Why Foreign-Born Alumni Will be a Growing Gold Mine for Colleges

We've been writing about many different sources of higher education funding. Beyond the obvious alumni donors, there are non-alumni who get drawn into a new region and then a school, and there are even monied professors who've been making big gives. But here's one group that might not be at the top of most major gift officers' development prospect list: foreign-born alumni.

Nearly 900,000 foreign students studied on U.S. campuses last year, triple the number of thirty years ago. This influx really got underway in the 1980s, which means a growing number of foreign-born alumni have now had time to make their fortunes and are hitting their prime giving years. That trend will continue sharply upward in the near future. These alums, it's fair to say, are often different than their American-born peers. They came to campus as true outsiders and many are intensely grateful for the opportunities opened by their alma maters. Quite a few end up staying in the the United States. 

Consider the case of Mukund Padmanabhan, an Indian-born UCLA alumnus, who recently gave $2.5 million to to the university toward construction of a semiconductor lab in the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science. Before Padmanabhan received his master's and doctorate degrees from UCLA, he studied in his native India, completing a bachelors degree in electronics, communication, and engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology.

Padmanabhan recalls almost not being able to attend UCLA for graduate school, but then a last minute fellowship came his way, allowing him to come to the states.

After graduating, Padmanabhan joined the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center. These days, he does research in statistical financial modeling for Renaissance Technologies, a hedge fund management firm in New York.

Much like a lot of higher education gives, it's easy to see that gratitude is a big part here, but with a unique twist. Padmanabhan got his American start at UCLA and has since gone on to much success. As someone who knows a lot of international students, and indeed has a father who came to this country as a student, I know that the normal stressors of applying for college are compounded when you're coming at it as a non-American. And that's even before you land on American soil.

Padmanabhan's own experiences as an international student have given him perspective. To that end, he cofounded Guru Krupa Foundation, which, according to its website, bankrolls various "Social," "Educational," and "Religious Projects." In Sanskrit, Guru Krupa means "by the grace of the teacher." Since 2007, the foundation has supported local Hindu temples in the New York area, funded housing construction projects in India through Children International, and funded scholarships in engineering for international students. It wouldn't be a stretch to say Padmanabhan's entire philanthropic vision is motivated by his experiences.

Oh, by the way, this isn't the first time Padmanabhan has given to UCLA. He's made three previous gifts of $500,000 each, establishing and supporting the Guru Krupa Foundation Fellowships in Electrical Engineering at UCLA. As we always like to say, smaller giving can lead to larger giving down the line, particularly when a funder is happy with how his or her money is being spent. Padmanabhan clearly is.

Padmanabhan's current gift of $2.5 million will construct a semiconductor lab, which will be called the Mukund Padmanabhan Systems Scaling Technology Laboratory; it's dedicated to "improving the performance, cost-effectiveness, and energy efficiency of heterogeneously integrated microsystems, including 3-D integrated circuits and assemblies."