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International students to US: Do you really want us?

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Students chat in the food court at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn in May of 2012. The changing climate in the US is causing some international students to rethink studying at US colleges and universities.
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Students from other countries who study at US colleges contribute more than $30 billion to the economy each year. They also help prepare young Americans for joining a global workforce. But in recent years, the climate in the United States has caused a change in thought among those considering studying here. Some of the change is due to policies that arrived with the Trump administration. But some of the decline in international enrollments predates President Trump and is due to other factors, including growth of opportunities in large countries such as India. The result is that US schools are now working hard to convince international students that they are, indeed, welcome. Hundreds of colleges and universities have joined the #YouAreWelcomeHere video and social media campaign, depicting the sense of home they try to forge on their campuses. It’s also one way higher education is pushing back against rhetoric and policies from the government that cast globalization as a threat. Gil Latz, associate vice chancellor for international affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, says that at heart, it’s about addressing this question: “How can we both be safe and open to the world?”

Why We Wrote This

Study abroad in the US impacts cultural relations and the economy. As overseas students question attending college here, American schools increase efforts to convey that they are welcome.

Landry Bado has a new bachelor’s degree in architecture from Temple University in Philadelphia, and he hopes to design museums, community centers – places that bring people together.

A citizen of Burkina Faso in West Africa, he’s also vocal about the benefits of coming together across borders for higher education.

He’s one of many students and staff who offer warm smiles as they convey the message, “You are welcome here” in a Temple video, designed to reassure prospective international students who may be concerned about what climate they’d land in if they come to study in the United States.

Why We Wrote This

Study abroad in the US impacts cultural relations and the economy. As overseas students question attending college here, American schools increase efforts to convey that they are welcome.

Hundreds of US colleges and universities have joined the #YouAreWelcomeHere video and social media campaign, depicting the sense of home they try to forge on their campuses. It’s also one way higher education is pushing back against President Trump’s rhetoric and policies that cast globalization as a threat.

US higher education needs to “make the case for continuing to be a destination for international students … in response to a narrative in the country that is more anti-global engagement, more anti-immigrant,” says Gil Latz, associate vice chancellor for international affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. At heart, he says, it’s about addressing the question, “How can we both be safe and open to the world?”

A $30 billion bump to the economy

Competition for international college students is growing globally, and many US colleges want to bolster their numbers – to boost both diversity and their bottom line. Just over 1 million international students contribute more than $30 billion a year to the US economy, and they help American students prepare for joining a global workforce.

But admissions staff have been hearing rumblings from students and parents abroad – some alarmed by news headlines about violence and bias incidents at US schools, others worried about real or potential visa restrictions.

Because of the political climate here, interest in coming to the US decreased for one-third of 2,104 prospective international students surveyed  in February 2017.


EAB/Royall & Company: Effect of the Current Political Environment on International Student Enrollment, 2017

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

But that’s not the only factor fueling a recent decline in new international enrollments. After at least 12 years of steady growth, those numbers actually dipped before the election of Mr. Trump – by about 10,000 students in the fall of 2016, a 3 percent decline from the previous year.

One contributing factor: a winding down of government scholarship programs in Brazil and Saudi Arabia for students to go abroad, says Rajika Bhandari, a top official at the Institute of International Education in New York, which publishes the “Open Doors” data report. Other factors include the growth of opportunities in large countries, such as India, and competitive strategies by nations like Canada, which markets itself as safe and welcoming.

Decline in students in 2017

Higher education groups here want to stave off a worsening decline of US market share. A survey of 500 US institutions indicated a 7 percent dip of new international students in the fall of 2017. 

“Things started to feel more scary after the elections [in 2016],” says Mr. Bado, from Burkina Faso. “A lot of people are becoming more and more anxious with the idea of traveling here.”

His parents cautioned him about sharing too much on Facebook after the election, worried that his own visa prospects could be harmed. Bado also knows students from Iran who have not been able to see their family members because of Trump’s travel ban, upheld June 26 by the US Supreme Court.

A host of education groups spoke out against the decision. “At a time when we should be making every effort to create connections and ties around the world through robust international exchange with all nations, especially those in the Middle East,... the chilling effect of this policy and the uncertainty for our international students and scholars will undoubtedly continue the current downturn in U.S. international student enrollment as the world wonders whether America will hold true to our values,” said Jill Welch, an official at NAFSA: Association of International Educators, in a statement.

Nevertheless, Bado has had a good experience in the US and is enamored with the City of Brotherly Love. “I tell [potential international students] about all the people that I’ve met that actually do not agree with all these immigration policies,” he says.

Abdulrahman Alsulaiman, a Saudi and a rising senior at Temple, says the #YAWH video made a difference in his cousin’s decision to come to the US this summer to study English, and perhaps stay for an undergraduate degree. It “helped his parents really trust that their kid will be safe,” he says.

A push to woo students

Whether part of the campaign or not, many American colleges have been working double time to allay worries – and to provide opportunities for international and domestic students to interact.

Tufts set up a travel hotline for international students and scholars. The University of New Hampshire sent representatives to China and India to encourage students who had been admitted to actually enroll. Eastern Michigan University put up banners on their lightpoles featuring photos of international students. Temple hosted a week of activities, including a speed-dating style cultural exchange.

The US State Department continues to promote study here through its EducationUSA offices around the world.

But the State Department and other US agencies are also taking action to address growing concerns about the theft of intellectual property and threats to national security by individuals from certain countries, including China.

The State Department is issuing new screening guidelines for Chinese students studying in highly sensitive fields such as aviation and robotics, acknowledged Edward Ramotowski, the deputy assistant secretary for visa services in the department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, during a congressional hearing  June 6. 

The exchange at the hearing suggested the new guidelines would require annual renewal of visas, primarily for Chinese graduate students in these fields. A State Department official would not confirm this to the Monitor, however, stating in an email that the maximum validity for a student visa for Chinese nationals is five years and is unchanged, and that consular officers have always had the right to limit the length of visas on a case-by-case basis.

While the security concerns are important, the new guidelines, in conjunction with other immigration policies, could end up “contributing to a signal to foreign students that they’re not welcome in the US,” says Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education in Washington.

'US is not safe'

Kang, a Chinese citizen who attended graduate school at Columbia University in New York, recently launched Lighthouse Academy in Beijing, a business that consults with students there about study abroad, primarily in the US. Visa and safety concerns do make a difference for students, he writes in an email interview. He requests that his full name not be used because of concerns about possible trouble with the Chinese government if his name appears too frequently in foreign media.

Many parents have told him they fear discrimination against their children since Trump’s election, and they’ve also been disturbed by violent crimes against several Chinese students in the US. Add to that the recent media coverage of gun violence and “it conjured up a logic that is solid to parents: US is not safe,” he writes. 

Half his undergraduate clients ask if they can apply to the US and Canada or other countries at the same time. Still, many Chinese students who can get into top-ranked US universities and afford the tuition will probably attend despite concerns, he says.

Wu Ying, a sophomore at Shantou University in China, says she is wondering whether a master’s degree in the US would be worth the price. Chinese students here have given her the impression that “though it might be tough and challenging sometimes it still has considerable merits,” she writes in an email. “After hearing their ideas I feel inspired and want to ‘have a try.’ ”

Even those who have been negatively affected by violence in the US have urged people to see the bigger picture. After the Santa Fe, Texas, high school shooter killed Pakistani exchange student Sabika Sheikh, her father, Abdul Aziz Sheikh, told the Associated Press: “One should not lose his heart by such kind of incidents…. One should not stop going for education to the US or UK, or China, or anywhere. One must go for education undeterred.”

There’s a sense of mission among international admissions directors like Michelle Kowalsky of Western New England University in Springfield, Mass., which is one of several schools offering two #YAWH scholarships for students starting in 2019.

“This is going to sound corny, but I feel like part of my job is this idea of world peace,” she says. “The more you get to know people from other places, you understand that some of the things that you really care about, your family [for instance], are intrinsically important to people around the world.”

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