Sadness in international-student community after tour-bus tragedy

SEATTLE — Washington educators who teach students from abroad were deeply saddened by the news that students in North Seattle College’s international program were involved in the deadly accident on the Aurora Bridge Thursday.

“It’s just been horrible,” said Andrea Insley, executive director of global initiatives for the Seattle Colleges district. Insley spent the afternoon at Harborview, helping to get emergency contact information for the students to hospital officials.

“We are all certainly very saddened and grieved by this loss because it hits close to home,” said Diana Sampson, executive director of international education at Shoreline Community College. “This is our community. It’s a tragedy all around.”

North Seattle College is working with government officials to notify the families of the four students who died. They also said that one college employee is among those seriously injured.

Last year, more than 25,000 international students attended college in Washington — up nearly 12 percent from the year before. And more than 18,000 of those students were enrolled in Washington’s 34 community and technical colleges.

International students who choose community colleges are often the children of middle-class families, cost-conscious about the expense of getting a diploma in a foreign country, educators said. Some are still working to improve their English skills, and begin their college studies in an English-as-a-Second-Language class before they enroll in regular college courses. Others are still in high school — they enroll in Running Start, the program that offers both high school and college credit.

About 900 international students enroll annually at North Seattle College, said spokesman Melissa Mixon. They make up a sizable minority of the school’s 4,000-per-quarter enrollment.

The students involved in Thursday’s crash had boarded two charter buses in front of the college. They were heading to Safeco Field, and later a stop at Pike Place Market, as part of a new-student orientation. Classes begin Monday.

Insley said most international students either stay in apartments near their college or stay with a host family. The new-student orientation includes a series of field trips to Seattle’s favorite tourist destinations.

Ross Jennings, vice president of international programs and extended learning at Green River College in Auburn, said most international students who start at a community college intend to transfer for the final two years to a four-year college or university.

A U.S. diploma is highly sought-after in foreign countries, especially in Asia. About one-third of international students studying in Washington are from China, according to the Institute of International Education.

Just as at North Seattle, Green River holds a week of orientation, a fun tour of the area meant to introduce newcomers to Washington. “That’s what makes it so heartbreaking, because there but for the grace of God .,” Jennings said.

Sampson, of Shoreline Community College, said Seattle is an especially desirable destination because it’s a fast-growing port city and the home to Microsoft, Starbucks and Amazon.

For many international students, starting at a Seattle college is one of the magical moments of their lives, which makes Thursday’s deadly crash especially tragic.

“There’s no words to express the tragic loss we’re all feeling at this time,” she said.

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