World History teacher Eric Duncan gives a lesson at John Bapst Memorial High School. The school is home to 79 international students from 13 countries. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

Puk Le started his American education last year as a junior at a 4,000-student high school in Texas. Then he decided he wanted to experience a New England winter, and started looking at schools in Maine for his senior year.

This year, the 17-year-old from Vietnam is a senior at Orono High School.

“The schools are so big down there, I felt like I got lost,” he said. “I wanted to move up north and see what my life will be in a small community.”

Le is staying with an Orono family this year — a living arrangement that the 335-student high school set up for him. He enjoys being the only child in the house after having to share space with his brothers in Vietnam while growing up. He’s also excited for the opportunity to attend an American university, and is looking at colleges in Texas, where he might study business next year.

He’s one of three international students who make up one of the smallest groups of international students Orono High School has had in recent memory.

The number of international students attending U.S. colleges and universities has been declining since 2016, a result of more visa denials and what many in education call the “Trump effect” — a general impression among students overseas that the U.S. has become less welcoming.

The state doesn’t track the number of international students attending Maine schools, but administrators at high schools that have traditionally attracted large numbers of foreign students say it’s become more difficult to recruit them, particularly students from China. The only reason they’ve been able to maintain large international student populations, they say, is because they’ve become more aggressive in their recruitment efforts so they can counteract the visa denials and the impression that the U.S. has become less welcoming.

“We’re all working harder than ever to enroll our cohorts. We’re doing more outreach. We’re trying to be smarter marketers to find those students,” said Mel MacKay, head of school at the private John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor. “I have to believe if we’re working harder in 2019 at Bapst than even in the beginning of the program, ironically, then our counterparts are certainly doing the same.”

The ‘Trump Effect’

Despite the recruitment challenge, John Bapst this year managed to enroll its largest number of freshmen from overseas this fall since its international program began in 2011.

The 29 new students at John Bapst join a population of 79 international students who come from 13 countries. The foreign students make up 15 percent of the student population — a proportion that John Bapst wants to maintain.

Thornton Academy in Saco also continues to have one of the largest populations of international high school students in Maine, with almost 200 attending the private school this year, or 11 percent of the total 1,669 students at the school.

Even though Thornton’s international program has grown since 2016, a small group of international students the school accepted faced visa rejections this year, according to Katy Nicketakis, associate director of marketing and summer programs.

“There has been an increase in visa denials, and we’re trying to figure out what exactly to do about that,” Nicketakis said. “We’re looking to work with some of the local elected representatives, too, to make sure that Congress and our government is doing everything they can to make sure that the U.S. is a welcoming place for these students.”

Visa denials were the leading reason for the decline in new international student enrollment at colleges and universities, followed by the social and political climate in the U.S., according to a 2018 report from the Institute for International Education.

MacKay and others have called this the “Trump Effect” — the perception that the U.S. is less welcoming than it was before 2016, coupled with the reality that student visas are harder to come by for students in some parts of the world and more red tape.

Erin Mayo, head of school at Fryeburg Academy, agreed that recruiting international students has become harder. More than 14 percent, or 84, of the 575 students at the private school this year are international.

“It’s a big number, but it used to be bigger, almost entirely because of a decrease in enrollments out of China,” Mayo said. “The Chinese demand, which had been really hot and heavy in the past few years, has decreased significantly in the past two years.”

She cited the same reasons as MacKay for the challenge in recruiting foreign students: Families are concerned about the U.S. being unfriendly, and there is growing competition to attract international students to other English-speaking countries, including Canada and Australia.

Kaito Toya, a senior at John Bapst, experienced this growing global competition firsthand.

Originally from Tokyo, Toya attended a Canadian high school as a sophomore and an Australian high school for his junior year. He then transferred to John Bapst, and said it’s been the best international experience he’s had so far.

“Compared to the last two schools, it’s really different,” he said. “There, international students and the school were kind of independent of each other. They didn’t help us at all.

“But this school has a lot of opportunities. Teachers help us a lot.”

The public school challenge

Public high schools trying to recruit foreign students find themselves in an even more challenging situation.

“If I were a public school official in 2019, I’d think hard about starting a program,” MacKay said.

Public high schools can admit international students for only one year under U.S immigration law. Students have to leave the high school at the end of that year. Some, like Le, transfer to another high school. Others attend only during their senior year, then might try to attend college in the U.S.

Erika Dixon, a longtime English teacher at Orono High School who took on the role of recruiting international students last spring, said she experienced this hurdle firsthand.

“What I found on a trip [to China] is that a lot of students are looking for a longer experience than one year,” she said.

Orono High School started its international program almost a decade ago, and originally intended it to be much bigger than it currently is.

Over the past few years, the international student enrollment has dropped from 14 students in 2017-18 to three students this year.

In the early years, the school district had an agreement with the University of Maine to use college dorms to house international students, but as enrollment at the university rose, that deal ended.

Another factor that led to the drop in international students in recent years for Orono was the end of a partnership with a sister school in China, Dixon said.

At one point, public Maine high schools with dwindling populations looked to international students to make up for the loss in student numbers and the corresponding loss in revenue.

All about diversity

Even though international student programs are more difficult to maintain now than they were a few years ago, administrators from public and private schools agree that having foreign students contributes essential diversity to the learning experience for all students.

Tuition and boarding costs that international students pay — for example, $45,000 per year at John Bapst — also are important revenue sources.

Before Bapst started the international program, the school would struggle to find a single cello player, MacKay said. Now the school orchestra has a whole cello section. The arts program, the math curriculum and language learning have all been enriched by the addition of international students, MacKay said.

“If we’re all about quality, then we’d better be all about diversity,” he said.

For the students, those academic and cultural opportunities are what stand about their experience, not any hostility toward international students.

“Honestly, I don’t care about the political climate,” Le said. “All I care is about is the experience we get here, how much we learn in the U.S. and how much we grow up living far from home.

Choosing the U.S. was awesome for my future, and being an American teenager is fun.”