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OpinionColumnistsChristopher Leelum

Foreign students strengthen U.S. colleges

Students walk to class on Stony Brook University's

Students walk to class on Stony Brook University's main campus in Stony Brook. (Feb. 24, 2010) Photo Credit: Mahala Gaylord / Newsday File

As America celebrates a historic World Cup win by our women's soccer team, there's another thing our country should be proud of -- the number of foreign students in U.S. colleges and universities.

The United States, and Long Island, in particular, are home to record numbers of students coming from all over the world. For this, we should be optimistic, not concerned.

Since 2000, the number of foreign students enrolled in our nation's colleges and universities has risen by 72 percent. In the 2013-14 school year, there were just under 100,000 foreign students in New York State's public and private colleges, a 12 percent jump from the year before. The nation as a whole saw an 8 percent increase during the same period, up to about 886,000 students.

While some people voice concerns about these students grabbing positions from in-state students, or about the feeling of academic theft after so many tax dollars go to state schools, I question whether it's such a bad thing.

Along with schools like Hofstra and Adelphi, my school, Stony Brook University, is leading the charge for geographic diversity on Long Island by currently hosting more than 4,700 foreign students, nearly 20 percent of its student body. I can see why many people feel that this influx is cutting off access to higher education for some domestic students. But even if that were true, the benefits of such a diverse environment in our country (the melting pot, remember?) deserve to be prioritized.

From a student's perspective, attending a school as diverse as Stony Brook is a little overwhelming at first. It's not comparable to Christopher Columbus' shoreline meet-and-greet, but as a Long Island native, never have I seen such a diverse student body. Simple acts of seeing and interacting with foreigners, or even people of different cultures from within our borders, has expanded my bubble of awareness significantly. I have come to appreciate the cultural complexity I always knew existed but never fully understood.

In the spring, I roomed with a quiet, determined student from South Korea, befriended a Norwegian and argued over "Game of Thrones" with a Brit. I learned about the extreme video-gaming culture of South Korea, tasted foreign foods at the Asian cultural center and practiced many different accents.

In the world of state universities, I don't believe that proximity always means priority. It's unfortunate, but if tax money pays for the school desk your son or daughter "loses" to a foreign student, then you find out the hard way that you can't always choose which benefits you'll receive from taxation.

But the charge that domestic students are losing out to foreigners isn't necessarily true. People like Gary Bergman, founder of College Study US, an international student-recruitment organization, says that schools would "never go after the international students if we were filling programs like engineering and computer science with domestic students."

For what it's worth, in the only engineering class I've taken at Stony Brook, I felt like the foreign student.

Christopher Leelum, a student at Stony Brook University, is an intern with Newsday Opinion.