International students boost region’s economy

By Gideon Bradshaw / News Editor

Aiym Kaiyrlykyzy will not have student loans to worry about when she finishes her master’s degree at Pitt. Instead, the government of Kaiyrlykyzy’s native Kazakhstan is paying for her education so that she will return and help the country modernize.

But if she doesn’t come back, her parents could lose their apartment.

Although this contract might sound harsh, Kaiyrlykyzy said it makes sense to her.

“I completely support [the Kazakhstani government’s] decision,” she said, “because why should they pay for you to come here and get nothing out of it?”

Kaiyrlykyzy is one of 2,892 international students from more than 110 countries currently enrolled in the University’s degree programs, according to figures compiled by Pitt’s Office of International Students.

Students from outside the United States are studying in the country’s universities in record numbers, according to a report released Monday by the U.S. Department of State. There are almost 820,000 such students in the United States this academic year, according to the report. This represents an increase of more than 7 percent from the previous year.

Some of these students, like Kaiyrlykyzy, receive living allowances and tuition from their own governments, while others rely on their families to pay for their schooling at Pitt.

Whatever means they use to pay their tuition, the international students who come to Pitt and other area universities to study contribute significantly to the economy.

Huanxiaotu Wang, a Chinese student pursuing a master’s in foreign language education at Pitt, said her parents are paying for her to study in the United States. Although she described her family as “not particularly wealthy,” she said her parents are civil servants who saved enough money to send her to the U.S.

Chinese students such as Wang account for 1,481 — more than half — of the international students at Pitt, according to figures Kati Von Lehman of Pitt’s Office of International Students provided.

Wang said that graduate programs are cheaper back home, but much harder to get into.

“In China, there are many students who are applying for graduate degree [programs] to get better jobs,” Wang said.

Wang said that when she first came to study at Pitt in the fall of 2012, she was hesistant to spend money. This was especially true before she was used to American money and had to mentally convert prices to Chinese yuan. A hairbrush, for instance, costs one or two U.S. dollars in China, but could easily run for about $6 in the United States.

Although some basic items are more expensive in the United States, Wang said electronics cost a fraction of what they do in China.

While an iPhone 5 could easily cost about 5,000 yuan, or more than $800 back home, Wang bought one in Pittsburgh for about $200.

“In a [Chinese] workplace, if you see someone who has an iPhone, it means they are very wealthy,” she said.

Sahar Alkatheri, a Saudi Ph.D. student in Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, said electronics are cheaper in the United States than in Saudi Arabia.

While an iPhone 5 might run for 5,000 Saudi riyals — about $1,300 — back home, Alkatheri said she bought one in Pittsburgh as a gift to her brother for only a few hundred dollars.

The Saudi government is responsible for the influx of Saudi students at Pitt and other American universities. As of 2012, there were more than 71,000 Saudi students like Alkatheri studying abroad on full-ride government-sponsored scholarships with living allowances, according to figures compiled by the country’s Ministry of Higher Education. More than half of them study in the United States.

Von Lehman said 105 Saudis study in Pitt’s academic programs.

Saud Alsubaie, another Saudi Ph.D. student studying rehabilitation sciences at Pitt, said the Saudi government requires that students submit their grades to the government every semester to show their progress toward a degree.

Alsubaie said he doesn’t know any Saudi students in Pittsburgh who have lost their scholarships, though he said he does know one Saudi undergraduate at La Roche College in the North Hills who did not graduate within four years. The student signed an agreement with the Saudi government to complete school within another year. He went on to complete his bachelor’s degree by the end of that year.

Most Saudi students take English as a second language before they fulfill language proficiency requirements set by American universities, and the Saudi government pays for up to two years of English instruction for students in addition to paying their tuition once they’re admitted to a program.

Rob Mucklo, an instructor at Pitt’s English Language Institute, said 81 of the 175 students in the institute are Saudi.

The Saudi government also covers living expenses when it sends its students abroad.

Alkatheri said she receives about $1,800 a month as her living allowance from the Saudi government. University Dammam, where she was working before she came to study in Pittsburgh, contributes another 5,000 riyals — or more than $1,300 dollars — monthly.

While Saudi oil money lets the kingdom be more liberal with spending on students it sends abroad, Kazakhstani students who go to school on their government’s dime face more stringent requirements.

Since the early 1990s, the Kazakhstani government has sent students abroad on full scholarships as part of Bolashak, which means “future” in Kazakh, the state language. There are more than 2,000 Kazakhstani students studying under the program. Kaiyrlykyzy said that all but one of the nine Kazakhstani students currently at Pitt are part of the program, which provides a living allowance along with full tuition.

While Alsubaie said other Saudi students must have a grade point average of 3.75 on a five-point scale to qualify for government scholarships, Bolashak requires that applicants have a GPA of at least 4.5 out of 5.0, which is the grade scale used at some undergraduate universities in the country.

The Kazakhstani government requires that graduate students in the program maintain a minimum GPA of 3.0 while they study abroad.

Kaiyrlykyzy said the requirements in Bolashak make her and other Kazakhstani students more likely to study than go out, and she said nobody she knows has failed out of the program.

“We save money every semester from our monthly stipends and then spend it on vacations,” she said.

She and her boyfriend, who studies in Colorado, went on a roadtrip across the United States last July, visiting Mt. Rushmore and Yellowstone National Park along the way.

“We called it PA to CA,” she said, pronouncing the letters in the state abbreviations.

She and about 20 friends, all Kazakhstanis studying in different parts of the United States, went to the Dominican Republic last year during winter break.

Kaiyrlykyzy, who earned her medical degree in 2010 from Karaganda State University in central Kazakhstan, is working on a master’s degree in public health.

In addition to high grades and proficiency in both English and Kazakh, students who apply to Bolashak to study abroad also take written psychological tests and learning-style assessments.

The final evaluation for the program consists of an interview by a panel of about eight or 10 members, Kaiyrlykyzy said. These members include academics and government officials. She said her interview lasted about half an hour.

For Kairlykyzy, who was working as a statistician for her country’s Ministry of Health when she applied for the program, questions included both epidemiology, which she studies, and other topics, including her country’s history.

“I think they want to find someone who will represent Kazakhstan,” she said.

Students also agree that they will work for the Kazakhstani government or one of the country’s private companies for at least five years after they complete their programs.

Bolashak scholars sign a contract with their government that they will comply with the program’s requirements, usually using their families’ home as collateral.

While these requirements sound harsh, money is tight for the former Soviet republic, which is trying to rebuild some of its infrastructure.

Karaganda State University’s medical school used to be ranked among the best of all those in the far-flung Soviet Union. This was partly because of Jewish doctors who worked there as instructors after former Premier Joseph Stalin forcibly relocated them to Karaganda from outside Kazakhstan.

These doctors have long since fled to Israel or died, and the school has suffered for it. Kazakhstan has few of its own medical and scientific professionals to replace the Soviet-era cadre that helped build the country’s infrastructure, and the government is willing to pay to train doctors and other professionals.

Students in the program receive a living allowance adjusted for costs of living where they study. In Pittsburgh, that equals about $1,600 a month and money for books. The Kazakhstani government also pays for a round-trip flight home every year.

At Pitt, Kaiyrlykyzy is learning statistical methods for studying chronic diseases that few researchers in Kazakhstan use.

Although Kairlykyzy likes to save money to travel, she said she does like to go out to eat and enjoys steak and seafood, which are more expensive in Kazakhstan than in Pittsburgh.

A steak dinner that might cost the equivalent of $80 in Kazakhstan costs about $25 in Pittsburgh, she explained. Seafood is also extremely expensive in her landlocked home country.

“Here you can have sushi for a snack,” Kaiyrlykyzy said.

Many Saudi students look for restaurants that remind them of home.

Alsubaie, who is also the president of an organization for Saudi students at Pitt, said that his club orders food that is halal, or prepared according to Islamic dietary guidelines, for its events. 

During a celebration of Saudi Arabia’s independence day held at Pitt last month, the club paid Salem’s Market and Grill, a Middle Eastern restaurant and grocery located on Penn Avenue in the Strip District, to feed the 500 attendees.

Abdullah Salem, a manager at Salem’s Market and Grill, estimated that international students make up about 5 percent of the business’ customer base, which includes 300 to 400 people per day.

Salem said many people from Middle Eastern countries are often looking for halal meat. In addition to forbidding pork, Islamic doctrine prescribes guidelines for how the animal should be slaughtered.

Salem said the meat he sells is butchered locally using traditional methods, which is what many people visiting Pittsburgh from abroad are looking for.

“We do everything in whole-carcass form,” he said. “If you want to buy a whole sheep, we’ll sell it to you.”

Shireen Attar, a manager for Aladdin’s Eatery on Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill, a Mediterranean restaurant that is part of a regional chain, estimated that 30 to 40 percent of the more than 120 people the restaurant serves every day are international students.

Alkatheri said that she enjoys places that serve Arabic cuisine, like Salem’s and Aladdin’s, but she also enjoys the chance to try American cuisine. One of her favorites is The Cheesecake Factory, which has a location in the South Side.

Alkatheri is also a shopper.

Although Alkatheri doesn’t shop every month while she’s in Pittsburgh, she estimated that when she does make infrequent trips to the mall, she might spend up to $500.

She said that while it’s easy to find a designer shirt for about $55 in Pittsburgh, “The best price you can get in [Saudi capital city] Riyadh is $200.”

“In November, because of Black Friday, I will spend a lot,” Alkatheri said.