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Originally published Monday, September 14, 2009 at 3:16 PM

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Guest columnist

International students build bridges that help U.S. diplomatic interests

Welcoming international students goes beyond hospitality, writes guest columnist Nancy Bacon, president of the Foundation for International Understanding Through Students. It builds bridges that connect our state and nation to the world, which advances our diplomatic and economic interests.

Special to The Times

KERSTIN, Yuting and Rosana are coming from Austria, China and Chile to study subjects ranging from religious studies to public policy. What do they have in common? They will be among the more than 1,200 students welcomed by University of Washington President Mark Emmert Wednesday. In an orientation organized by the Foundation for International Understanding Through Students, these students from 100 countries will join more than 4,000 UW international students who study with students from our region.

As university students return to their campuses this fall, many of us who work closely with them reflect on the growing number of international students who travel to Washington to study and the resulting benefits to our community. Through the foundation, we host them and provide opportunities for them to learn about American culture.

But supporting international students is not only about hospitality. NAFSA: Association of International Educators estimated that international students contributed $13.5 billion to the U.S. economy in 2005-2006. Most international students studying at state public institutions pay out-of-state tuition, helping to close the gap in funds needed to educate in-state students.

Enriching the education of international students with opportunities to build friendships with Americans cuts to the heart of our political and economic strategic interests. In January 2008, the Secure Borders and Open Doors Advisory Committee submitted its report to the secretary of Homeland Security stating the importance of international education to build understanding and collaboration between nations. Two priorities include increasing the number of international students studying in the U.S. and increasing the number of Americans studying abroad.

The U.S. House of Representatives acted on these priorities in June 2009 with the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for 2010-2011, which includes the "Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act of 2009" aimed at increasing international-student exchanges and study-abroad opportunities for Americans.

The UW has made a priority the integration of global perspectives into curriculum, community service and extracurricular activities. This process involves acknowledging that domestic students need not travel far to experience a global culture. Chances are that they are sitting next to students from China, Korea or Japan, the three leading countries of origin for UW internationals. They are able to gain diverse perspectives simply by talking with students in their study groups or on their dorm hall.

On a recent weekend, the foundation gathered 24 UW international and domestic students for a global leadership retreat, giving students the opportunity to grapple with leadership issues in a culturally diverse setting. The goal of the weekend was to give future leaders greater ability to draw on the strength of diverse perspectives in thinking about big issues.

We might say that President Obama is who he is today because of his father's decision to study abroad in 1959 and because of his own time living in Indonesia.

Indeed, the president called us to remember the importance of international friendship during his Inaugural Address: "And so, to all other peoples and governments who are watching today ... know that America is a friend of each nation, and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity."

The foundation puts action to these words by creating programs that build a global community tied to the Pacific Northwest in which people around the world are connected through friendship, mutual respect and a commitment to international understanding.

Nancy Bacon is president of the Foundation for International Understanding Through Students (www.fiuts.org).

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