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International Student Mobility Trends: A Closer Look at International Female Student Opportunities

campus life
majors
career planning
Last updated on September 3, 2020

The International Women’s Day 2020 theme is “Each for Equal”—and international female students studying in the US can play a big role in encouraging opportunities for women around the world.

Two female students in a classroom discussion.

Over the past twenty years or so, college opportunities have drastically increased for women in the United States, including international female students. In the 1979–80 academic year, women represented just 28% of international students studying in the United States, according to data from the Institute of International Education (IIE). In 2016,  it increased to more than 40%.

But as the International Women’s Day 2020 theme, “Each for Equal”, makes clear, there are still opportunities to “challenge stereotypes, fight bias, broaden perceptions, improve situations, and celebrate women’s achievements” to create a gender equal world. 

Let us take a look at how far we have come, where we are now, and where we can go in the future.

International female students on campus: what college student statistics tell us

According to Pew Research Center data, the number of international female students on campus has gone from 62,000 in 2004 to 156,000 in 2016, based on full-time students on F-1 visas

Overall, 56% of college students in the United States are women, and international female student mobility from most regions hovers around 44%. In some regions, it is much lower. For example, of students studying in the US from the Middle East and North Africa, only 24% are women. Similarly, of Indian students studying in the US, women make up only about one third.

IIE sees that number growing as women choose to pursue opportunities they cannot pursue in their own countries. Plus, as opportunities for secondary education increase at home, women may decide to seek higher education.

Of the international students choosing to study in the US, more than 60% of international students end up studying in one of ten states, with California and New York seeing the highest numbers of students. While coastal states like Massachusetts, Florida, and Washington are also popular, there are others, like Ohio, that attract large numbers of international students.

Manasi, a graduate student from India, chose the University of Dayton for its master’s of Computer Science program, and found the school has had a major impact on her personality. “I was kind of a shy girl,” she explains. “I’m able to face crowds now … if I talk to people, like my friends back in India, they don’t believe this is the same girl that left India.”

No matter which state you choose to study, you will not be alone: every US state and territory is home to international women students.

Popular majors for international female college students

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields are a particular draw for international students. Between 1995 and 2015, the National Foundation for American Policy found the number of full-time international graduate students studying computer science increased by 480%. 

While that number reflects both male and female international students, the number of international female STEM students increased by 68% between 2010 and 2015 alone.

Manasi, who had an information technology background, chose to earn a graduate degree in computer science, but selected the University of Dayton based on its flexible courses. “You are allowed to choose your subjects. You just go with your interests,” she says. “That’s the great thing—that they have a lot of options.”

More women are also pursuing business degrees, even while the number of men in these programs is declining. “There are so many people helping to improve our study,” says Mengyao, a business administration major from China studying at Auburn University.

Of course, international students choose a range of additional majors, too.

“I really think that people need someone to listen to them,” says Amber, a Louisiana State University psychology major from Vietnam. “And not only just about their struggles in everyday life, but to have a person to listen to everything you say without criticizing is such a big blessing.”

Angely, a University of Central Florida (UCF) student from Panama, knew she wanted to organize music festivals. So, she chose her school based on its entertainment management major. “I chose UCF because of my major and the fact that the Rosen College [of Hospitality Management] specializes in exactly what I’m studying.”

International women in the US workforce 

While women have earned more bachelor’s degrees than men for years, women also now make up half of the college-educated workforce in the United States. 

Women make up the majority of some professions, like speech language pathology, but are still a minority in many fields, like computer programming. However, one in three immigrant women living in the United States has a bachelor’s degree. Of those women, one in eight works in a STEM field, making them an invaluable contributor to closing the gender gap in STEM fields.

Women are also a minority when it comes to leading organizations. Women make up only 6.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs. As IIE points out, with more women entering fields where they are underrepresented, they can bring a much-needed perspective and necessary change. They are also key to creating economic growth: there were more than 1.2 million international female entrepreneurs in the United States in 2017. 

Of course, the reality is women are still earning less than men. Specifically, the average woman earns eighty cents for every dollar their average male counterpart earns. Asian women earn a bit more, at eighty-five cents to the dollar, while Hispanic women earn fifty-three cents on the dollar.

On the positive side, thanks to the need for tech talent, international students in STEM fields have the opportunity to participate in the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program. OPT allows students to work in the US, practicing their skills, for up to thirty-six months.

For Angely, working on her campus activities board and other practical experience has helped her make much-needed industry contacts. “All these opportunities have been very helpful because I get to work with various vendors, companies, and agencies that are well-known in the event management industry,” she explains. “I’m also working with a lot of musicians and that’s the field that I really want to go into.”

No matter what your passions and career goals, as female international students, you can—and should—pursue them. It is only by getting more women with diverse ideas into more fields that we can create more opportunities for women around the world.

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