something she’d planned to do at least once a year while studying abroad.

Miwa, who grew up in Nagoya, Japan, came to Colorado in 2018 to pursue a doctoral degree in clinical psychology at the University of Denver. She’d earned a graduate degree in the same field in Japan, but the schools in her home country didn’t offer the equivalent of the next step up. A mentor with whom Miwa had worked in Japan after graduation had a connection at DU and suggested Miwa look into the school. Miwa hesitated at first. In a way, she’d done this once before—and it hadn’t worked out the way she’d planned.

Miwa’s mother always encouraged her daughter to pursue a good education. “Despite the culture when I was born that girls should be cute or pretty, my mom cared for none of that,” Miwa says. “She told me, ‘You grow up and learn things; be someone who does something in this world.’ ” So, when it came time for Miwa to think about college, her mother cut her a deal: If she could figure out how to apply to schools on her own in English and was accepted somewhere, her parents would pay her way.

Miwa ended up studying psychology as an undergraduate international student at San Francisco State University. But finding a way to stay in the United States for on-the-job training after graduation became a problem on September 11, 2001. She couldn’t get a visa. “All the attention went to student visas being dangerous,” Miwa says. “I was told I had to leave in 60 days.”

More than two decades later, Miwa is once again an international student struggling with a significant global incident. “As a Japanese person, New Year’s is like Christmas with your family,” Miwa says. “I haven’t gone back for two years now. It’s been rough.” Miwa’s mother and her cousin tried to send her some comfort from home, mailing her care boxes with Japanese junk food items. “Thank God we have Zoom and FaceTime, and I get to talk to them,” Miwa says. “But it’s different being there. I think that’s true for a lot of international students.”

During the past two years, recruiting new international students and supporting those already on campus, many of whom have had little hope of traveling to see their families, has been a significant challenge for American universities. Students were either stuck on campus or, if they were able to find a way to get home, they left knowing they might not be able to come back. Those uncertainties, along with others in recent years, have affected prospective international students’ desires to get an education in the United States. According to a recent report released by the Institute of International Education, total international student enrollment in the United States was down 15 percent in 2020-’21 compared with the previous year, dipping below a million total for the first time in almost a decade. New international student enrollment, which began to crater during former President Donald Trump’s administration, dropped by almost 50 percent in 2020-’21 compared with 2019-’20.

Higher education in the Centennial State hasn’t been spared the recent downturn. International enrollment at the University of Colorado Boulder, for example, peaked in 2017 at 3,135 students, including undergraduate, graduate, and non-degree-seeking students. This school year, the total is 2,348. The same trend is true at Colorado State University, where the number of international students also crested in 2017, at 2,146. Kathleen Fairfax, vice provost for international affairs at CSU, explains the initial drop was due in part to politics. “When Trump became president, there was so much negative rhetoric about whether these students were welcome,” she says. “Suddenly, it became much more difficult to attract them.” Other countries took notice. Canada and Australia, in particular, saw huge growth in international enrollment during the Trump administration. “We were afraid the United States was going to permanently lose market share,” Fairfax says. Before schools could get a handle on that situation, however, the pandemic hit and made everything more complicated.

The declining numbers, Fairfax says, are compounded by the fact that many schools, including CSU, just graduated their largest-ever classes of international students—the 2016-’17 group that entered during the last year of former President Barack Obama’s administration—and replaced those students with a class, in some cases, half the size. “We got hit with a double whammy,” Fairfax says. She notes that the United States hasn’t been portrayed particularly well internationally in how it’s handled the pandemic. In addition to selling the university, Fairfax and her team have had to talk to prospective students about whether they’d be safe from a public health standpoint. Fairfax says this was a challenge with undergrads, in particular, because those students are younger and perhaps not as comfortable moving away from home during a pandemic. All these factors have forced CSU to rethink how it recruits overseas students to Fort Collins. “There’s still a lot of value placed on U.S. higher education and the doors it can open, not only here but back home,” she says. “We just have to change our strategy some.”

Unsurprisingly, mixing up the school’s approach meant implementing more digital tactics. CSU got creative in 2020 when it was forced to conduct its fall classes online, enrolling international graduate and undergraduate students from their home countries, something the school hadn’t been able to do before because courses were only offered in person. It was a relatively small group, but many of those students developed a good enough feeling about CSU virtually that they decided to make the move to campus this year. Furthermore, Fairfax says the pandemic has made it more palatable for prospective students and their families to “visit” a school over Zoom—another example of something long thought to be an in-person-only activity that the pandemic has shown can be accomplished remotely.

Whether it’s using new digital strategies or relying on more traditional draws—like the mountains west of town, the restaurants and coffee shops downtown, and the school’s academic offerings—to attract international students, CSU is trying not only to recover from the enrollment declines of the past few years but also to grow this population overall. Fairfax has a personal goal of having 10 percent of the student body composed of Rams from outside the United States (it’s about five percent now)—a target that underscores just how critical international students are to college campuses.

When talking up the importance of these students—to administrators, donors, politicians—Fairfax usually highlights three main points. One is financial. “No doubt about it,” she says. International students pay out-of-state tuition and are not eligible for U.S. financial aid. In other words, they pay the full amount at top dollar. “The net revenue is huge, and it has a positive impact on the economy,” she says. International students contributed more than $290 million to the Colorado economy last year, according to statistics released by Open Doors, which is funded by the U.S. Department of State. Plus, Fairfax says, they’re often good students. The second piece is all about cultural diversity. CSU pulls students from more than 100 countries; these students then become a meaningful part of the community in Fort Collins. “It makes it a lot more interesting place for everyone,” Fairfax says. She also notes the benefit for domestic students who plan to enter a business world that is increasingly global.

The last thing Fairfax likes to emphasize is something she says is often misunderstood by those who think international students take away spots from local kids. In many cases, the opposite is true. A healthy international student population makes it possible to fund some of the more specialized graduate programs, notably in engineering and science. “Many of these programs simply wouldn’t exist without international students,” Fairfax says. “We couldn’t offer them.”

Even before the pandemic, the chancellor’s office at the University of Denver had convened a task force to examine how to better manage international student enrollment following decreases in numbers during the Trump administration. One takeaway, according to Uttiyo Raychaudhuri, DU’s vice provost for internationalization, was to focus more on supporting the students who were already on campus. “Recruitment doesn’t happen in isolation from brand identity,” Raychaudhuri says. “How do we treat the students who are here so they go on to become alumni and share the story about what the value of DU is?” He says those students tend to evangelize Colorado the same way just about everyone else does, talking up the plentiful sunshine and world-class outdoor recreation, and if they feel well-treated by their schools, they often nudge other international students to attend.

David Wright agrees. In fact, the assistant vice president of global education at the Colorado School of Mines explains that Mines has had a word-of-mouth-driven pipeline of high-quality students for more than 100 years. “I think it’s safe to say that Mines doesn’t actively recruit international students,” he says. That pipeline is so solid that Mines only saw a tiny slump in international enrollment during the past few years. “I’ve often thought that Mines is more well-known abroad than here in the United States,” Wright says. “We benefit from incredible recognition around the world.” The school does, however, cultivate a welcoming atmosphere for these students once they arrive on campus. Mines has an active group of international student associations that support their members. For example, they host a festival each year called I-Day, a sort of world bazaar. Although in 2020 the school had to cancel the event, at which students cook dishes from their home countries and share musical and dance performances, I-Day returned in November 2021.

At DU, Miwa has tried to help support her fellow international students throughout the pandemic. When the Trump administration blamed China for the spread of the virus, Miwa organized a student group called We’re Not Viruses, which turned into Asians in Colorado. It’s still going today; they meet about once a quarter. For her part, Miwa is hoping this will be the year she finally gets to go see her parents. She wants to tell her family in person how much their support of her education has meant over the years. Says Miwa: “They gave me the strength to go on.”