As a teenager growing up in Jordan in the Middle East, Ayman W. Ali could not imagine that within 20 years he would make a living managing a Rowan University transportation research facility in New Jersey.

Ali, 32, did his undergraduate studies in his native Jordan, but he earned his masters and doctorate degrees in America with a green card obtained through his parents, who were living in this country.

By August 2013, Ali finished his doctorate and did the necessary work to earn U.S. citizenship.

At that point, Ali had to decide whether to head back to Jordan or stay in America.

With minimal research opportunities in his native country, he chose to remain in the U.S.

“If I went back, I would have most likely went into teaching at a school. By the time I went through the education in the U.S., I realized it’s not just education. There is the research aspect to it. I am really more interested in the research of things,” said Ali, of Sewell, Gloucester County.

More foreign student graduates are staying and working in the U.S.

Between 2004 and 2016, nearly 1.5 million foreign graduates of U.S. colleges and universities obtained authorization to remain and work in the U.S. through the federal government’s Optional Practical Training program.

More than half, 53 percent, of the foreign graduates approved for employment specialized in science, technology, engineering or mathematics fields, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement data.

The number of foreign STEM graduates participating in the Optional Practical Training program grew by 400 percent from 2008 to 2016.

Ali came to the U.S. in 2008 to earn his masters at the University of Akron in Ohio. The number of newly enrolled students with F-1 visas, which is the most common type of visa for foreign students, increased from 138,500 in 2004 to 364,000 in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center.

All major, and even medium-size, institutions recruit in some fashion abroad, said Joe Cardona, Rowan University’s vice president for university relations.

“We have a nice, but small, pipeline of graduate students from the Philippines in our engineering program. Their government pays for their education, but the students return to the country as part of their agreement,” Cardona said.

Universities recruit international students for a couple of reasons, said India P. Karavackas, director of the Office of Global Engagement at Stockton University.

One reason is international students tend to pay a different rate, a higher rate, than in-state students, Karavackas said.

“A 21st-century education now includes international experiences because, more likely than not, many of our students who graduate will have some international component to their work experience,” said Karavackas about the second reason universities recruit international students.

Colombia-born Diana Arango-Ruiz pursued a registered nursing degree at Atlantic Cape Community College in Mays Landing and graduated in 2006.

Growing up in Colombia, Arango-Ruiz pretended to be a nurse when she played with her friends.

When she was 14, she wrote an essay about what she wanted to accomplish in her life by the time she was 24.

She wrote that she wanted to be a nurse, come to America and help a lot of people. She earned an “A plus” from her teacher for that essay. Her mother has it in a frame in Colombia. Her father, who was living in this country, sponsored her and her younger sister to come to the U.S.

For the past 15 years, Arango-Ruiz, 36, has been working for AtlantiCare, currently at the City Campus in Atlantic City. While there, she earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia in 2009.

By the time Arango-Ruiz had finished her bachelor’s studies, she decided she would not move back to Colombia because she loved what she was doing at AtlantiCare.

“What I miss the most about my country, Colombia, is the holidays and family gatherings,” said Arango-Ruiz, who now lives in Ventnor. “What I like most in America is the opportunity offered to students like me when I first came to this country.”

Staff Writer

Twenty years as a staff writer in the features department, specializing in entertainment and the arts at The Press of Atlantic City.

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