UNIVERSITY PARK | Three years ago, Governors State University started its first international exchange program with Guangdong Technical University in China, bringing students to the south suburbs for a two-year master's of business administration degree.
The initial idea was simple: Increase diversity to the campus and generate more full-time students to the mostly part-time university.
What wasn't considered was that this group would bring national attention to the school of nearly 7,750 students.
Five of the nine students from Guangdong that enrolled the second year of the program are participating today in the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association Championship in Waukesha, Wis., heading into the tournament ranked 23rd in the nation.
This is the first year of the team and the first school-sponsored sport at Governors State.
That the team is made up entirely of international students shines a light on the exchange program at GSU and adds a dimension to international enrollment. All five members graduate this spring, so recruiting already is under way in China to bring interested students -- with ping pong skills -- to University Park.
"Next year, they'll have more and more students," table tennis player Liuzhen Zheng said. "They know GSU and they'll have more and more talent. This is a good way to communicate (about) GSU and let other schools know about our school, and people who only know that there's another GSU in America, that's very famous. But this GSU, nobody knows about. We can go around the (nation) and tell people about it."
Provost David Curtis said that while overall enrollment at the school is up, seeing more international students means that some classes will have the opportunity to fill up.
"We have empty seats," Curtis said. "We're one of the few universities around that have sufficient space in our classrooms. These international students aren't taking up the space of an Illinois student, because the space is already there."
Curtis said that international students in the past have come from the Chicagoland area, having immigrated to the United States first.
He added that Governors State created a following in Malaysia before visa restrictions shut off that valve to the world. Students from India, Pakistan and China have also graduated with GSU degrees.
"It helps in our goal of having more full-time students," Curtis said. "It enriches the campus. ... We have students from well over 50 nations, but most are people who happen to be living in the metropolitan area."
As the school works toward a goal of growing and attracting not just full-time workers taking classes at night, but also full-time students, adding sports such as the table tennis teams brings more of a college atmosphere to the university.
The school advertises its offerings as an opportunity to finish an undergraduate degree after community college or to work through a two-year master's degree. Attracting student-athletes with competitive intercollegiate sports would likely create more full-time students, officials said.