Nepalese college students on the Main Quad at Howard University. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Howard University has long been known for the global feel of its campus in Northwest Washington. Its first Chinese students arrived in 1870, three years after the school’s founding. The historically black university also draws many young scholars from Africa and the Caribbean islands.

But a surprising source of Howard students emerged this year: Nepal.

A quarter of the incoming freshmen from overseas starting classes this week turn out to be Nepali. Their delegation — 26 as of last count — outnumbers Jamaicans (22), Ni­ger­ians (22) and every other international group in the Class of 2018.

In the previous class, there were 10 Nepalis. Before that the total was in single digits — or none.

So why is a landlocked and impoverished Asian country that draws visitors to the world’s highest peak suddenly sending all these students to a campus on Georgia Avenue nicknamed the Hilltop? What is Howard’s Kathmandu connection?

Roshil Paudyal, a junior at Howard University, enjoys an afternoon on campus. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The answer lies partly in the rapid globalization of higher education, partly in the school’s academic programs and merit scholarships, and partly in the experience of a 20-year-old mathematics student named Roshil Paudyal. A fellow Nepali calls him “one of the pioneers.”

A couple years ago, Paudyal was wrapping up studies at a prestigious secondary school in Kathmandu, the Nepali capital, and wondering where he would go to college. Many top students from Nepal look abroad. “Mostly they want to come to America because the higher education is so good here,” Paudyal said in an interview along with several Nepalis at the campus student center.

There was no Howard recruiter in the Himalayan nation wedged between India and China, with Mount Everest sitting on the Nepal-China border. The university was not well-known there at the time, Paudyal recalled. But it popped up as he was talking to a friend and scoping out the market through a Web site called College Confidential. The site is a clearinghouse for information and gossip related to admissions and financial aid.

Of special appeal to Paudyal — who is the son of a math teacher — Howard offered merit scholarships to students with strong grades and SAT scores. Its science, engineering and math programs were well-regarded. Its location in a world capital, he said, “was a big plus.” So he applied, got in and won a large scholarship.

He plunged into the distinctive culture of a 10,000-student school that is an educational icon of black America.

“You get to interact with so many people from around the world,” Paudyal said. “You get to take classes that I didn’t expect to take.” He studied piano. He studied German. Sometimes he plays cricket with Jamaicans on the Yard, Howard’s central green. He researches machine learning, a field related to artificial intelligence. “It is great,” he said.

Paudyal’s positive impressions, relayed to friends back home, fed a boomlet of interest in Howard among his peers in Nepal.

Nepalese college students play soccer. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The Institute of International Education calculates that the nation of about 30 million people sent 8,920 students to U.S. colleges and universities in the 2012-2013 school year, the latest for which data was available. That makes Nepal the 14th-ranked supplier of international students to U.S. campuses, just behind the United Kingdom (9,467) and ahead of Iran (8,744).

China is the top supplier (235,597), followed by India (96,754). But Nepal leads all four of those countries in the number of students per capita sent to the United States.

The number of Nepalis studying in the United States rose from 2,411 in 1999-2000 to a peak of 11,581 in 2008-2009. It has dipped each year since.

What these figures show is a volatile international market in a world full of young academic strivers. The United States is a huge draw. But countries in Asia and elsewhere are building their own college capacity. The flow of foreigners to U.S. colleges ebbs and swells depending on economic and political circumstances.

Most foreign undergraduates in the United States come from enough affluence to pay their own way, which makes them attractive to colleges seeking to raise revenue. Those from families with modest means are drawn to schools that offer scholarships and financial aid, or relatively moderate tuition. Among the top magnets for Nepali students, according to the institute, are Louisiana Tech University, the University of Texas at Arlington, the University of North Texas and St. Cloud State University in Minnesota — all public schools.

Many of the Nepali students, the institute says, are focused on engineering, science and business. Those fields dovetail with offerings at Howard.

Wayne A.I. Frederick, president of Howard, was an international student himself, coming to the university as a teenager in the late 1980s from his native Trinidad and staying to earn three degrees. Frederick, who recently talked up the university in a visit to Jamaica, said Howard has not specifically targeted Nepal for recruiting. But he said the unexpected surge of Nepalis adds to “the richness of experience” at a school that aims to prepare students for global leadership.

Frederick said word of mouth is critical in international recruiting. Frederick first heard about Howard through his mother and then a friend on Howard’s soccer team.

“Knowing someone who has come and has been comfortable is key,” he said. “Those students become the biggest advertisement.”

Paudyal told a friend back home, Prajjwal Dangal, about Howard. “He said it’s good,” said Dangal, 20, a sophomore studying computer science. “That pretty much convinced me to come here.”

Dangal, in turn, told Utsab Khakurel, 20, an incoming freshman. “These guys were here,” Khakurel said. “I knew a lot about Howard. I’ve been talking to them.”

The Nepalis say they have immersed themselves in campus life. Several lived in Carver Hall as freshmen. Some play soccer for fun, some swim. One scored a summer internship at Google through a Howard connection. They have formed a student association with a Facebook page.

“I like this place,” said Ashim Neupane, 20, a sophomore. “I’ve made so many friends.” Some are from Africa, he said, others from the Caribbean and the United States. “I love that there’s lots of cultures.”

With their homeland nearly halfway around the world, Nepalis can fly east or west to get to Washington. Khakurel took the Pacific route, flying from Kathmandu to Seoul and then Dulles International Airport.

Like many Nepalis, Khakurel had little idea before he arrived of the role historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, play in American education.

Dangal said he has developed a deep appreciation for HBCUs, citing a first-year English class he took that featured selections from Desmond Tutu and other writers from Africa and the African diaspora. “It gives you a different experience of America,” he said, “a good and unique perspective.”