Annual senior runway show reveals college's worldwide draw

When Jonathon Neeley came to the Columbus College of Art and Design from the northwest Ohio town of Findlay in 1984, he learned about more than art and design principles.

"It's interesting, because when I came here, I had never experienced different cultures," said Neeley, who is now CCAD's international student adviser. "Freshman year, I had a Korean roommate. By senior year, a couple of my best friends were French and German."

These days, the likelihood of a CCAD student having similar experiences is even higher. About 5 percent of the student body is studying on a visa, said associate provost Charlotte Norman.

And the number of international student applicants for this fall's incoming freshman class doubled from last year, Neeley said.

With the theme for CCAD's annual fashion show taking on an around-the-world flair this year, Alive decided to take a closer look at the presence of international students on campus.

Their importance cannot be underestimated, administrators said.

"We look at art, and we see the human experience," CCAD President Denny Griffith said. "And so when you get people from really different backgrounds and cultures and ethnicities, you go from being kind of bland to being really doggone interesting. And that's great."

Those cultural influences played more of a role than usual in this year's fashion show, titled "Origins." Students drew inspiration for their collections from different locales, and three of the four senior international students in the program this year referenced places in or near their home countries.

"I think people really did look to their heritage, especially the international students," fashion design program director and professor Suzanne Cotton said. "Being away from home, I think they thought about where they came from, mostly, which was fun."

So where are they coming from? And what motivates them to come here?

CCAD recruits internationally through local print and online ads and appearances at college fairs, Neeley said, adding that word-of-mouth from grads who end up living around the world is huge.

CCAD draws most of its applications from Northeast and Southeast Asia, he said, adding that that's the case for most U.S. colleges and universities. But recruitment has been branching out into China, too - and the majority of those applicants have been interested in the fashion design program.

"These kids are seeing on the website the fashion work that's coming out of this school. And they're going, 'What? Columbus, Ohio?'" Neeley explained. "Because when you're dealing with international students, especially from Asia everything between California and New York is this gray, strange land."

Selling the city, then, is part of the challenge.

"Really, Columbus is a little village compared to the huge cities some of these students come from," Neeley said.

The city's accessibility, safety and diversity are selling points, Norman said - and having the country's largest university just a few miles away doesn't hurt, either.

Despite local support, international students face inherent obstacles, Cotton said. Seeing their success is a lesson to students who maybe aren't living so far from home.

"They're usually pretty strong students because they've done this - they've gone far away from home," Cotton remarked.

"I spent a year overseas when I was in school, and it's challenging. The regular student just has to worry about their work," she continued. "They don't realize this international student has to come here and figure out how the mail system works, how the banking system works. It adds a whole other level of stress to what already is very stressful."