It’s no secret that Wingate attracts a lot of students who live near its Union County campus. It is Greater Charlotte’s most popular private school by enrollment, and just over half of Wingate students are from North Carolina. But one of the fastest-growing groups of students is the University’s international population, with enrollment of those from outside the U.S. more than doubling from 2020 to 2022.
This fall, Wingate is hosting 221 international students from 54 countries. That number includes 132 returning and 89 new students. Four out of five are athletes, and the most popular countries of origin are Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Denmark.
“We’re definitely seeing an increase in applications from international students,” says Jennifer Armentrout, the University’s executive director of global engagement. “We have 35 applications for the spring, which is three times as many as we usually have this time of year.”
The uptick in international enrollment isn’t unique to Wingate. According to the Institute of International Education’s Spring 2022 Snapshot on International Educational Exchange, 65 percent of institutions reported a rise in international student applications for the 2022/23 academic year. But the IIE also calls the increase a “rebound” from dismal numbers in 2020, during which the Covid pandemic caused a 15 percent drop across the nation. That drop didn’t happen at Wingate, at least not to that extent.
Wingate’s incoming international class in 2020 was down 4 percent from 2019. The following fall saw an 85 percent increase in international enrollees.
Armentrout credits a number of factors for the growth, not least of which is the University’s recent addition of women’s triathlon. She suspects that the Covid lockdowns that kept students from leaving their home countries may have created pent-up demand, so that when travel restrictions were lifted, numbers increased.
She also says Wingate’s newest Gateway Scholarship, offered to students who have earned their associate degrees at Central Piedmont Community College, has attracted some international students who are looking to complete their bachelor’s. Yet another factor in the increase in applications may be the fact that Wingate now participates in the Common App, a one-stop shop whereby potential students can easily submit the same application to multiple institutions.
National and world events also influence the number of international students seeking to study in the United States, as does the political climate.
“Different administrations create more welcoming or less welcoming environments for international students,” Armentrout says. “When uncertainty is created about whether students will be able to stay in the country or not, it makes it much more difficult for them. For instance, it was a very tense period when Covid sent everyone online, since student visas have strict requirements regarding in-person classes.”
Even now that Wingate has returned to offering a much more traditional, in-person format, some classes are hybrid or include an online portion that can make them less than desirable for international students who must comply with the rules or risk having their visas revoked.
Armentrout and Danielle Nook, assistant director of international programs, spend much of their time helping students and recent graduates ensure that they are in compliance. In addition to the 221 students in class on two campuses, they also serve nearly a dozen recent graduates who are working off-campus as part of the OPT (Optional Practical Training) program, an F-1 visa benefit that allows students with certain degrees to work in the U.S. for up to three years.
“This increases our workload, but it is a good opportunity for our students, because getting a work visa is harder than working on a student visa,” Armentrout explains. She must determine whether the type of work a graduate is pursuing is directly related to their program of study. If it doesn’t qualify as such, they are not allowed to work on their student visa.
Armentrout says a growing number of international students are applying for temporary protected status or other programs designed to help those fleeing unsafe situations in their home countries.
“We’re trying to support those students in a way that hasn’t come up before,” she says. “Not only is Covid causing issues, but there are just more displaced people all over the world, with wars and natural disasters. We have students affected by the Russia-Ukraine War, and economic crises in countries like Haiti and Venezuela have made it difficult for students from those areas to get access to their own money.”
Despite the challenges of coming to the U.S. to study, Armentrout says most international students seem happy with their decision.
“Wingate is very welcoming to international students,” she says. “I’ve never heard an international student say they didn’t feel welcome.”
Last spring’s Bulldog Poll showed that more than four out of five international respondents reported feeling “welcome and respected” at the University.
Armentrout says their presence on campus helps her office in its goal to provide an authentic global perspective for all students.
“We strive to cultivate courage, connection and curiosity in everyone we serve,” she says.
Wingate’s Office of International Programs will celebrate International Education Week Nov. 14-18 with a full slate of programming.