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And America's community colleges have seen a boom in enrollments, thanks to the recession. At Houston Community College, some of that growth comes from students who travel half way around the globe. The school already has the nation's highest percentage of foreign students.
And as NPR's Larry Abramson reports, it's trying to export its success overseas.
LARRY ABRAMSON: Even if there were any ivy on the walls of Houston Community College, it would wither in the Houston heat. The drab buildings of the school's Gulfton campus are typical community college architecture, but that doesn't scare anyone away.
Ms. KATHERINE CHURINOS(ph) (Teacher): Did you understand it?
Unidentified Person: Yes.
ABRAMSON: Some students stare blankly at teacher Katherine Churinos during her Intensive English class, but some pipe up constantly with answers.
Unidentified Woman: Because the fuss I made (unintelligible) wife's name and the children...
Ms. CHURINOS: You can't remember your wife's name…
(Soundbite of laughter)
ABRAMSON: One of the brightest bulbs in the class is Sejal Desai. She came here after HCC's fame spread, via word of mouth, to the small city she comes from in India.
Ms. SEJAL DESAI (Student): I heard about it back in India, because one of my cousins who was studying here in this community college.
ABRAMSON: Once her English is up to snuff, Desai wants to study nursing. She's 41-years-old and her parents need help. She says that at home, higher education is reserved for the top students.
Ms. DESAI: Generally they give admission to the first students. And here in United States we're having opportunity to study English.
ABRAMSON: Desai is one of 4,000 foreign students here, some fresh off the plane and still struggling. Their parents want them to be here so badly, some are spending the equivalent of the family fortune on expenses. Affluent high-scoring students have long rushed to American four-year schools.
Teacher Christine Tierney says she has to keep reminding herself that her students are different.
Ms. CHRISTINE TIERNEY (Teacher): We don't always get the - always the best and the brightest. We have to remember who it is that we are teaching and why we are here.
ABRAMSON: If HCC's growth is impressive, the stories of students placing all their bets on an American education are often breathtaking.
Mr. THUAN PHAM (Student): This is my name, Tony. My Vietnamese name is Thuan.
ABRAMSON: Tony Pham is a cherub-faced 23-year-old who's only been in the States for about a month. I met him for a dinner (unintelligible) at one of the countless Vietnamese shopping malls on Houston's Bellaire Boulevard. Even though Tony went to college in Vietnam, his parents decided to spend $1,800 a semester on ESL courses, but they are convinced that an American degree will help buy him a successful career as a pharmacist.
Mr. PHAM: United States has a good education, a lot of good school...
ABRAMSON: Tony is part of a recent boom of students from Vietnam drawn in part by the large Vietnamese community already in the Houston.
After we eat, Tony shows me around the mall and translates one of the schmaltzy Vietnamese torch songs that serve as Muzak.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. PHAM: A woman break up with her boyfriend and she feels hard to forget him.
BAER: What are Tony'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.
Ms. SAMEERA FARIDI (Owner, Poshak Fashion and Style): This is like the latest stuff going on.
ABRAMSON: Sameera Faridi got her degree in fashion design from HCC in 2004. Today she owns Poshak Fashion and Style, located on a busy corner in southwest Houston. It is full of the flowing silk gowns and tunics favored at weddings by the city's Pakistani and Indian communities. Lately, Faridi says, there's been a boom in demand by Westerners for Bollywood weddings, thanks to a recent Oscar-winning film.
Ms. FARIDI: Yes, all the ethnicities, they are here. They want to wear something with somehow to do with the style that the girls wear in "Slumdog Millionaire."
ABRAMSON: HCC welcomes these students for many reasons. One is money. Foreign students pay three times as much as local residents on tuition. Houston Community College does not recruit directly overseas, officials say. But the school ensures that word of mouth will spread the school's name, thanks to the development of Saigon Tech. This privately run school is the brainchild of one immigrant who returned home with the dream of starting a community college-style school for his countrymen.
HCC helped the school develop an approved curriculum, and today...
Ms. GIGI DO (Director, Office of International Initiatives): It's the only Vietnamese school that is fully affiliated with an American community college, fully accredited.
ABRAMSON: Gigi Do is in charge of HCC's international efforts. She is a stylish, energetic woman who's so busy I could only catch up with her in an airport lounge as she ended a trip to the Middle East. There she's trying to set up another collaborative relationship, helping the Saudis develop an HCC-style school in Riyadh.
Ms. DO: So therefore once again we are the pioneers. As we did with Saigon in Vietnam, now we're going into the Middle Eastern part of the world.
ABRAMSON: Of course, HCC will be paid by the Saudis, money that will help the school deal with growing demand at home and from abroad.
Larry Abramson, NPR News.
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