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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Jeff Salisbury
Tue, 06/17/2014 - 10:03am
Because clearly we just don't have enough high school graduates going off to 4-year university to keep up with the demand for.... um... well... um...
Tue, 06/17/2014 - 11:09am
We have tens of thousands of "Highly educated, fluent in English, entrepreneurial – given the right opportunities, she may well stay in the United States permanently" students in our own state that are being neglected. Our state doesn't identify gifted students or provide a mandate or funding for the education and resources that will help them grow into our next generation of entrepreneurs. Why are we bringing in people from other countries to fill this niche instead of the children of our state? Bringing in foreign workers instead of properly educating our own high ability learners does not help our state in the long run. They will not have the same loyalty as Michigan-born individuals. The high ability foreign workers will not want to stay here for their high ability children's education if we have not chosen to meet the needs of high ability students in our schools. I like Rick Snyder, but he is the governor of Michigan and should be working first to improve the welfare of Michigan's residents.
Tue, 06/17/2014 - 3:41pm
Racial and ethnic diversity is important in itself. Interesting though as interracial marriage among Hispanics and blacks increases, interracial marriages among Asian Americans is decreasing: Maybe due to the xenophobic pressures that have been practiced in Chinese culture through 2000 years including the building of the Great Wall? Immigrants should be welcome, but they should also embrace values that shouldn't use "multiculturalism" to breed de facto discrimination in a society already too segregated by class, race and religion. I personally know a Chinese immigrant couple that received a free education in both China and the US through scholarships and are now doctors in the US. This isn't necessarily bad, but many deserving Americans are passed over in this recurring scenario. 'Have they created jobs that an equally skilled American would not have created? I don't know and neither does anyone else. My recommendation is to provide incentives for new immigrants to become entrepreneurs here and create jobs that would not have otherwise existed or lose permanent residency status. Wealthy immigrants can already buy American citizenship through a minimum, but sizable investment in the US that requires proof of job creation. The other already available option is to marry an American, preferably outside their race and culture. As history has shown again and again, segregated groups eventually turn on each other. Broad inter-cultural and interracial marriage is a proven solution.
Wed, 06/18/2014 - 11:48am
That's absurd, there's room for citizens and foreigners at all of our universities and their often foreign gov't-funded tuition I'm sure is welcomed by UM, MSU, etc. It's not an either/or proposition. The hard part is getting them and allowing them to stay, something we don't do a very good job at with our broken immigration policy. Educated people want to be here, too.
Thu, 06/19/2014 - 2:59pm
My Dad used to say everyone has a right to the American dream. I agree. I didn't say foreign students aren't welcome at our universities. The more exchange between people of different cultures, creeds and races the better, including the economic benefits. What I am saying is that millions of educated, unemployed and underemployed Americans are in a fight for their lives ( with each other as well as thousands of newly minted immigrants. While many immigrants come from wealthy families or countries paying their way, millions of American students are deep in debt and working while in school. Hard work and a college education guarantees you less and less as fewer and fewer opportunities exist among the educated old and young. What I am saying is new immigrants need to create jobs as well as fill them. They do need to prove their worth in measurable terms for all they have been given for a simple airplane ride.
Mon, 06/23/2014 - 12:41pm
Eric and Joe, I don't have a problem with immigration or bringing the best and brightest to Michigan from overseas. My issue is that Michigan's best and brightest are not being provided the education and services they need to be competitive with the foreign-born highly educated workers we want to bring over. I've read that China has committed $500 billion to gifted education. Many other nations have created programs and resources for gifted learners, increasing the odds that these students will become entrepreneurs and innovators that will raise the country's economy. Michigan spends zero on gifted learners. Michigan doesn't even identify the students that need programs to maximize their potential and become our next group of innovators and entrepreneurs. And our state has suffered for this with a poor economy. Now Gov. Snyder wants to bring in the best and brightest from other areas because we didn't properly educate our best and brightest! Why are we spending state funds on overseas workers and not our own kids? I don't have a problem with both/and. My issue is when our kids are neglected and we bring in others to do what our kids could have done.
Tue, 06/17/2014 - 3:52pm
I am glad to see students like Skyin Yin here in Michigan, they bring a diversity of perspective to our state, that is something we all can benefit from. It is good for all the other college/univerisites students, it is good for the international students, for the college commuities, for our state to have them here. I hope Skyin Yin can stay and create a business here in Michigan. She can become a link between cultures and add a bit of understanding.
Tue, 06/17/2014 - 7:02pm
A nice platitude, but if immigration is always a positive result, why don't we just open our borders and watch all the jobs that will be created as well as the exponential understanding between people? Will she bring greater understanding or additional misunderstanding due to "communities of ethnocentric culture" that already exist in large cities and universities? I am very familiar with family and peer ethnic pressures that many immigrants face to stay apart from others that are of different cultures, races, religions and of course class. These lifestyle choices are not practiced by just immigrants but by generations of Americans that fall to "group think" . My hope is that she will also be the job creator we all desire and that she will make decisions without bowing to the cultural and family pressures that most face to "stay apart".
Wed, 06/18/2014 - 10:24pm
Joe, You are reading something into what I wrote that isn't there. From what I can tell Skyrin Lin is here legally and is following the laws. Since I belive a strength of this country is it rule of law, I do not support nor believe in the illegal entry to the US or to any country. I have had the opportunity to see how others have learned American ways and taken them home and I have learn to better appreciate what we have. A simple example, I know of one couple that when they returned to their home land the wife had learn a different perspective on her opportunities and how families could work and the husband had learned to make the changes. There will be less than positive sharing but that is the case here amongst the home grown, its reality. As for the jobs, if she were to be successful most likely there would be jobs. If nothing more Skyin Lin seem to have the desire to take the risk of building a business here and that is something we seem to need more of. But it could also simply be a different approach that others would benefit from. She has invested in Michigan and Michigan has invested in her why shouldn't we try to benefit from those investments? One thing about college life is it can be very effective at broadening a students perspective and giving them reason to look to the future rather then the past.
Wed, 06/18/2014 - 11:46am
People don't realize how very difficult it is for educated foreigners, people that went to HS and college here, to remain in the US even if they have a job. RW loons talk about kicking out the 11 million undocumented and don't realize that educated people are taking their subsidized education back to Asia and Germany because of the same lame immigration policy.
David States
Sun, 06/22/2014 - 9:51am
Everyone agrees that the University of Michigan is an engine for economic growth in Ann Arbor and Southeast Michigan. Look at the faculty. Huge numbers of foreign-born highly educated people who are contributing to Michigan. If we want to compete on a worldwide scale, we need to attract the best and the brightest worldwide. Talented people create opportunities for everyone.