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Despite a post-9/11 drop in the number of international students attending universities here, New York City’s foreign student attendance is on the rebound, keeping it the top destination for students from abroad, according to the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors census.

According to the recently released Open Doors report, more than 50,500 international students attended New York City schools last school year, reflecting an increase of almost 1,000 students over the previous academic year.

The Sept. 11 attacks did not immediately affect the number of incoming students. However, in 2004-2005, there were 3,000 fewer international students than in the previous year – 49,470 versus 52,424 in academic year 2003-2004. That’s because visa restrictions that came out of the terrorist attacks were enforced in 2003, according to Gail Szenes, director of the Office of International Students and Scholars at NYU.

Szenes said these restrictions lengthened the application process and discouraged many international students from applying. The international education community was worried the numbers would not recover, but luckily things are turning around, she said.

“It took a couple of years for these systems to become more efficient. It was taking weeks whereas by last year it was taking days. The whole process of applying for a visa got more efficient,” Szenes said.

From the 2001-2002 to 2002-2003 academic years, admissions grew by only one percent. Back in 1995-1996, there were 25,000 international students in the NYC metropolitan area. The number grew to over 30,000 by 1998-1999, and admissions continued to climb.

Despite ups and downs, the city has remained the number one metropolitan destination in the country for international students for at least a decade, according to Open Doors. Last school year’s data shows Los Angeles, with 34,700 international students, is the second-biggest destination, while Boston comes in third with 23,325 students.

The countries sending the greatest number of students to America last school year were, in order, India, China, Korea, Japan and Canada. IIE was unable to pinpoint where most of New York’s students come from.

Columbia University ranks second among institutions with the most international students in the country and New York University ranks fourth. (Number one is the University of Southern California, and number three is Purdue University in Indiana.) “Being in New York is a huge draw. The combination of good location and quality programs that are not available anywhere else tends to be the largest draw,” said Szenes.

She attributed the post-post-9/11 resurgence to the fact that “last year President Bush went abroad to talk about the importance of international exchange,” plus “competition from other countries such as the U.K. and Australia.”

Ellen Cohen, associate director of the International Students and Scholars Office at Columbia University, said the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences has about a third of the school’s international population, followed by engineering, business and the School of International and Public Affairs.

According to Cohen, the five countries that sent the most international students to Columbia University last year were China, South Korea, Canada, India and Japan.

“I think, for the American students, [international students] are offering a lot in terms of having an international perspective in the classroom. American students are being exposed to the world by having international students in their universities and international students are learning about U.S. culture and life as well,” Cohen said.

After Cohen’s students graduate and move on to other regions of the U.S., she says, they never seem to get New York City out of their systems. “They would say, ‘But I miss New York so much! I just never felt like a stranger in New York.’”

– Marisa Picker

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