It Started with a Canadian
International students have been part of the University of Wisconsin since its founding. William Stewart from Ancaster, Canada West (now Ontario), was among the 20 men who attended the first UW classes on February 5, 1849.
The turn of the 20th century witnessed a boom in the number of international students at U.S. colleges and universities. In 1899, only nine students from other countries were enrolled at the UW, but just a few years later, Wisconsin was at the vanguard of a new movement to encourage and support international students.
“In March, 1903, 16 foreign students of the University of Wisconsin, representing 11 different nationalities, met in the modest little apartment of Karl Kawakami, a Japanese student,” wrote Louis Lochner BA1909, a native of Illinois (practically another country) who documented the international student experience during his time on campus.
“An international club was to be organized in which all of the foreigners of the university, rich or poor, were to meet on an equal basis of mutual friendship and brotherhood. No similar organization at any other university furnished them a precedent. The action of these 16 men was original, unsolicited, and unprecedented.”
Lochner, who eventually became a prominent activist and journalist, was so involved in the UW’s new “Cosmopolitan Club” that he ultimately served as president of the national Association of Cosmopolitan Clubs that launched in Madison in 1907. The UW club held regular events to celebrate international students’ native cultures, and paper programs have survived from events focused on Norway, Japan, the Philippines, and “all nation nights.”
By 1912, more than 100 male students from 20 countries were attending the UW, rates comparable to Ivy League institutions. During that era, the first four Chinese students came to UW. Yufong Sun BS 1909 transferred to the UW from Cornell after sitting in on a summer course, and he encouraged his cousin Jee-fong Sun BS 1912, and friend Juedan Tun-Shou Chen BS 1909, to join him in pursuing engineering degrees. Chu-Tung Tsai BA 1910 happened to meet a Wisconsin alumnus in his hometown of Canton (Guangzhou), who inspired him to study political science at the UW. The four men were among only a few hundred Chinese scholars studying in America at the time.
“Wisconsin University has a great reputation among the colleges of the east, especially among the institutions of Massachusetts,” Yufong Sun once wrote to Lochner. “It is recognized as one of the leading seats of learning, and I have no doubt that like every state institution, it will ultimately outclass the endowed colleges of the east … [Students] are here with a particular purpose and know how to make the most of the time spent at college.”
Today, there are almost 5,000 international undergraduate and graduate students from more than 130 counties enrolled at the UW, giving Wisconsin one of the largest international student bodies in the United States.