From the west, with a view to the east

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 April, 2008, 12:00am

For the past eight years, the head of Stanford University has had his eyes firmly fixed on the east. Only, given that his office is in San Francisco, it's really to his west.

'In a time when the big change on the landscape is the rise of Asia, being on the Pacific Rim is a real advantage from our perspective,' John Hennessy, president of the prestigious university since 2000, said. 'Overall, between graduate and undergraduate, slightly more than half of our international students now come from Asia.

'That is where we are very different from the Ivy League schools, for example. They have more students from Europe but our numbers have gone big in Asia.'

Professor Hennessy was in Hong Kong last weekend at the start a whirlwind trip that also took in Beijing and Tokyo. The sojourn was the Asian leg of a 17-city mission he and some of the university's key academics are making over three years to get the Stanford message out to the international public.

'We invited alumni from all over the Pacific Rim area. We have people coming from Shanghai, from Singapore. We had a whole bunch of people from Taiwan,' he said 'This is the largest Stanford event we have ever staged in Asia.'

Professor Hennessy, an electrical engineer and computer scientist who joined Stanford as an academic in 1977, said the tour was part of a drive to make the university more visible internationally.

'We bring a group of faculty to talk about research and teaching,' he said. 'The focus is on new directions and this movement to make the university more outward looking, trying to bring its knowledge to addressing global issues.'

However, the main aim was not simply to attract more students but to sell Stanford's message to 'the very best students'. Prospective students from less affluent backgrounds were often frightened away by the university's US$50,000 tuition.

'They think, 'I can't possibly do that',' the professor said. 'What we want to do is to tell them ... that there is financial aid and if you really are a top-notch student, you should think about applying.'

Professor Hennessy said that for Stanford and other top universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard, Yale or Princeton, it was no longer enough for students 'just to have great test scores'.

'There are lots of students with great test scores,' he said. 'We can afford to pick students who will bring a little more to the classroom and to the university and to their fellow students. What we are looking for are really extraordinary students who will fill out a very diverse class - geographically, ethnically and with a bunch of different backgrounds.

'We try to look for students who not only demonstrate they have all the academic potential but have shown they really are engaged learners, that they regard learning as something to be pursued for learning's sake, and then we look for students who have done something extraordinary or in a unique way. It could be someone who is not only a great student but also a world-class violinist.'

One applicant this year stuck in his mind - she had come top in her class despite the fact she had been homeless for the past three years while also looking after her sick mother. 'That's an extraordinary individual who has overcome obviously a lot of challenges,' he said. 'This person can really go a long way in the world and can make a big difference. That's a person you admit.'

With virtually all Stanford students living on campus, admitting students from diverse backgrounds created a richer learning environment at the university.

'Students learn so much from one another. Living together, studying together, working together - that is such a big part of how they are being educated and prepared for the highly diverse world we live in,' he said. 'Having a student like that, having students from China, having students from Africa, it really makes a wonderful environment for learning.'

Since the mid-1990s, the number of students beating a trail from mainland China to Stanford has increased to the extent that it has overtaken Japan, South Korea and India to become the university's largest source of international students.

But this has also come with a sizeable burden - Stanford aims to give international students the same access to financial aid it gives local students.

Unlike American students, who came from across the financial spectrum, Chinese students came from extremes: either the very rich or from families that need full financial support.

'With our financial aid package from this year, if a family earns less than US$60,000 a year, then we provide everything - room and board, tuition fees, book allowance, the whole thing,' Professor Hennessy said. 'In the United States, US$60,000 is not a great salary, but US$60,000 a year in China, it's a fairly good salary. If you are getting students from working-class families, obviously they are all below that.'

Much of the money to pay for Chinese students had come from 'friends and alumni' in Hong Kong.

Getting the world's students to come to Stanford is one thing, but getting its students to go to the world has proved more difficult.

This year is the 50th anniversary of Stanford's overseas campus programme, which has centres dotted around the world - across Europe, in Africa, in Japan and one at Tsinghua University in Beijing. These centres, the largest of which can accommodate 30 to 40 students, offer students the chance to take long placements of three to six months or intensive courses of a few weeks.

But Professor Hennessy said he was disappointed that not all students were taking advantage of the programme. Only about 3 per cent of undergraduates took the chance to go for a full quarter. The shorter courses were more popular, but still did not spark interest from the whole student body.

'We are still missing about 30 per cent of the students,' he said.

It was important to instil an international mindset to meet the needs of the 21st century.

'Increasingly we see that our students need to be prepared to work in an international environment,' Professor Hennessy said.

Most business start-ups in Silicon Valley involved at least one Asian partner or a branch in China or India as companies were in increasingly looking to 'global collaboration'.

'We need to get our students to be more comfortable in a global setting,' he said. 'We have been encouraging them to have some sort of international experience.

'We need to push them off the campus. We need to send them out into the world and have an experience outside the US that will give them something that goes beyond having a vacation to Paris.'