Cranwell International Center supports global Hokies
Want to see the world? Head for Blacksburg. Well, at least that’s one way you might look at it.
Virginia Tech, which sits in the New River Valley (population: approximately 44,300), boasts the largest number of international students of any college or university campus in the state.
In pre-COVID years, about 4,000 international students populated Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus every fall, making up about 11% of Tech’s student body.
“There are not many places in the world you can go where you have more than 4,000 people from 100 countries interspersed with more than 30,000 other students learning together,” says David Clubb, director of Virginia Tech’s Cranwell International Center.
International students also comprise roughly 40% of all graduate students at Virginia Tech. “That’s a huge percentage and something that is very important to us as we move forward. They are so important to graduate education here,” says Clubb. In fact, some graduate programs would not be possible without international students who fill the seats and provide the tuition that keep the wheels turning, Virginia Tech officials say.
However, the number of international students fluctuated last year, as the worldwide pandemic disrupted everything from travel to the availability of vaccines. From fall 2019 to fall 2020, Tech saw “a significant drop” in international students — about 12% fewer, says Clubb, who’s hoping this semester will be closer to normal.
For those international students, Tech’s Cranwell International Center is the heartbeat of campus.
The center helps international students deal with visas, immigration questions, enrollment and just about anything else a young person who has potentially traveled from the other side of the globe would want to know.
In June, Virginia Tech announced that the Cranwell family, for whom the Cranwell International Center is named, had donated $7 million to advance the work of the center. The amount was a record gift for Virginia Tech Student Affairs.
“Our family wants international students to know how valued they are by the entire Hokie community,” the Cranwells said in the news release announcing the donation.
Lonely no more
It all began with Bill Cranwell. A former Virginia Tech quarterback who graduated in 1957, he went on to become a hugely successful developer of health care facilities. Now 87, he says it was during his early years at Virginia Tech that he heard about international students. “There were only a handful of them then,” says Cranwell.
He remembers hearing about an international student becoming despondent and homesick because he couldn’t visit his family, even during the holidays. And “I kept thinking, ‘Here we were going home to our families and here’s this kid thousands of miles away from home, stuck there on campus.’”
Over the years, the idea of that student’s loneliness stuck with Cranwell, perhaps because his family had always been close and depended on each other.
Later, as his prosperity increased, thoughts about the lonely international student surfaced again for Cranwell.
His sister, Mary Ellen Deemer, put him in touch with then-Virginia Tech Provost David Roselle, who later became president of the University of Kentucky and the University of Delaware.
After talking with his sister and Roselle, Cranwell decided that he wanted to make a gift to Virginia Tech, which had awarded football scholarships to him and his two brothers, Bob and Dick Cranwell.
“Being an athlete, you’d think there was a tendency for me to donate to the athletic department,” Cranwell says, “but I wanted to do something different for our family.”
So, in 1986, Cranwell moved to Roanoke and donated his home in Blacksburg to Tech, creating the Cranwell International Center.
For nearly 30 years before the center moved to Harper Hall on campus, the former Cranwell home welcomed thousands of international students, offering them a sense of community.
Cranwell’s pleased at the way things have progressed, because he believes that international students are part of a successful future for Virginia Tech. And he has no plans to impose his will on what has already been a successful enterprise. “Like in my business life, I try to pick people who have succeeded. I make a contribution and then let them do what they do best,” Cranwell says.
Cranwell’s whole family backs the Cranwell International Center team and hopes to work with them for years to come, he says.
Home away from home
One of the ways Clubb hopes the Cranwell family’s latest gift to the university will be used is to improve the welcome that international students receive when they arrive in the U.S. That recommendation came directly from the international students themselves.
“We want to find a way that as soon as they get to the United States, we’re there to help them find their way to Virginia Tech. At other places I’ve worked, we had airport pickup or just had people stationed at the airport,” Clubb says.
He adds that it’s hugely important that the commonwealth and Virginia Tech keep the door open to international students. “They create jobs when they get out of here; they create companies. They’re the best and brightest from around the world. Those are the people we want to be coming here,” Clubb says.
In a July 2020 court declaration in support of a nationwide lawsuit filed against the Department of Homeland Security over a requirement that international students must attend in-person classes or leave the U.S., Clubb explained the importance of international students.
“Nearly 21,000 international students studying at colleges and universities in the commonwealth of Virginia contribute $757.9 million to the commonwealth’s economy and support 9,143 jobs. In the commonwealth’s U.S. Congressional
9th District alone, where Virginia Tech is located, international students contribute $164.9 million to the local economy and support 2,258 jobs,” Clubb wrote, adding that international students have contributed more than $100 million in revenue to Virginia Tech in tuition, fees, room and board, and the like.
The federal government eventually withdrew its proposals regarding international students.
Jianuo Huang, a Chinese student who earned an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech and is now hoping to pursue a Ph.D. in renewable energy, has only praise for the Cranwell International Center’s efforts to help international students.
“Cranwell made us feel at home,” Huang says. “It made Virginia Tech feel like our second home.”
China sends more students to Virginia Tech than any other nation, with Chinese students representing about half of all international students. India and South Korea come next.
Huang says the Cranwell Center starts welcoming new international students even before they leave China. Every year until the pandemic struck, Virginia Tech hosted predeparture orientation sessions in Beijing and Shanghai for students and their parents.
Virginia Tech is known throughout China, and among international students generally, Huang says, for its technology, engineering and computer science courses, which are among the most popular for international students coming to the U.S.
Through international street fairs, café get-togethers and other activities, Virginia Tech gives international students a chance to meet each other and non-international Tech students, Huang says.
Such opportunities, he says, “make all international students feel proud of where they come from.”
Frank Shushok, vice president of student affairs at Virginia Tech, says international students help provide other university students with a global perspective and a point of view to which they might otherwise never be exposed.
“Many of our domestic students may have never had an opportunity to study abroad, may never have lived or traveled abroad,” Shushok says. “But engagement with international students at Virginia Tech and learning about cultures around the world is one way we bring a global land grant university to Southwest Virginia.”
Kabyl Oxikbayev, who hails from Kazakhstan, is a recent civil engineering graduate of Virginia Tech. He says the Cranwell International Center impressed him with its “super efficiency. … With Cranwell International, from the time I was accepted by the university, they were always in contact — do this, do this — and sending me all the documents on time.”
The center also helped Oxikbayev adjust to a new country and a completely different culture, helping him find an undiscovered interest in art.
He became involved with a living-learning program that brings together students from different majors in a creative environment. “It was a good way of relaxing and meeting my friends, and that’s where most of my friends come from,” Ozikbayev says.
Clubb, the Cranwell International Center’s director, says the new Cranwell family gift will enable the center to expand its reach to a wider audience at Virginia Tech.
“We want every single student, domestic or international, to engage with the Cranwell Center before they graduate,” Clubb says. “We will need to put experiences in place that result in students who leave here having engaged with people who are different, so they share and learn from each other and [become] globally competent.”
Virginia Tech At a glance
Virginia’s original land-grant university, Virginia Tech was known as Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College when it was founded in 1872. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University is the state’s second-largest public university by enrollment.
Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg main campus stretches over 2,600 acres. Tech also has six regional presences statewide and a study-abroad campus in Switzerland. Currently, the university is building its $1 billion Innovation Campus in Alexandria, near Amazon.com Inc.’s HQ2.
(2020-21 enrollment data)
First professional: 672
Approximately 11,000 nonfaculty staff members
2,070 full- and part-time faculty;
51% are tenured
Tuition and fees, housing and financial aid*
Undergraduate in-state tuition
and fees: $14,175
Undergraduate out-of-state tuition and fees: $33,857
Room and board and other fees: $9,876
Average financial aid awarded to full-time, in-state undergraduates seeking assistance in 2021-2: $8,588