Students from abroad are back. What that means to the US.

Courtesy of Rajika Bhandari
Rajika Bhandari is the author of "America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility." She brings both academic and personal perspectives to the importance of an education that stretches boundaries and what international students mean for the United States.

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Hundreds of thousands of international students each year aspire to a degree from a U.S. college or university – and the transformative journey of that education.

Three decades ago Rajika Bhandari was one of them, arriving from India for graduate school. Her new book, “America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility,” is not only a personal reflection of that time, but a social scientist’s view on the impact of international students on the education landscape. 

Why We Wrote This

Two tensions come together in Rajika Bhandari’s memoir: U.S. higher education costs and views on immigration. In an interview, she discusses how international students affect attitudes and the economy in America.

“If we think about the stature and global excellence of American colleges and universities,” says Dr. Bhandari, “they would not be where they were today if they did not have a long history and association with the rest of the world and its students through education.” 

In a Q&A with the Monitor, Dr. Bhandari also talks about the high price of college and how international students help to make education one of the country’s largest service exports. Students come “from a really wide range of economic backgrounds. ... For the most part it is not easy, just as it isn’t for domestic American students.”

When Rajika Bhandari came to the United States from India in the early 1990s as a doctoral student in philosophy, she was often the only international student in her classes. She faced uncomfortable questions about her accent and prejudices against her background, but also discovered new freedoms and expanded expectations for her life and career. 

Dr. Bhandari, who went on to immigrate to the U.S. and became a researcher and consultant in the field of international education, writes about her experience and its relevance today in her book being released Sept. 14, “America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility.” 

Dr. Bhandari spoke with the Monitor about why she views international students as assets to the U.S., the impact of the pandemic on these students, and her belief in the “transformative” power of education. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Why We Wrote This

Two tensions come together in Rajika Bhandari’s memoir: U.S. higher education costs and views on immigration. In an interview, she discusses how international students affect attitudes and the economy in America.

You write about how many Americans don’t truly understand the experiences of international students or their value to the U.S. Why is it important for Americans to learn more? 

There are a couple of reasons. The most obvious one is the more pragmatic and compelling economic argument. If you stopped the average American on the street and asked them – or shared with them that international students and what they bring in financially to the U.S. basically makes American education the fifth or sixth largest service export for the country – they would be quite surprised. I think there’s a very clear economic impact on the American economy and American colleges and universities at the state level, at the city level, that’s not at all widely known or understood. 

But I would say that the larger value ... is really what international students are bringing to American campuses and how they have been intrinsic to the international ethos and fabric of American higher education. If we think about the stature and global excellence of American colleges and universities, they would not be where they were today if they did not have a long history and association with the rest of the world and its students through education. 

Only 10% of American undergraduates will have gone abroad by the time they finish their undergraduate degree, so for the remaining 90%, one of the key forms for them to have some global exposure is going to be that Syrian, or Indian, or Chinese classmate. 

You mention in the book that sometimes there’s a perception that it’s all incredibly wealthy students coming to study in the U.S., but that isn’t always the case, as you pointed out with how much you saved and had to be frugal. 

International students to the U.S. come not only from over 200 countries, but from a really wide range of economic backgrounds. The perception of the wealthy international student is really a bit of a myth that’s been perpetuated over the past few years, due to just a small number of international students who might be undergraduate students who are able to fully pay their way or have other sources of support that make it easier for them to study in the U.S. 

But for the most part it is not easy, just as it isn’t for domestic American students. The cost of a U.S. credential is just so high. With currency devaluation against the dollar it’s very difficult for families to send their child to the U.S. So students still aspire; they cobble together different sources of funding. 

How has the pandemic impacted the experience of international students who are currently studying in the U.S. or who wish to?

Last year was incredibly disruptive for all students, for domestic students, but more so for international students because their homes are in other countries and many of them were left stranded. Many lost jobs that they were legally able to perform but that they lost due to pandemic-related factors. It’s been a very difficult year that’s affected them not just educationally in terms of the disruptions to their degree and study, but also emotionally and certainly financially.

Now what the projections are is that there may be a rebound this fall because there’s eagerness, there’s anticipation for students to be back in the U.S. Visa issuance has also gone up significantly. That was stalled for a while but recent reports suggest that U.S. consulates are now doubling down on trying to issue visas as quickly as possible so students can begin arriving. But I think there are going to be some longer-term impacts. One of them is how unaffordable a U.S. education is in general and always was, even before the pandemic. 

Why have international students increasingly turned to countries such as Canada, Australia, China, and the U.K. for higher education? 

I think it’s a mix of factors. Most students are coming from less affluent [countries] with higher education systems that are not as highly developed or highly regarded as those of some of the Anglophone countries like the U.K. and the U.S. Both have always been a big draw for students from countries like China and India. The “made in America” brand of education has really come to imply academic and professional excellence. 

A lot of it has been linked very clearly to capacity. India has a surging youth population which is expected to only grow. It’s very difficult for India’s own higher education sector to meet that kind of demand. Even though in recent years there have been many newer universities that have come up, there simply is not going to be enough high quality higher education or college seats available, so students will always go abroad.

China has been elevating its profile as a destination for international students by having more international partnerships abroad, offering many more scholarships for international students to come and study, as well as course offerings in English, all of which have been very appealing to many students from around the world. 

What idea from the book do you hope readers will remember most? 

It’s the idea that education can be a profoundly transformative experience, and especially so because of the age at which most students are where they are still growing, they’re still evolving, their ideas and mindsets and values haven’t quite been set in stone and are still being shaped.

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