A record number of international students are attending U.S. colleges and universities. And Otterbein University would like to count more of them on its rolls.

A record number of international students are attending U.S. colleges and universities. And Otterbein University would like to count more of them on its rolls.

But how does a small, private liberal arts school in Westerville, Ohio, compete with well-known names in sexy locations such as New York University or the University of Southern California that draw large international numbers?

To make their case, Otterbein officials say the pitch rests on a few key factors: personalized learning with accessible professors in small classes, on a campus where diversity dates to its founding more than a century and a half ago.

The face behind the university's stepped-up recruiting effort is Alyssa Libby, who was hired last year as senior assistant director of international recruitment for the Office of International Admission. The Cleveland native earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from Ohio Wesleyan University and master's degrees in education from Loyola College in Maryland and Kent State University. She joined Otterbein in May 2015 from Ohio State University, where she was program coordinator for international admissions.

Libby knows the competition is stiff. With stronger emphases on diversity and teaching skills for a global workforce, institutions of higher learning are creating environments where students can learn how they fit into the world's larger cultural, political, religious and social contexts.

"If you're a university in today's world, you need to be a global university," Libby says. "One of the most important things you can do for your university is to provide diversity in your student population -- students who are different than you in their culture, religion, sexual orientation."

Building sensitivity toward and appreciation for other cultures and viewpoints helps students develop tools they need to succeed in today's world, she says.

Today, record numbers of international students are traveling abroad for college. In its 2015 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, the Institute of International Education reports that nearly 975,000 undergraduate and graduate students from other countries came to the U.S. for the 2014-15 academic year. That's a 10 percent jump from the previous year and the highest growth rate in 35 years.

The growth is spread across 44 states, with Ohio having one of the fastest-climbing rates, at 10 percent. It's among five of the top 10 host states that experienced double-digit growth.

Recruiting Reach

Otterbein has a track record of hosting international students, albeit for shorter terms. Otterbein Semester provides a one- to two-semester experience for those who want to temporarily study and live in the U.S. The program is designed so academic work here transfers back to students' home schools, keeping them on track to graduate.

Visiting students are immersed in campus life as they live, socialize and attend class with their American counterparts. The school's English as a Second Language program helps bridge communication barriers. And they are exposed to social and cultural events through Otterbein's International Students Support Services office.

Otterbein Semester has provided "a pretty strong international presence on campus," Libby says. "That's been very successful. We've had many different relationships with international students."

University officials wanted to strengthen that presence with a larger, more consistent international enrollment on an ongoing basis. About 100 international students are now among Otterbein's total enrollment of 3,000. The recruitment goal? To boost that 3 percent benchmark to 5 percent, Libby says.

Though university officials decline to discuss the cost of the initiative, the effort seems to be paying off. International enrollment has climbed by 67 percent and applications by 65 percent, Libby says. Since coming on board, "I've traveled quite a bit," she says, adding that her recruiting efforts have been aided by Otterbein professors traveling abroad to connect with students, professors and administrators.

"Altogether, we visited 18 different countries, and we did a lot of networking. We also attended a lot of conferences and met with college counselors all over. One of the messages we share is our commitment to diversity. Otterbein opened its doors in 1847, and it was one of the first universities to have women faculty and students," Libby says.

Otterbein also admitted African-American students before the Civil War and welcomed Japanese-American students who had been sent to internment camps during World War II.

In addition to touting diversity, Libby says recruiting efforts also boast the quality of Otterbein's academic programs, more than 70 majors and individualized education. "We have some unique majors and very caring professors on our campus who get to know students. You really get a personalized experience, no matter what you decide to study."

The campus' location offers advantages, too, she says, with the small-town friendliness and amenities of Uptown Westerville a few blocks away and the cultural and entertainment choices of Columbus close by.

Going to Uptown restaurants and events provides opportunities for members of Otterbein's International Student Association to become acclimated to the American culture and to speaking English, says Chen Wang, who organized such outings as president of the group.

Chen, 20, came to Otterbein from China two years ago to earn a business administration degree. Once on campus, he joined the association, serving as vice president his freshman year and then as president.

Studying in the U.S. has been a lifelong ambition, he says. "This has been my dream since I was in elementary school."

A family friend led Chen to Westerville. "My parents know a professor here, so that's how I know about Otterbein," he says. Still, the transition to college life wasn't easy. "My first year was pretty hard for me because I was not really good at English. So sometimes I cannot even understand the professor."

Chen graduated from the university's ESL program and formed relationships with fellow students, faculty, his dorm resident assistant and others on campus to become more proficient in English. "People have been very helpful in teaching me how to write papers," he says.

A Global Campus

Joseph Shin came to the United States when his mother moved here temporarily from South Korea to complete a graduate degree. "My father sent me to protect her," he says.

Shin attended Olentangy High School for three years, and Otterbein offered him a scholarship. He started classes in 2009 but returned to South Korea to complete his mandatory military service. He came back to Otterbein in 2014 and is studying political science and economics.

"It's a small liberal arts school, and the size of class really attracts me," he says. "It's about 15 to 30, so I am able to have relationships with the professors. Otterbein is committed to helping students."

Living in the U.S. has come with some surprises, Shin says. "I always thought that people were very liberal compared to very conservative South Korea." He now sees conservatism exists here, too.

Luring more international students boosts on-campus diversity, which benefits everyone, says Miguel Martinez-Saenz, Otterbein's provost and vice president for academic affairs. Students learn global competencies for a world that's very different than it was 10 or 15 years ago.

Since it's not feasible for every student to study abroad, Martinez-Saenz says, bringing more international students to Otterbein exposes American students to other cultures.

After joining Otterbein in 2014, Martinez-Saenz developed an initiative called "Otterbein and the Arts: Opening Doors to the World." The three-year effort to deepen global education launched in the 2015-16 academic year with numerous visual arts, music and other events for students, faculty and the public.

"Opening Doors is about how we use the arts as a gateway to learn about other cultures," he says. The first year focused on the Latin American countries of Cuba and Chile. It shifts to Asia in 2016-17 and Africa in 2017-18.

Libby says she enjoys interacting with prospective Cardinals. "I really love meeting with the students that I see overseas. They are typically really well-educated and they have very diverse backgrounds." Some may attend American schools and have parents who work at an embassy or international corporation. "A lot of them are third-culture kids. They bring to Otterbein students a mix of experiences from having lived in different locations around the world."

Chen and Shin say they are happy they chose Otterbein, though they get homesick and don't see their families often. "I'm the only child in my family," Chen says. "In Asian countries, family is a pretty important thing. And they all miss me so bad."

Still, "I'm really thankful I can come to Otterbein." He plans to stay in the U.S. to attend graduate school.

Shin aspires to join the U.S. Army and eventually become a professor. He hasn't seen his family since 2014. "But I try to be strong. I think I'm making a really good choice for my future."

Debbie Briner is a freelance writer.

This story appears in the Summer 2016 issue of Westerville365.