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Luis Carranza

This summer Peru president Alan Garc?a chose University of Minnesota alum Luis Carranza, a macroeconomics expert, as his country's minister of economics and finance.

From international student to world leader

University of Minnesota alumni lead countries, hold top cabinet positions in nations around the world

By Pauline Oo

Dec. 1, 2006

International students come to the University of Minnesota for many of the same reasons U.S. students do. Some are attracted to the U's highly ranked programs. Others, like Somwung Pitiyanuwat, come because they know a graduate, or they know someone who has emigrated to Minnesota. "I thought probably my professor in Thailand, Wichit Srisa-an, was so great because of what he learned here," said Pitiyanuwat in 2005 when he received an Outstanding Achievement Award from the U. "So I applied to only one university, the University of Minnesota."

Pitiyanuwat, who earned his Ph.D. in educational psychology in 1976, is currently director of the Office of National Standards and Quality Assessment, reporting to the prime minister of Thailand. Srisa-an, his mentor, is Thailand's new minister of Education. Srisa-an gained his master's degree from the U in 1963, and later, a Ph.D. in 1967.

For more than a century, the University of Minnesota has enrolled international students and taught foreign languages. Today, the University has more than 4,000 international students and scholars from about 130 countries--the fourth-largest international student population in the Big Ten. But in the next decade, those numbers might just jump. As the U transforms itself into one of the top three public research universities in the world, it is increasing its efforts to bring international students to its campuses. In the last year and a half, for example, the University has sent a team of top administrators to recruit international students for its campuses. They have visited high schools and college fairs in such countries as Turkey, Singapore, China, Japan and South Korea.

International students are an important addition to the University, says Ed Foster, former chair of the U's Department of Economics, because they can bring new and different viewpoints to academic discussions and classroom learning.

"We finance most of our graduate programs through teaching assistantships, so a lot of these folks have come here and taught for us," he says. "And that brings a terrific perspective to undergraduate classes, to have people with this international experience. In the graduate program, I don't think that the cultural differences and the mingling of cultures are so important. I think it's just mainly getting a lot of very bright people together--scratching their heads together and figuring things out."

"Quite a few of our faculty have on-going professional relations with faculty in other countries and when they visit [those countries] and meet a really good student, they'll encourage them to come here," said Ed Foster, former economics chair.

Foster says his department's graduate program typically has an entering class of 22, with only three or four students from the United States. "The rest come from all over," he says. "We have students from Latin America, Europe and Asia; rarely from Africa, though."

With this makeup of international students, it's no wonder that the department now has ties to six world leaders--or six individuals who are directly involved in running a country. They are Geir Hilmar Haarde, prime minister of Iceland (M.A. '77); Okyu Kwon, deputy prime minister and minister of finance and economy of the Republic of Korea (M.A. '81); Luis Carranza Ugarte, Peru's minister of economics (M.A. and Ph.D. '96); Miguel Sebastian Gascon, chief economic advisor to the prime minister of Spain (Ph.D. '85); Zvi Eckstein, deputy governor of the Bank of Israel (Ph.D. '81) and Fai-Nan Perng, governor of the Central Bank of China (M.S. '71).

"This is just a very highly rated economics department, and some people stay in academics and some people get drawn into policy making," says Foster, when asked why so many economics alumni have ended up in top positions. "Economics is policy-related, particularly in banking and finance."

President Bruininks with Fai Nan Perng
President Bob Bruininks and his wife, Susan Hagstrum, with U alum Fai Nan Perng at a 2004 gathering in Taipei for the U of M Alumni Association-Taiwan Chapter. Perng, governor of the Central Bank of China, is chapter president. Photo courtesy of the Office of the President.

The department doesn't actively recruit students, adds Foster, and instead, relies primarily on word of mouth.

"Quite a few of our faculty have on-going professional relations with faculty in other countries and when they visit [those countries] and meet a really good student, they'll encourage them to come here," said Foster.

While some international students choose to stay in the United States or to divide their time between two countries--like U alum Zvi Eckstein, who, prior to his appointment as the second in command of the Central Bank of Israel, held joint faculty positions at the University of Minneosta (Mario Henrique Simonson Chair in Labor Economics) and the Berglas School of Economics at Tel-Aviv University--many other international students use their experience at the University of Minnesota to change the worlds from which they come.

"I think I had really good luck to come here," said Pitiyanuwat on the Twin Cities campus in 2005. "I learned from my professors not just to be a student but to solve problems. That is what I am trying to do now in Thailand--solve problems."

With excerpts from Link, winter 2005, a publication by the College of Education and Human Development.

Further reading One size does not fit all Capstone year abroad The Minnesota-China connection