• Steven Heller

The Migratory Pattern of Design Students

The United States has never made it easy for international students, but they come here in droves anyway. Their tenacity to overcome government bureaucracy, financial burden, alien customs and quirky language is more than admirable, it must be celebrated. Foreign students may think that Americans are doing them a favor, but they are contributing just as much, if not more, to the design culture they are “invading.”


You may think that the “invading” suggests a negative, and if I was one of those seal-off-the-boarder-rightwing-yahoos who believed that “them aliens is stealing our jobs and women-folk” it would be an insult. But like the “British Invasion,” which brought great English bands to the U.S. in the 1960s, the waves of foreign students, especially to New York City, and more specifically to The School of Visual Arts where I co-chair the MFA Design /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program with Lita Talarico, are welcome for various reasons. Let me count the ways:

Design is becoming more global (and therefore homogenous) than ever before and although foreign students may contribute to that leavening out, they cannot help but spice up the field with approaches and insights derived from their homelands.

Who is the designer here?

To be more specific, they cannot help but inject lessons learned before coming to the U.S. For example, SVA’s Korean students invariably inject sensibilities, ranging from raucous to modest, drawn from their native aesthetics. Our Turkish students bring nuances that are drawn from classic Ottoman styles and hybridized modernism. And the list of different dialects goes on.

Design is becoming more about collaborative networks. foreign students (like pen-pals when I was a kid) invite their counterparts into their worlds. Cross-cultural literacy is as important today as design fluency and this would be impossible if not for the presence of foreign students. It is also, forgive the Kumbayah tone of this, a wonderful thing to behold.

The greater the number of foreign students, the more potential for cross-boarder collaborations. The more of these that occur, the greater the options of potential work for U.S. designers.

Design is becoming decentralized as a profession. Okay, there are still capitols in different parts of the World where innovation is incubated, but it is not solely in New York or Los Angeles or Milan, for that matter. Every major city and some minor ones too have vibrant design communities. Foreign students help spread their respective gospel. Design is becoming an kind of Esperanto. Linguistic boundaries are falling down. Design is a commercial and artistic force in many heretofore “non-design” countries. We have students from all over the Pacific Rim with immense talents. All they need is the experience that comes from networking in New York and the U.S. They embrace what they’ve learned here and put it to work in their own countries.

Design is also an engine of the Social Change movements around the world, so the Esperanto learned in the U.S. will have a marked impact in raising the level of well being throughout the world.

Design education is a business, after all, and the addition of foreign students to our national mix is beneficial to the health and well-being of the respective schools. In short, they bring in needed income, which they exchange for all the above benefits.

This invasion is not an occupation as such. Immigration restrictions in the U.S. state that foreigners with only student visas cannot work for salary while they are in school. Graduates are allowed to work for one year on an OTP or Optional Practical Training visa, before receiving the highly prized work visa.  And to be eligible for a work (H-1B) visa it is necessary to be sponsored by a reputable employer. To those who fear their future livelihood is threatened by “outsiders,” think again. Design is a meritocracy and the government tries hard to maintain a priority system too: first qualified Americans, then extra qualified aliens.


What does extra qualified mean, exactly? That’s contextual. But many of the students from China, Taiwan and Korea have far more extensive technical skills than some American students. Students from parts of Europe appear to have been trained better in the conceptual realm. American design studios need both, and so highly trained yet incredibly creative grads are in high demand.


The influx of invaders offers various demographic swings. Europeans are less likely to come in force, as their tuitions are considerably less than in America. South Americans have a bit more presence but not much. For decades, Korean students dominated in many American art and design schools (and liberal arts colleges too). At SVA the percentage of Korean students was as high as 30 percent, with Taiwan raising that number another few percentage points. This has tappered off a bit, as the new surge is from mainland China.


Apparently, in the years since China has opened its doors to the West, an increasing number of  technically astute graduates are seeking post-graduate studies in the U.S. The students from China that I know are energetic, ambitious and wildly creative. What they will leave and take from here is left to be seen.


The migratory path of design students is fascinating to watch. The participants change every year, dictated by economics and technology. But one thing is certain, there are more students coming to the U.S. than leaving for educational opportunities overseas. And yet costs are rising for natives and visitors alike. While this may ultimately have an adverse effect on migration, it has not yet made a large dent in the movement from there to here.


#DailyHeller #Designeducation #foreignstudents #StevenHeller

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