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Alphabet's John Hennessy talks about helping international students with scholarships

Key Points
  • The Knight-Hennessy scholarship helps students from around the globe get a graduate degree from Stanford University.
  • Alphabet's chair and the scholarship's namesake explained to CNBC why international education is important to the U.S.
Alphabet Chairman John Hennessy and Nike co-founder Philip Knight
Source: L.A. Cicero | Stanford

For Solomon Oyakhire, the call from Palo Alto came during dinner time the Nigerian student was alone, eating dinner in his apartment in Lagos.

On the other line was John Hennessy, a former President of Stanford University and the co-founder on the Knight-Hennessy Scholarship, congratulating him on winning a scholarship to study at the prestigious California university.

Oyakhire is one of 49 applicants selected from 3,601 applicants, who received a personal phone call from Hennessy to come study at Stanford. Each scholar receives full financial aid for three years to pursue a graduate degree. Applicants are admitted based on academic excellence, civil mindset and demonstrated leadership ability.

"When the call came, I was completely overwhelmed. I felt humbled, excited, and inspired to be considered worthy to join the family of scholars" said Oyakhire, who will be pursuing a PhD in chemical engineering.

The scholarship's funding comes from deep Silicon Valley pockets. With an endowment of $750 million, it benefits from the generosity of Phil Knight, a co-founder of Nike and Stanford alum, who by himself donated $400 million in 2016 to start the scholarship fund with Hennessy.

Earlier this month, Hennessy replaced Eric Schmidt as chairman of tech giant Alphabet, Google's parent company. "My main gig is teaching" Hennessy told CNBC recently, jokingly referring to Google as "my side gig."

The Silicon Valley veteran co-founded the semiconductor company Mips Computer System, and sold it for a little over $400 million in the early 1990s. In 2011, Hennessy's Atheros Communication, a semiconductor company for wireless chipset, was acquired by Qualcomm for more than $3 billion.

Stanford University
SpVVK | Getty Images

As demonstrated with the scholarship that bears his name, Hennessy also takes a personal interest in education, which plays a big role in the tech sector. He told CNBC that there is a lot on pressure on the federal government to help finance higher education — something Hennessy stated needs to change as student debt burdens soar.

"I think it is a mistake to let the burdens of the federal government budget fall, disproportionately, on people under the age of 25," he said, even as he called higher education "a good investment."

Still, federal loans for graduate students are limited — hence the reason why students like Oyakhire can benefit from funding like the Knight-Hennessy scholarship.

The environment for international students getting a U.S. education has gotten tougher. In 2017, the rate of international graduate students coming to the United States dropped by 7 percent. According to a survey of 500 college campuses done by the Institute of International Education, 45 percent of campuses reported a drop in international student enrollment.

"I think what you are seeing is some of the rhetoric aimed at international visitors and international students, maybe makes them less comfortable coming to the U.S.," Hennessy told CNBC. "They would rather go somewhere where they feel more welcomed," he said, emphasizing that America still has the best higher education in the world.

He also suggested that President Donald Trump's immigration policy could affect Silicon Valley in a negative way. "You just look down at Silicon Valley and at the string of companies that have had at least one of their founders born outside on the United States," he said. "Intel, Google, Yahoo, they all had someone from their founding team born outside the U.S."

Abuzar Royesh, a Knight-Hennessy scholarship recipient from Afghanistan who plans to study international relations, told CNBC that "it's important to have different people with different backgrounds be a part of shaping the discourse."

Hennessy said if the U.S. loses the ability to bring and attract immigrants "it will hurt all of our ability to be the leader in the future."

This year's class of scholars come from 20 different countries. Next year, the Knight-Hennessy Scholarship program will accept 75 student from around the world.