BU’s International Students: Decision to Go Home After Graduation Depends on Field of Study

By Claire Felter
BU News Service

When Derrick Muwina (STH’16) came to the United States for the first time in 2006 to study at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, he said he knew within a few weeks that he wanted to stay in the country long-term. After receiving his Master’s degree in Theological Studies in 2008, he made a trip back to his native Zambia. Now he’s back in Boston, perhaps to stay.

“Being away from this place kind of made it even more obvious that I wanted to come back, and that’s what I did,” Muwina said at Boston University’s George Sherman Union.

The next year Muwina returned to Cambridge to complete his second Master’s, and in 2010 he began his doctoral work at BU’s School of Theology. Muwina has two more years left in his program, after which he can either look for work as a church pastor or get a teaching job. He said he isn’t sure yet which option he will pursue, but he is hoping he can continue to live in the U.S.

“There are far much more opportunities here than I can get back home and especially in the field in which I am – theological or religious studies,” said Muwina. “We don’t have that many opportunities back home.”

That’s not what the research is saying, though.

Last April, New Vision, a daily newspaper in Uganda, printed an article entitled, “Students return as greener pastures dry up.” The article makes the assertion that large numbers of students from developing countries who complete their studies abroad are returning home to find employment. The piece quotes several studies, including a 2010 report by the International Organization of Migration, which focused on East Africans living in the United Kingdom.

Similarly, Jacana Partners, a private equity firm based in the UK, Kenya and Ghana, surveyed African MBA students who were studying in Western business schools at the end of 2012. 70 percent of respondents said they plan to work in Africa after graduation.

The New Vision article also posits that this inclination to return home is a more recent development, one now referred to as “brain gain,” a reference to the opposing “brain drain,” a term coined by the British Royal Society to describe the outflow of scientists from their country to North America in the 1950s. The term was soon appropriated to describe the emigration of skilled workers from regions of developing countries in the 1970s and 80s.

Other studies have looked more broadly than the African continent. Researchers from Harvard, Duke, and UC Berkeley worked with the Kauffman Foundation to examine the possibility of America’s losing its skilled and knowledgeable students from countries like India and China. More than 1,200 foreign students completed the study’s survey and the report showed that 55 percent of Indian students and 40 percent of Chinese students wanted to return home within five years.

So why the disparity between the research findings and Muwina’s view? Because Muwina isn’t studying to be a software developer or an entrepreneur. Graduate student Weiwen Zhao (COM’15) knows this from first-hand experience.

Zhao is from the Hunan province of China and completed her undergraduate studies in engineering at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. She said she wasn’t passionate about the field, though, and so after interning for China Newsweek magazine, she decided to come to BU to pursue a career in journalism. Zhao agreed with Muwina that when it comes to abundance or lack of job opportunities, it’s more about the field than the location.

“It depends. Especially in journalism, it’s kind of different from other majors like engineering or something that is more technical,” she said.

Zhao said that when she told her Chinese classmates here at BU that she had left the engineering field, they knew the risk she was taking, no matter if she stayed in the States or returned to southern China.

“They said, ‘Are you crazy?’” said Zhao.

While the results of these research studies are generalized in the media, forging the appearance of an overall exodus from the West, a closer look at the types of survey respondents shows a skew towards students in scientific and technical fields or business programs.

Of the participants in the Kauffman Foundation study, more than 50 percent of the Indian students were studying engineering and nearly half of the Chinese students were either in the engineering field or business field. So students of the humanities or social sciences, like Muwina and Zhao, might not be finding their own situations well represented in the discussion on brain gain.

These reports often cite the slowing down of economic growth and hikes in unemployment in the United States over the last decade as potential reasons for the growing trend. High growth rates in many African nations and Zhao’s China, along with the comforts of family and a familiar culture and language, make a compelling argument for international students to come back after several years in a new country.

The research on brain gain skims over another facet of the decision-making process, though, where the pull factor of greater opportunity in one’s own country isn’t sufficient. For some, the decision to stay or leave is more complex than percent rates of growth and a list of corporations looking to hire.

Sohrab Mikanik (MET’13), an alumnus of BU’s Metropolitan College who now works for the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, said that there are more career prospects for him in his home country of Iran.

“I actually have better job opportunities back home because the government in Iran has changed. It’s getting better and better every day,” Mikanik said during a phone interview. “They’re trying to offer students who are studying abroad good offers to get them back into the country.”

Mikanik said, however, that the social freedoms he has in the United States trump a high-paying job in a politically unstable Iran.

“That’s not enough for me to go back home. I’m comfortable here. It’s not just about the job,” he said. “I can easily make more money back home than I can here, but I’m not going back in the near future. The social and political aspects are more important for me.”