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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

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International Festival Honors Tom Gjersvig

Gjersvig came to University in 2000.

2016-04-11
Kristine Goodrich, Mankato Free Press, 4-9-2016

MANKATO — International student enrollment has nearly doubled during Tom Gjersvig’s 15 years as leader of the International Student and Scholar Services office at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

When he came to Minnesota State Mankato in 2000, the university had about 500 students from abroad. Today the university has more than 1,100 international students — roughly 7 percent of the student population.

The International Student and Scholar Services department recruits students from abroad, helps them obtain and retain visas, helps them acclimate to a new culture, and helps them share their home culture with the campus and greater Mankato community.

Gjersvig is preparing for retirement as well as his office’s grandest cultural celebration: the Mankato Area International Festival.

Sunday will mark the 40th year of the free festival that features global food, entertainment, crafts and more. It draws 1,500 to 2,000 visitors each year.

The festival opens with a flag procession, reminiscent of an Olympic Games opening ceremony with international students carrying flags of their home countries. For the last few years the festival has honored a supporter of international students as the grand marshal of the flag parade. Gjersvig is this year’s honoree.

Gjersvig is retiring April 18. His successor hasn’t yet been appointed.

He’s the third person to lead the International Student and Scholar Services program since its establishment in 1972. Gjersvig came to the university with experience serving abroad and assisting international students in southern Minnesota.

He volunteered in the Peace Corps helping new farmers in Costa Rica start safe small-scale farming operations. He later spent a decade working with international students, including a number of refugees, at Rochester Community and Technical College.

When he started at Minnesota State Mankato, its international students coming were learning about the school primarily through word-of-mouth referrals.

The university wasn’t doing much back then to attract students from other countries, Gjersvig said.

As foreign enrollment waned after the 2001 terrorist attacks, Gjersvig said the university began more active recruitment efforts. Social media are now the primary recruitment tools.

Legislation following Sept. 11 also expanded his department’s responsibilities to include new government reporting requirements. Schools hosting foreign students must submit biannual updates about each student to a government database.

The International Student and Scholar Services office also helps admitted students obtain their visas and provides assistance with preparations such as finding housing. An orientation is hosted each August providing resources and volunteer student mentors answer any additional questions the new students may have.

The office sponsors a Friendship Family Program pairing interested international students with local families willing to take the student under their wing.

Gjersvig and his colleagues also provide support to the International Student Association, which organizes events aimed at engaging international students and teaching others on campus about their homelands.

Gjersvig said one of his favorite parts of the job is “seeing the joy the students have in sharing their culture.”

With an endowment started decades ago by a professor, the international center also awards 10 scholarships each year to returning international students.

This fall Minnesota State Mankato had 1,129 international students from 89 counties. The country from which the most Minnesota State Mankato international students hail is Saudi Arabia. Of the 181 students coming from the Middle East to Minnesota State Mankato, 158 are from Saudi Arabia. Nearly half of this year’s class of international students come from Asia, including 106 from Korea, 106 from India, 81 from Bangladesh and 80 from Nepal.

The entire version of this story can be read in a print copy of the Mankato Free Press. Call the Mankato Free Press at 625-4451 or (800) 657-4662 to find out how to purchase a print copy. The Free Press also prints select stories online at www.mankatofreepress.com.

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