When U.S. officials were trying to broker a deal to end the bloody 20-year civil war between Sudan and South Sudan in 2005, they had an in with the elusive guerrilla fighter leading the south's shadowy rebel forces.
Before John Garang took up arms at the helm of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, he spent four years at Iowa's Grinnell College earning a bachelor's degree in economics. A decade after graduating in 1969, he returned to the state to get his master's degree and doctorate from Iowa State University in agricultural economics.
The portrait of the Dinka tribesman and hardened warrior studying in the cornfields of the Midwest is not as unusual as it may seem. A surprising number of politicians, diplomats, lawmakers, military leaders and business tycoons from around the globe — in countries both friendly and hostile — have spent time in U.S. colleges and universities, a source of "soft power" that has boosted the country's interests in often surprising ways.
Long before Mohamed Morsi rose through the ranks of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood to win the country's post-revolution presidential election, he was a Trojan at the University of Southern California earning a doctorate in engineering from the Los Angeles school.
Other high-profile international figures, including Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, King Abdullah of Jordan, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the late former Pakistani President Benazir Bhutto, among others, also occupied American classrooms before returning home and ascending to power.
The State Department lists nearly 300 world leaders, current and former, who chose U.S. institutions, a trend that analysts say reinforced the nation's status as the global leader in higher education but also underscores the figures' desire — or, in many cases, need — to familiarize themselves with the United States, its politics and its culture.
"We have been the most open to students from other countries. That's why we continue to be the leading destination country, and it's been a long, long period that we've been that," said Allan Goodman, president of the nonprofit Institute of International Education. "It's our tradition of academic open doors and a very consistent record of having international students here. The best American universities have been open to international students for the longest period of time. The credentials [obtained from those schools] matter, and the byproduct is that they gain a better understanding of the United States."
Beyond the Ivies
While the usual suspects at the top of the American higher-education totem pole — Harvard, Yale, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, Columbia, to name a few — can claim more than their fair share of internationally powerful alumni, state institutions and some lesser-known schools also have taken advantage of the trend.
The University of Wisconsin, for example, counts among its alumni officials from Bangladesh, Jordan, Peru, Sri Lanka and Sweden. The University of Michigan has educated leaders in Antigua, Jamaica and Thailand.
Louisiana State University boasts alumni who went on to prominent positions in Costa Rica, Honduras and elsewhere. The District's George Washington University saw future leaders from Colombia, Togo and other nations come through its doors.
The University of Chicago trained the now-famous "Chicago Boys," a group a Chilean economists who went on to greatly influence that country's monetary policy.
"It's not only the Harvards, but sometimes state colleges in unknown places are recruiting a lot of these international students. The global market has expanded," said Jorge Balan, a Latin American scholar at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. "Some of these colleges have done very well in recruiting these students from overseas. They've done very, very good work."
The State Department and private groups keep running lists of foreign dignitaries who studied at American schools of higher education, a list that includes a king in Jordan, a crown prince in Norway and a crown princess in Japan. In some countries, the links can be extensive. When Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who got a master's degree at Missouri's Webster University, convenes his Cabinet, the group includes alumni of the University of California, Berkeley (defense minister), American University (justice minister), the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania (finance minister), UC-Davis (trade minister) and the University of Colorado School of Mines (energy minister).
The federal government's Fulbright Program, analysts say, deserves significant credit for the influx of foreign students — both future leaders and typical undergraduates — coming to the U.S. The program awards money to academically eligible Americans to study overseas and offers grants to foreigners to attend U.S. institutions, assuming that they have the necessary grades to do so.
That, along with other efforts by the government and the universities, has opened the international floodgates and dramatically raised the number of students leaving home for American colleges.
In the 2010-11 school year, the number of foreign students in U.S. schools shot up to 723,277, an increase of 5 percent from the previous year, Institute of International Education reported. It has increased each of the past five years, and has risen 32 percent over the past decade.
The institute's data also highlight the fact that foreign students aren't coming just from nations with close ties and warm relationships with the U.S.
Chinese students accounted for much of the recent growth, with the total number from the burgeoning Asian power increasing by 23 percent overall and by 43 percent at the undergraduate level.
In the 2010-11 school year, 157,558 Chinese were studying at American schools, far more than from the No. 2 country, India, which had 103,895. Other nations with rocky relationships with the U.S. — Russia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, among others — also have sent their young people to the U.S.
Few countries, specialists say, bar students from attending top-notch American schools for political reasons, recognizing that the skills they gain in U.S. classrooms will be invaluable when they return home.
"I can't see any regimes, other than maybe North Korea or Cuba, where there are limitations for people to go out and study wherever they want, even if there is animosity" between that nation's government and the U.S., Mr. Balan said. "Very few times, [the animosity] becomes an insurmountable barrier to people who want to come study in the U.S."
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