Phil Huyler from the Bahamas.
Phil Huyler from the Bahamas, the first international student to win the Tommie Award, 1972.

Tales from the Archives: International Students at St. Thomas

As November is International Education Month, it is a good time to reflect on how international students have been a part of the University of St. Thomas community since its very beginning.

St. Thomas’ first international student was Peter McPhee, a native of Prince Edward Island, Canada. He enrolled as a part of the first class of the St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in 1885. McPhee completed his collegiate education in 1888 and then continued studies as a seminarian until his graduation in 1892. After his ordination for the Diocese of Fargo, he served North Dakota parishes in Fargo, Jamestown, and Cando and was chaplain at hospitals in Bismarck and Devil’s Lake.

During the 1910s and 1920s, St. Thomas attracted a number of students from Canada, Mexico, and several countries in the Caribbean. The Philippines, surprisingly, was No. 2 on the list of home countries of international students enrolled during this period. Many of these students were referred to the college by Father J. Raymond Volz. One of the first graduates of St. Thomas, Volz spent six years as a missionary, working at Santa Tomas University of Manila and as rector at the Cathedral of Manila during this time. Enrollment numbers for students from the Philippines peaked in the mid-1920s, then slowly tapered off in the early 1930s.

In the years immediately after World War II, international enrollment ticked up to 10-15 students per academic year. During this period, St. Thomas began to expand its recruitment of students beyond its previously established networks in North America. It was during this period that school’s first student from Africa, Joseph Ofori from Ghana (then the Gold Coast, British West Africa), enrolled at the college.

A student residence called the The Annex became home to a mix of international and American students during the early 1950s. Students lived in the converted house at the corner of Marshall and Prior avenues along with St. Thomas English Professor Joseph O'Brien and his family. This residence hall provided a home-like atmosphere where students could improve their language skills and share their culture with others.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, international students became very active in the life of campus. They organized the first Foreign Students Club (later renamed the International Students Club) at St. Thomas. This organization provided a social community for international students as well as cultural education for the rest of the student body through dances and other events. And in 1972, star track athlete Phil Huyler from the Bahamas won the Mr. Tommy Award (now the Tommie Award), becoming the first international student to win this competition.