The St. Louis region needs more immigrants to help bolster the economy.
That's the basic premise behind the St. Louis Mosaic Project, an initiative to make the St. Louis region the fastest growing major metro area of foreign-born residents by 2020.
A key part of the project – which is supported by an A-list of St. Louis city and county officials – is retaining international students. Area universities figure they can pitch in and are gathering at Washington University Tuesday to discuss the best ways for St. Louis to hang on to international students after graduation.
“We have probably 7,000 to 8,000 at any given time in the St. Louis region,” said Betsy Cohen, who manages the Mosaic Project. “The research shows they are interested in staying, but they need the connections and the hard and the soft skills to interview and be connected to open minded employers."
The Mosaic Project, which turns 1 year old this Friday, was launched the same day a comprehensive immigration reform package cleared the U.S. Senate. Since then, immigration reform has stalled on Capitol Hill and the task of keeping more international students in the region after they receive diplomas has proved harder than anticipated.
“We want to explore together how we can help save some of the great brain power that we’re bringing into the St. Louis region through all of our schools,” said Carol Moakley, associate director of career development at Washington University.
In addition to Washington University, other schools taking part in the effort are Saint Louis University, Webster University, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Moakley said each university is already trying to help foreign students find work at local employers, which could ultimately help sponsor them through the immigration process. However, best practices specific to the St. Louis region aren’t always being shared.
The Mosaic Project is also keeping a close eye on Massachusetts, where Gov. Deval Patrick is pushing for a first of its kind program to create a public-private partnership that employs international students at Massachusetts colleges or universities while they work for startups or create new businesses. Cohen said lawyers working for the Mosaic Project are exploring whether St. Louis could create something similar.
“We will be exploring what that kind of an opportunity would look like in our region, the cost and the structure,” Cohen said. “We will then be bringing it forward to see if it is a reasonable option.”
Other ideas include collectively operating a training program that teaches international students how they can successfully enter the American workforce.
Moakley said this type of collaboration around international students hasn’t happened in the past and could spin off into other efforts like diversifying student bodies and making college more affordable.
“We have a lot of great educational institutions,” Moakley said. “It’s very exciting that this is happening this year, at this time, with these particular schools; just as a start for St. Louis to keep growing and becoming more diverse over time.”