Crista Ames and Junko Matsumura are both bright, friendly, and soft-spoken. They are just a few months apart in age. And both want to go out and see the world.

It was these common interests that brought the student from Kennewick and the student from Osaka together at McCroskey Hall last winter. They’re roommates in a program that pairs international students with American counterparts to foster greater understanding between cultures. The residence hall, a former women’s dormitory that was remodeled in 2001, is home to close to 70 students, half of whom hail from places like Japan, France, Wales, China, and Bahrain. In all, WSU hosts about 80 non-degree students, like Junko, each year. They come to learn English and experience a semester of study abroad.

While McCroskey has a healthy mix of residents from around the world, the number of international students attending Washington State University has dropped precipitously. For spring semester, enrollment was down to 538 graduate students and 582 undergraduates– down 8 percent from spring term last year–and this is the second year of decline. But WSU is in no worse off than the rest of the nation, says Paul Svaren, the University’s international enrollment manager. The decline here matches the national trend.

Part of the problem for WSU is that the community colleges that transfer foreign students here have been experiencing their own enrollment drop, especially after September 11. The community colleges have stepped up efforts to recruit overseas, but have had to battle negative images of the states and concerns from students and families about safety, says Svaren.

On a larger scale, all the nation’s schools are facing increased competition from other English-speaking countries, specifically, Canada, Australia, and England. Those governments pay for recruiting, and they’re promising the foreign students cheaper educations and easier-to-obtain visas, says Svaren.

But by this coming fall, the foreign enrollment outlook at WSU could change for the better. Washington’s community colleges have been reporting a rise in numbers of international students, many now ready to transfer to a four-year program.”That pipeline will start feeding us more students,” Svaren says. There is also a new initiative by the Saudi Cultural Mission to bring at least 5,000 students to the United States to learn English for a year. This spring WSU has 15 from that program, and that number is expected to double by the next school year, says Svaren. And China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and India, the countries that send the most students to WSU, are still offering a strong supply, he says.

The current on-campus shortage meant that Crista Ames had to go without an international roommate fall semester. When she heard that a student from Kansai Gaidai University in Japan wanted an American roommate this spring, she eagerly volunteered, even though it meant living with someone very new to speaking English. Ames, an education major, had been to Honduras and knew the challenges of getting by in a new language far away from home. She also describes herself as a”mom-type,” for whom helping a schoolmate from Japan comes naturally.”I really wanted to live with an international student,” she says, as she sits next to Junko on her bed and peers into her roommate’s photo album.”This was my one opportunity.”

While living together has been fun, it hasn’t been easy for either woman. During the first few days of Junko’s five-week stay, there was a lot of pointing and gesturing, says Crista. Finally Junko resorted to a hand-held translator for help. But now the women, who share a two-room corner suite, have adapted to each other, and, in a way, are enjoying the struggle of communicating with someone from a different world.