Houston Community College Has Global Appeal

Thuan Pham i i

Thuan "Tony" Pham, 23, is from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. He came to Houston in May and is learning English at Houston Community College. He hopes to become a pharmacist. Larry Abramson/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Larry Abramson/NPR
Thuan Pham

Thuan "Tony" Pham, 23, is from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. He came to Houston in May and is learning English at Houston Community College. He hopes to become a pharmacist.

Larry Abramson/NPR
Sameera Faridi i i

Sameera Faridi, 27, who grew up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, graduated from Houston Community College's fashion design program in 2004. She now owns Poshak, a Houston shop featuring South Asian fashion. Larry Abramson/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Larry Abramson/NPR
Sameera Faridi

Sameera Faridi, 27, who grew up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, graduated from Houston Community College's fashion design program in 2004. She now owns Poshak, a Houston shop featuring South Asian fashion.

Larry Abramson/NPR
Gigi Do i i

Gigi Do, 43, is from Da Nang, Vietnam. She came to the U.S. in 1975 and is the head of international initiatives at Houston Community College. Larry Abramson/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Larry Abramson/NPR
Gigi Do

Gigi Do, 43, is from Da Nang, Vietnam. She came to the U.S. in 1975 and is the head of international initiatives at Houston Community College.

Larry Abramson/NPR

America's community colleges suffer from an image problem at home, but some are experiencing a boom — especially when it comes to foreign student enrollments.

Take Houston Community College. Thanks in part to an aggressive outreach campaign, the school has the highest percentage of international students of any community college in the U.S.

Betting On An American Education

Even if there were ivy on the walls of Houston Community College, it would wither in the Texas heat. The drab buildings of the school's Gulfton neighborhood campus are typical community college architecture, but that doesn't scare anyone away.

Sejal Desai came here after the college's fame spread — via word of mouth — to the small city she comes from in India.

"I heard about it back in India, because one of my cousins was studying here," she says. Desai, 41, has a big smile and big goals. Once her English is up to snuff, Desai wants to study nursing.

Desai is one of 4,000 foreign students here, some fresh off the plane and still struggling. Some parents are spending the equivalent of the family fortune for them to be here.

Affluent, high-scoring students have long rushed to American four-year schools. Instructor Christine Tierney says she has to keep reminding herself that her students are different.

"We don't always get the best and the brightest. We have to remember who we are teaching and why we are here," Tierney says.

The school's growth is impressive, and the stories of students placing all their bets on an American education are often breathtaking.

Thuan "Tony" Pham

Thuan Pham — he goes by "Tony" — is a cherub-faced 23-year-old who's only been in the U.S. for about a month. Even though Tony went to college in Vietnam, he's back in the classroom. His parents are convinced that an American degree will buy him a successful career as a pharmacist. He's trying to improve his English first, so they're spending $1,800 a semester on ESL courses at Houston Community College.

"United States has a good education and lot of good schooling," Pham says. (Like many new arrivals, his English is still limited.)

Pham is part of a recent boom of students from Vietnam to Houston, drawn in part by the large Vietnamese community already in the city.

What are Pham's chances for success? Houston Community College has no statistics on how well the growing cadre of foreign students actually do as a group. But there are many success stories that help lure newcomers.

Sameera Faridi

Sameera Faridi got her degree in fashion design from the college in 2004.

Today, she owns Poshak Fashion and Style, located on a busy corner in southwest Houston.

The shop is full of the flowing silk gowns and tunics favored at weddings in the city's Pakistani and Indian communities. Lately, Faridi says, there's been a boom in demand by Westerners for Bollywood weddings, thanks to the recent Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire.

"Yes, all the ethnicities, they want to wear something somehow to do with the style of the girl in Slumdog Millionaire," she says.

Saigon Tech

Foreign students pay Houston Community College three times as much as local residents.

The school does not recruit directly overseas, officials say. But the school ensures word of mouth will spread the school's name, thanks to the development of Saigon Tech in Vietnam. This privately run school is the brainchild of a former student who returned home with the dream of starting a community college-style school for his countrymen.

Houston Community College helped the school develop an approved curriculum, and today, it is "the only Vietnamese school that is fully affiliated with an American community college, fully accredited," says Gigi Do, who is in charge of HCC's international efforts.

Do is a stylish, energetic woman who's trying to set up another collaborative relationship in the Middle East, helping the Saudis develop an HCC-style school in Riyadh.

Of course, Houston Community College will be paid by the Saudis, money that will help the school deal with growing demand at home and abroad.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.