THE BLOG
09/08/2014 05:12 EDT | Updated 11/08/2014 05:59 EST

Why American Universities Are So Alluring To Asian Students

The number of foreign students has doubled since even 2000. Some 265,000 go to Canada, over 200,000 to Australia, and more than 420,000 to the UK. While the American empire may be in decline, its universities still hold a great allure for the youth of the world for their academic leadership, freedom to explore and create and share, and their inviting and equitable atmosphere.

Our family loves the popular movie Finding Nemo. But while others appreciate its vivid animation and clever script, we feel the story is really about us. Marlin the father fish is very much my husband: organized, wary, and protective. Dory, the mother substitute, is me: accepting of everyone, well-meaning, and highly forgetful. Nemo is the equivalent of our daughter Kalpana: optimistic, thoughtful, eager to be independent and out in the world, but concerned about her parents' well-being.

Like Nemo, we too were living in a paradise -- in the small sea-side town of Cascais in Portugal. Our barracuda was cancer; it snatched Kalpana's little brother away when he was 3 and she was 7. Thereafter, like the singleton Nemo, Kalpana found an assortment of friends along the way. Beginning with her constant cousin Kiran and joined by a myriad of transient international school kids, Kalpana finished high school with a diverse tight-knit gang of pseudo-siblings.

And now Kalpana is beginning her solo journey. Having spent most of her school years in India, she's off this fall for university in the US.

While her grandfather went abroad for his doctorate degree and her father went abroad for his master's, Kalpana is going away for her undergraduate. Today, earlier and larger migration for higher education is common. The number of foreign students has doubled since even 2000. Some 265,000 go to Canada, over 200,000 to Australia, and more than 420,000 to the UK. While the American empire may be in decline, its universities still hold a great allure for the youth of the world for their academic leadership, freedom to explore and create and share, and their inviting and equitable atmosphere. During the 2012-2013 academic year, over 800,000 foreign students came just to U.S. colleges.

While slower economic conditions in Western countries may be compelling their students to live at home and study, a growing middle-class is pushing those in crowded and competitive developing countries -- such as China, India, and South Korea -- to look west for interesting, better, and simply more education opportunities. There have been reports in the Indian press about Indian students failing to make it into good Indian colleges but getting admission into American Ivy League institutions. American universities too are casting their nets globally. Their admissions officers now regularly visit leading Indian high schools and their public information sessions are often packed to beyond capacity. It's worth their extra effort: while many local students get some form of financial support, foreign students (particularly undergrads) usually pay full fees.

The growing affluence in Asian countries makes this process financially possible while the globally spread of American culture makes it socially easier. Although studies analyze the cultural adjustments and mental stress experienced by foreign students, the three vehicles of travel, internet, and Hollywood have exposed many to American culture and language long before they reach its shores. Also, with the large immigrant population in the US, many foreign students now have family and friends already settled in the US and therefore a ready source of social support. Consequently, Asian cultures are prevalent on the ground in America. For example, even small towns in North America have at least one Indian restaurant and its college, an Indian Students Association, and its Indian community, often a temple.

And although Asians are literally transplanted to the other side of the world, with the advance of telecommunications, the world is made significantly smaller and homesickness is reduced. Foreign students can retain an inexpensive and extensive daily link with home via email, Facebook, Skype, Viber, WhatsApp, and a myriad of other programs. If only Nemo and Marlin had had cell phones, they could have saved themselves a lot of trouble. However, parents and children will still have to learn how to live without the other.

Nemo in Latin means 'no one'. The optimist in me likes to think that therefore that name includes everyone and his journey is one we can all empathize with. Kalpana in Sanskrit means 'imagination'. I like to think that armed with that, she will manage her way in the wider world. And if she does meet any predators along the way, I hope they will be in rehab -- like Bruce the shark: fish-friendly or at least trying to be good.

Finding Nemo may take place under the ocean but it's actually a road movie. And while the plot may seem to be the journey of father Marlin searching for and finding his son Nemo, in essence it's the journey of Nemo finding himself. Although there are now many foreign students, each will still have an individual journey. As in Nemo's ocean, there may be set currents but no set paths. Their experiences and results will be their own. Kalpana will go to places we have never been. She will meet people we do not know. She will have adventures we will not be aware of -- unless she wants to share them with us. I hope all she's learned so far will serve her well. And if she's ever feeling low, I hope she'll remember how much she is loved.

We found Kalpana 18 years ago. And she has been a treasure in our lives. Now, as we stand back, watch her swimming away from us and our sheltered coral reef and alone towards the unknown, it's time for her to find herself.

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