International students find community at Bethany Lutheran in Mankato

Soccer team goes after a ball
Andre Marques Dias Dasilva, right, a wingback on the Bethany Lutheran men’s soccer team, goes after a ball during a match against the University of Northwestern on Wednesday, Oct. 26. Dasilva, a senior, is an international student from Brazil and represents one of 14 different nationalities on the team.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

The adrenaline was pumping on a cold night as the Bethany Lutheran Vikings men’s soccer team hit the field for one of their last games of the regular season.

Players from all over the world shouted from the benches in Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and French. More than half of the team comes from abroad. Among them was Vikings captain and senior Andre Marques Dias Da Silva, 22, of São Paulo, Brazil.

Da Silva said that hearing encouragement in Portuguese from the field or in the stands pushes him to play his best.

“Anything that makes you feel in touch with home” helps him play soccer he said. “Sometimes, it helps kickstart your head and you’re having a rough game, and someone says something in your language and it’s something motivational, and you’re like ‘Oh my gosh, I’m Brazilian. I know how to do this!” 

Soccer players waves to the crowd
Bethany Lutheran’s Andre Marques Dias Dasilva waves to the crowd as he is introduced at the beginning of a soccer match on Oct. 26.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

International students make up about 20 percent of full-time student body at Bethany. It’s a small private four-year college in Mankato and has seen record growth in student enrollment in recent years. In contrast, international students on average make up about five percent of student enrollment at private campuses in the state, according to the Minnesota Private College Council. 

Demographic cliff

Across the country, school officials are worried about a projected demographic cliff in 2025, which will result in a drop in traditional college-aged students and a shrinking applicant pool. This is pressing colleges to look at diversifying their student enrollments in anticipation. Some are turning to international student recruitment.

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Despite COVID-19 restrictions, private schools continue to see a slow steady growth in international student enrollment. Minnesota Private College Council President Paul Cerkvenik said this is as many schools continue recovering from pandemic-related enrollment declines.

“[The] United States overall has for decades been a destination for students from many countries around the world who want to pursue a high-quality higher education, and I don’t think that that is changing at all,” Cerkvenik said. “The trendline shows that there’s a continued international demand for educational opportunities at higher education institutions in the United States.”

The current global economic situation, however, adds new complexity for visiting students. Schools are also having to monitor global markets, slumping currencies and the rise of the U.S. dollar, which recently hit its highest peak in two decades. It’s making it more expensive for international students to study here.

The Chronicle of Higher Education cited a recent study in March 2022 that found students from 19 of 23 countries reported spending more in their home currency to pay their tuition costs than six months before. 

A Bethany Lutheran student plays bagpipes
A Bethany Lutheran student plays bagpipes, one example of international flair at the college, during halftime at a soccer match on Oct. 26, 2022.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Bethany Lutheran is among many schools reaching around the globe in an effort to retain and build its student body. When Nick Cook, an international student recruiter at Bethany, first started working on campus in 2015, there were just seven international students. In 2022, he said there’s about 130 international students from 30 countries. For Bethany, that’s significant he said.

“I think that’s really good for the campus because the American students that were here already didn’t really get to learn from students from around the world, and now, they get to have friends from different countries,” Cook said. “I think that’s very beneficial to creating a holistic education for students where they get to make friends from all over the world.”

A shrinking student pool

Bethany Lutheran President Gene Pfeifer said all colleges in Minnesota are now competing from the shrinking pool of available students. He’s especially focused on retaining students. 

The college saw 79 percent of last year’s freshman class returning for sophomore year this fall, Pfeifer added. 

”We don’t want to just enroll them and then have them all leave,” he said. “Retention is a big deal at Bethany.”

Bethany Lutheran’s key to recruiting international students is simple: word of mouth. Cook believes it’s most critical for the school’s growth. 

“If you can develop a good word of mouth, that’s the best kind of marketing you can have,” he said. “Because it’s super authentic. People aren’t going to recommend something if they don’t actually feel it.”

For example, Merobe Gari, 20, a sophomore from Ethiopia, already knew about Bethany Lutheran because her sister studied there. When Gari got to campus, she loved the small classes, personal connections with professors and how her culture is incorporated into dining hall food and club activities. 

A person poses for a portrait
Merobe Gari, an international student from Ethiopia at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, Minn., said that things like being able to request Ethiopian food at the cafeteria make being away from home easier to handle.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

So, Gari said she told her high school classmates back in Ethiopia about the school and some ended up enrolling as students at Bethany Lutheran.  

“I felt like it’s a place I can relate to, and most probably, [my friends] will also love it here,” she said. “So, I’m like, ‘Let me share my experience of Bethany with you guys, and I did that. …Information spreads when you have a good experience. You want others to also have that same experience.”

A melting pot

A person poses for a portrait
Andre Marques Dias Dasilva talks about his experience as an international student at Bethany Lutheran College.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Bethany Lutheran men’s soccer team captain Andre Marques Dias Da Silva is also the student body president. He came to the United States when he was 16 and has been happy playing soccer while pursuing a degree. He said it’s a choice he wouldn’t have in Brazil. 

“It takes a lot of energy and a lot of motivation,” Da Silva said. “Understanding why you’re doing this. Your family is back home and they’re supporting you and putting a lot of effort into putting myself in this position and I cannot take that for granted. There is a big financial sacrifice they have to make [for] me to attend a university in the U.S. especially with the currency exchange.”

He also said that the community at Bethany helped him feel that those sacrifices were worth it. The support he received from professors and his teammates is what helped him return to campus each year. And he loves the lessons he learned from playing soccer together. 

“To bring that melting pot, so that it actually plays well,” Da Silva said. “It’s a challenge not only in the way we play, but also in the way we interact with one another.”