Home » Learning to Love Cincinnati

Learning to Love Cincinnati

Why students come to the region for college, why they stay after graduation, and what it all means for the local economy.

by Leyla Shokoohe

When it comes to selecting a college or university to attend for post-secondary education, students have plenty of options in the Cincinnati region. The University of Cincinnati, Xavier University, Miami University, and Northern Kentucky University are stalwarts, each of them almost-reflexive fill-in-the-blanks for the college edition of the colloquial “Where did you go to school?” query so often uttered.

Local students are aware of these schools due in no small part to proximity bias, but they aren’t the only ones filling out ever-growing enrollment numbers, like UC’s record-breaking 2023-2024 school year figure of 50,921. National and regional attention extends to Mount St. Joseph, Thomas More, Cincinnati State, and the Art Academy of Cincinnati as well.

Students from out of state and out of the country comprise 30 percent of UC’s student body and 35 percent of NKU’s student body. International students are now nearly 1 in 10 at UC, with the top countries of origin including (in order) India, China, Vietnam, Nigeria, and Nepal.

Vu Pham, UC’s student body vice president, is one such individual. “The reason why I really chose the University of Cincinnati is I think they care about the international student,” says Pham, a fifth-year chemical engineering major.

Illustration by Evan Verrilli

Originally from Danang, Vietnam, Pham made plans to attend a community college in Seattle before transferring to a four-year university in order to first dip his toes into the American collegiate education system. “Two years before I even committed to Cincinnati, I met with a UC alum who now works for the university as an international recruiter,” says Pham. “She’s Vietnamese, she met me in my hometown, we got coffee, and she was like, Hey Vu, you’re a good student. Would love to see your application to UC … when you decide ultimately to get your bachelor’s degree. The whole time I was in Seattle, there was this school called Cincinnati in the back of my head.”

Pham met with a transfer counselor at his community college (now a four-year institution called Edmonds College, previously Edmonds Community College) and got the scoop on everything UC had to offer a potential transferring engineering student like him. He learned about UC’s robust co-op program and the chemical engineering track itself.

“It was a very easy decision for me because I think the university of Cincinnati a great job showing they care about this demographic of international students and transfer students and makes sure they’re putting in the effort to recruit us,” says Pham. “I think that was definitely the biggest piece that made me want to come here, plus they have a great engineering program. I really enjoyed having the opportunity to go to class and coop at the same time and get that real industrial experience. To me, that’s the most valuable piece of a University of Cincinnati education.”

Pham’s co-ops included a turn at Givaudan, the Swiss-owned flavoring company with a regional headquarters in Cincinnati. Indeed, UC is famous for pioneering the co-op experience as it’s known today. That was part of the reason 2023 UC graduate Alex van Haaren also chose to attend.

Part of a family line of engineers, van Haaren grew up in Tipp City just outside of Dayton. His brother also attended UC, albeit four years before him. “I was canvassing a lot of different Midwestern universities—Purdue, Ohio State, the University of Dayton, Case Western Reserve—as well as North Carolina State because my parents went there,” says van Haaren. “As I was going through the process and looking through campus tours and the programs and the social life, just trying to get an overall sense of what each one offered, it kind of always came back to UC and Cincinnati. Every time I visited, I loved Cincinnati. It gave a small town feel but also this big city vibe I didn’t have growing up in the country.”

That balance of atmosphere is also what attracted Xavier graduate Jessica Griggs to the region. “I just liked how XU is a small school, obviously, but being set in a bigger city like Cincinnati made it feel like I was getting the best of both experiences,” she says. “I’m from Lafayette, Indiana, which is a smallish city, so it was still a step up in terms of size but wasn’t overwhelming. It was kind of a comfortable transition.”

Alex van Haaren // Photograph by Kevin J. Watkins

Alex van Haaren liked Cincinnati well enough that he stayed after graduation, landing a job with Procter & Gamble. The engineering program at UC requires several “rotations” or co-ops for students at different employers in the field, and his last rotation in summer 2022 was in P&G’s Mason offices.

“I ended up really enjoying it and loving P&G,” he says. “As a UC Bearcat in Cincinnati, everyone knows a P&Ger or is one step away from a P&Ger. It’s part of the city culture in a way, so I always wanted to be part of that.”

Even though he’s employed in offices at the Mason Business and Innovation Center, van Haaren chose to make his home in downtown Cincinnati. “I live on Seventh and Elm streets close to Knockback Nat’s,” he says. “Ideally I’d work at our headquarters downtown, since I live just four blocks away. It would make my morning commute from 25 minutes to about a 10-minute walk, which would be nice, but maybe in the future.”

For now, the future entails staying in Cincinnati. “My short-term goal right now is staying in Cincinnati,” says van Haaren. “I don’t really have any plans to leave. I’m loving that I can hang out with college friends, meet new people, and explore the city more. Despite going to UC, I feel like I haven’t even explored a quarter of Cincinnati, so I’m trying to do as much as I can to really soak it in.”

Rebecca Zemmelman, an attorney with The Family Law and Fertility Law Group in Blue Ash, also saw the potential for connections when she decided to attend UC College of Law after finishing her undergraduate studies at Miami University. “My tour of UC did a really good job of not just talking all about jobs and corporate law and passage rates for the bar exam,” she says. “They really talked about the experience at UC and the opportunities that Cincinnati and UC Law would be able to provide as well as all of the different clinics and internships, externships, and fellowships. And just how integrated this law school is with the greater law community, which really motivated me to go there.”

Emily Sisk // Photograph by Kevin J. Watkins

Current out-of-state tuition for a year is $27,140 at the University of Cincinnati, $40,024 at Miami University, and $21,096 at Northern Kentucky University (residents of certain counties in Ohio and Indiana pay reduced tuition rates at NKU). At Xavier, the only private university from which students were interviewed for this story, tuition cost for a school year (whether in-state or out-of-state) is $47,895.

“Scholarships honestly were my number one draw for why I went here,” says NKU senior Emily Sisk, who grew up in Beaver Dam, a small city in Western Kentucky that’s just over three hours away from NKU. In her experience, most of her fellow residents and peers chose universities closer to home: Murray State, the University of Kentucky, and, most often, Western Kentucky University. “Nearly my entire family went to WKU—my sister, my parents, my aunt—and that was where a ton of my friends went,” she says. “Two of my closest friends are there now.”

Sisk was drawn to NKU initially because of her interest in potentially going to law school upon graduation, with NKU being home to the Salmon P. Chase College of Law. Then another of her sisters attended NKU as part of the Kentucky Governor’s Scholars Program and gave her the first taste of what NKU was like. (Sisk also participated in the program, which helped lead to her robust scholarship opportunities.) As her own deadline for deciding where to attend college approached, with the top two contenders narrowed to NKU or the University of Louisville, college visits cemented her choice.

“I just had this feeling about it that I could so easily picture myself studying there,” Sisk says of NKU. “I had a feeling that the campus was big enough but also small enough. There was the opportunity to really stand out there but also meet a ton of people and have a lot of support.”

Nyah Smith also used scholarship opportunities to help her decide to enroll at Miami University—in her case, funding from Evans Scholars House as a reward for working as a golf caddy during her years at McKinley High School in Canton, Ohio. While Oxford’s proximity to Cincinnati didn’t play a huge factor in why she chose Miami, Smith says she’s taken full advantage of the city as a student.

Nyah Smith

“I like spending time in Cincinnati to get away from campus and from school routines,” she says. “It’s really not that bad of a drive from Oxford. A lot of my friends don’t want to make the trip, but I don’t mind. I enjoy going to FC Cincinnati games and other events, and I’ve gotten to see first-hand how the city is growing and how entrepreneurs are finding their place there.”

A senior majoring in social work and public health, Smith says Cincinnati is on her radar for post-graduation plans, especially considering the huge presence of Miami alumni in the region. “We have a strong alumni office, and any time I’ve mentioned interest in any job field or in graduate studies, they’ve offered to connect me with someone who can help,” she says. “There’s also a strong core of Black Miami alums who are very open to advising and helping Black students.”

Griggs feels the same level of support during her time at Xavier. “I had a great experience there,” she says. “I was really attracted to the smaller classes and being able to build relationships with professors. And, obviously, the programs are great. I really value the relationships I built there, and I feel like it was a really supportive community.”

For Pham, the UC campus community has also been a huge plus. “I never feel that I have to go outside of the Clifton area for the things that I need,” he says. “Kroger is there, and I find there are a lot of diverse food options.” He’s also gravitated toward the off-campus Cincinnati community in general, specifically the Asian diaspora, getting involved with Asianati, the organization celebrating Asian food and culture through an extensive directory and story-oriented website.

“They have just been in general a very helpful community, and the events they do, the work, the mission, I am 100 percent supporting of that,” says Pham. “They have supported me by providing points of advocacy in my role in student government.”

Vu Pham

Pham is involved in the Next Innovations scholar program at UC, and through it was assigned a mentor who works at Fifth Third Bank. This relationship helped expose him to the broader networks that exist in Cincinnati in different sectors. Participating in UC’s student government, he helped restart the school’s Farmer’s Market, which features small and local businesses, getting them in front of a student body that might not otherwise be aware.

“I’m also actively being a part of other things outside of the college campus bubble,” says Pham. “I feel welcomed, and I feel involved. I think sometimes it can feel like these are things that you have to do a bit of extra work to do and you kind of have to step out of the campus to look for them. So I think we should have more of them available, more of their presence on campus. I would love to see more local and small businesses come to campus.”

Zemmelman had a similar experience with the legal community as a gateway to the broader Cincinnati region. She lived in Mt. Adams and in Oakley during law school and fell in love with Cincinnati. “What I loved about Cincinnati the most was the size of the legal community,” she says. “I had a summer internship in Washington, D.C., and I thought for sure I was going to go back there, but I realized that I knew more people in Cincinnati already just with the law students than I would have known within even 10 years of being in a big city like that. I really enjoyed the camaraderie of the people I’d met so far and that everybody was just so quick to help in Cincinnati, quick to connect people. There was just so much opportunity.”

Originally from Ottawa Hills in Toledo, about three hours north of Cincinnati, Zemmelman met her husband while in law school and they decided to make their home in Blue Ash. “I will say, I’ve recruited three different friends of mine to move here from different cities,” she said. “One was living in Columbus, one in D.C., and one in Florida, and I got them to move to Cincinnati. They’re like, You should really become an ambassador of some sort.”

Jessica Griggs // Photograph by Kevin J. Watkins

And in a kind of reverse boomeranging, Zemmelman followed in her mother’s footsteps when she relocated for and after law school. “A little fun fact is my mom is originally from Cincinnati,” she says. “She ended up going to Toledo for law school and stayed in Toledo, and then I came to Cincinnati for law school and stayed here.”

Griggs is also something of a boomerang as well: She left Cincinnati for a position with International Paper in Memphis, Tennessee, after graduating from Xavier in 2018 but returned in 2020. “I was excited to explore a new part of the country,” she says. “I stayed in Memphis for almost two years, and a year or year and a half into that I was like, I really want to move back to Cincinnati. My boyfriend moved down to Memphis with me, and we both were just like, This isn’t the vibe for us. The culture is different, the landscape is different, our friends were in Cincinnati, and so we made the decision to move back.”

Griggs took a new job with Kroger at the end of March 2020, and they made the move back a couple of months later. “We were looking along the Route 50 corridor on the east side for a place to live,” she says. “My boyfriend grew up in Milford, so that’s actually where we landed. We live about five minutes from his childhood home.”

Pham graduates this spring with both his engineering degree and his MBA. He’s keeping his options open, including considering Cincinnati, for his post-graduate plans. “I don’t have a concrete plan yet,” he says. “I’m on the hunt for a full-time offer right now. If I can stay in Cincinnati, I would love to. There are a lot of good companies here I would love to work for, like Kroger, P&G, and Givaudan. Part of the decision when I think about Cincinnati is that there’s a huge variety of industries here that are applicable for my major. Both P&G and Givaudan hire a ton of chemical engineers. There’s already such a robust environment here that would allow me to develop my professional career and catalyze a lot of the personal growth I’ve had, too.”

John Fox contributed to this story.