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Among an influx of scholars, an emerging new face of Michigan

Skyin Yin’s command of English isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough that she can make a joke about why she’s extending her stay in the United States: “After last winter, I deserve a Michigan summer.”

Yin, 24, received a master’s degree in advertising from Michigan State University in 2013, and spent the last year working for Message Makers, a Lansing event planning and production company. Under the terms of the affidavit she signed when she received her student visa, she should be packing her bags to return to her hometown of Nanjing, China. But she’s not ready yet, and so is enrolling in an MBA program and extending her U.S. studies.

In such reluctance lies opportunity for Michigan.

Yin is the sort of potential immigrant sought by Gov. Rick Snyder, as well as his counterparts in other Midwestern states coping with job loss and other economic changes. Highly educated, fluent in English, entrepreneurial – given the right opportunities, she may well stay in the United States permanently. But a few stars have to align first.

One might be Snyder’s request, made to the White House in January with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, to grant 50,000 employment-based immigrant visas to highly educated or highly skilled individuals willing to live in Detroit. The White House hasn’t responded to the request, but the act brought attention to the ways Michigan could better-use its foreign-born population, which already outshines the native-born in several key measures.

Karen Phillippi, deputy director of the newly created Michigan Office for New Americans, said Snyder “expects some response” from Washington eventually, but that the request was made, in part, to “continue the conversation about immigration reform,” she said. Immigrant visas require sponsorship and have a limited allotment. Snyder’s and Duggan’s request was for those vias unclaimed in previous years.

According to U.S. Census data, Michigan immigrants are better-educated, less likely to be unemployed and have a slightly higher median household income than natives.

A quarter of native-born Michigan residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher; 38 percent of the state’s foreign-born do. In 2012, the unemployment rate for natives was higher (7.0 percent) than for immigrants (5.6 percent). Median income stood at $47,743 for immigrants, and $46,801 for natives.

Yin is representative of another fact of immigrant Michigan residents: 29.4 percent are Asian, while only .8 percent of native-born residents are.

This bulge in one population is reflected in the state’s institutions of higher learning, which are enrolling Asian students, mostly Chinese, at a record rate.

Michigan State University had over 7,000 students from 131 countries studying there in the most recent academic year, said Peter Briggs, director of MSU’s Office for International Students and Scholars. In 2005, there were just 43 Chinese students at MSU; this year there were 3,453.

It’s a reflection, Briggs says, of fast-moving changes in the Chinese economy that could benefit a still-struggling state half a world away: The country’s exploding middle class desperately wants to educate its children, but Chinese institutions of higher learning lack the capacity to handle all who want to attend. Student visas to study here are easier to get now. And a cottage industry of education brokers has sprouted in China, to shepherd students through the application process to Michigan schools – although all U.S. schools stand to benefit.

“What MSU is experiencing is what other Big 10 schools are seeing, these huge spikes in applications from Chinese freshmen,” said Briggs, adding that these larger state schools are more likely to have the sort of STEM programs the students want – science, technology, engineering and math, as well as business.

Even some public school districts are enrolling Chinese students for their last years of high school, preparatory to pursuing the state’s higher ed. In Traverse City, the school district is setting up an exchange program, and this year hosted 13 Chinese students for the whole school year, said Superintendent Stephen Cousins. Many will go on to U.S. higher education.

“Only 40 percent of Chinese students even get into high school (in China),” said Cousins. “Only 7 percent go on to college.”

And while the program is driven by education, not money, Cousins said, the local chamber of commerce is involved as well.

“There are fewer boundaries in the world. Their interest is not just in education, but in the economic development side of this.”

Once students earn degrees, a student visa allows the graduate to stay for a year of “optional practical training,” a period that extends to 29 months for STEM graduates.

It’s those training periods that Michigan can capitalize on.

“There’s an awakening national/regional movement that we’re in a leadership position about,” said Steve Tobocman, director of Global Detroit, which advocates for immigration in economic-development issues.

With Snyder publicly lamenting the shortage of qualified applicants to fill existing openings in STEM fields, immigrants can help fill the gap.

A study done for Global Detroit’s Global Talent Retention Initiative lays out promising data. International students are more likely to stay in Michigan for on-the-job training, they’re far more likely to choose STEM majors, and they go for advanced degrees at a high rate. All of which makes them fruit the state should be looking to harvest.

There’s also a market to be exploited in skilled professionals who come to the U.S. from overseas, but lack the licensing or language skills to practice their trades here. Global Detroit works with many such immigrants, Tobocman said.

“There are things we can be doing around this great talent pool,” said Tobocman. “Sixty-two percent of PhDs awarded in engineering in Michigan go to international students. It behooves you to look at this pool who are interested in staying.”

But to do so, they need jobs, Tobocman said. The picture that emerges from data about Michigan’s Asian students is not only how eager they are to come here in the first place, but how many are angling to stay afterward. Part of the reason Yin is opting for business school is because she was unable to obtain an H-1B visa, granted for temporary employment of foreign nationals. If she completes her MBA, that might make her more likely to get one through a current or future employer, or it might not.

Yin says she’s undecided on whether she wants to stay permanently in the U.S., but sees obvious opportunities for a bilingual, skilled communicator such as herself in both countries, and believes she could craft a career that allows her to pass between the two.

“When I thought about my dream job, the title would be as a cultural ambassador or coordinator,” she said. “I feel a mission to connect with China and the culture outside it, to introduce the world to the real culture of China.”

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