Vietnam-born Mai Anh “Daisy” Hoang wanted to have more freedom in her college course of study.

Hoang, 22, studied for a year at the Foreign Trade University in Vietnam where she took required courses in Communism and Marxism, among other things.

She was looking for a smaller, liberal arts college where she could get to know more people. She found what she needed at Augustana College, Rock Island, and will graduate this year with a degree in international business.

“The whole four-year span has been a very educational experience,” she said. “I learned about different religions in the world, and it’s very mind-opening.”

Every year, more and more international students are flocking to U.S. colleges and universities.

The annual Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange by the Institute of International Education reported that 819,644 international students are attending U.S. colleges and universities this year, up 7.2 percent from last year.

Augustana and St. Ambrose University, Davenport, are both seeing an increase in international students and have stepped up recruitment efforts to market themselves to prospective students abroad.

Creating a brand

In the 2012-13 school year, there were 20 students at Augustana from places such as Vietnam, Peru, Nepal, Palestine, Botswana, China and Korea. This year, there are 63 international students, of whom 39 are new to campus.

Director of International Admissions Liz Nino has traveled to Asia, Europe and South America on recruiting trips during her first year at Augustana.

“Recruiters tend to go where they’ve seen students come in, because you want to build that interest and visit the schools where people are applying from,” she said.

Mostly, it’s the liberal arts curriculum that brings them to Augustana, she said.

“In a liberal arts classroom, you’re debating, you’re writing papers, you have to be a critical thinker, you have to be able to see another person’s point of view,” Nino said.

At St. Ambrose University, 75 international students are enrolled, compared to 27 in 2008.

John Cooper, vice president of enrollment management, said the university has seen a lot of growth in the undergraduate population and “quite a bit” of student athletes, especially from Europe.

Sam Heath, 21, of Northampton, England, located about 40 minutes northwest of London, was recruited to the university to play on the Fighting Bees soccer team. When he first joined the team, there was one other Englishman, he said.

Now, team members come from England, Australia, Scotland, Germany and France.

“Collectively, (international players) have monopolized the soccer out here,” said Heath, who is studying journalism. “You do pick up a lot of foreign languages when you play on the field.”

Cooper said the goal is to recruit about 125 international students in the next three years.

“We believe St. Ambrose has something for international students to come here and experience as well,” Cooper said. “We see it as a win-win for our domestic students, as well as our international students.”

The university hired alumnus Munir Sayegh this year as an international recruiter. Sayegh, whose Jordan-born father was an international student himself, is fluent in Arabic, which is rare among among other recruiters.

Sayegh has traveled to China, the Middle East, India and Central America to meet with students and recruiters. He also has participated in a virtual "college fair," where students can chat directly him, and he can send them links to videos and information about the university.

Sayegh said the international community is becoming more educated on what a liberal arts education is.

“It’s kind of a relatively new concept for students coming from the Middle East, China and Southeast Asia,” he said.

Cooper said the university partners with two universities in China, where students can do two years there and two year at St. Ambrose. The university has done more "push-back" on the Chinese universities to offer more liberal arts courses so that when students come to St. Ambrose, they can finish their credits in two years.

Chinese student Xioa Chen, 23, transferred to St. Ambrose from the Guandong University of Finance in Guangzhou, China, for her senior year in August 2012. She hopes to graduate with a master's degree in accounting in December.

The partnership between the two universities allows students to earn an undergraduate degree from Guandong and a master's in finance from St. Ambrose.

During the first semester, Chen struggled with the language barrier.

“I studied accounting for one year before I came here, so I knew nothing about American accounting before I come here,” she said. “I kind of worried that I would say things wrong or not understand.”

Luckily, her professor was patient and worked with her to help her understand the concepts. She also got help from other students in the class, which boosted her confidence.

Marketing in China

While China is known to send the most students to the U.S., marketing there is “extremely complex,” Sayegh said.

For example, many students are not directly approached by a particular college; rather, they work through an agent who sets them up with the right school.

China also bans Facebook, YouTube or Twitter, which are tools Sayegh uses to interact with students or send them videos of campus and activities. Instead, he has to use China’s forms of social media to reach out.

One advantage that international students find in the Quad-Cities is the chance to get their foot in the door at major employers, like Deere and Co.

Students can apply for a one-year work visa after they graduate.

“Most students want to go back,” Sayegh said. “They have the same aspirations to go back to their own country and start a family or career.”

Cultural experience

Hoang and Vuk Bojovic, 22, of Serbia, met each other at international student orientation four years ago and have remained good friends.

Bojovic, also a senior, said he always planned to go to college in the United States. His brother graduated from Beloit College in Wisconsin.

His parents were a big influence in nudging him towards a small liberal arts college like Augustana.

“They wanted me to get into the clubs, possibly have two majors, and meet new people,” he said. “While I was really looking at education just as education, they were looking more at the experience of college, and that’s the biggest advantage of Augie.”

Bojovic, who acted in two movies back in Serbia, tried out Augustana’s acting club and got some general education classes out of the way before settling on economics.

Hoang said her first year was “not really academics-related.” She said she had a lot of cultural experiences and got to know how Americans do things differently from people in Vietnam.

“Community bathrooms and all the slang, it’s just hard to get to know,” she said. “We didn’t have dorms at the (Foreign Trade University), we had apartments. Now, you have to share this room with people who don’t speak the same language as you. It’s a very, very different experience.”

During their second year on campus, Hoang and Bojavic joined Augustana's Global Ambassadors Program, where they serve as mentors for new international students and participate in international student orientation.

“I love hearing about other people and their cultures and how they are different from me,” Bojavic said.

Ambassadors go over American slang words and phrases, such as “ace-ing a class,” to help students get better acclimated, Hoang said.

St. Ambrose has students who serve as "international resident advisers," who pick up students from the airport and help them get settled in. Many of the older students also help out the freshmen and sophomores, Sayegh said.

The college also hosts international "mixers" for students once a month.

Heath said head soccer coach Jon Mannall, who hails from London, encourages the players to take part in as many mixers as possible.

“You need to get away from those same individuals you’re with all the time to experience others,” he said. “You just have to immerse yourself with them. It makes a huge difference.”