"A Cosmopolitan Tradition": Early Foreign Students

International Student Population Chart Chart depicting international student population.

Charts showing international student population at UM by Wilfred Shaw, 1934. Click for larger.

The University of Michigan enrolled its first foreign students, one from Mexico and one from Wales, in 1847, within the first decade of its founding in Ann Arbor. Over the next few years, they were joined by several Canadians and Hawaiians. Most of the early "foreign" students were the children of American missionaries who had been born abroad, and therefore may not have experienced the culture shock that later foreign students would.

Students began arriving from Asia as early as 1872, with the matriculation of Saiske Tagai of Japan, who studied literature for three years but did not earn a degree. He was joined by several more of his country -men over the next few years, including law students. The 1890s saw a great rise in the population of international students at the University, with the arrival of the first Chinese, South American and Middle Eastern students. Although it seems surprising that a midwestern University in a moderately-sized town would bring together such a cosmopolitan body of students, much of the diversity can be attributed to University President James B. Angell, who served as U.S. minister to China (1880-81) and Turkey (1897-98) and did much to elevate the reputation of the University in the eyes of the world.

Other forces also brought foreign students to the University; for example, Jose Celso Barbosa came to Ann Arbor from Puerto Rico in 1877 after being rejected from Columbia University's medical school on racial grounds.

Chinese Student gathering

Chinese Student party in Rackham Hall, undated.

The earliest international students paved the way for the many thousands of foreign-born who would seek an education at the University of Michigan. As J. Raleigh Nelson, founder of the Nelson International House wrote in 1935, this cosmopolitanism is "a Michigan tradition that goes well back to the beginning of the history of the University."

This exhibition looks at the stories of a few of the earliest and most notable foreign students: