Wheaton College, a private liberal arts institution located in Norton, Mass., has created a scholarship exclusively for refugees in the wake of a controversial executive order from President Trump that temporarily banned the entry of people from seven predominately Muslim countries into the United States.
The new scholarship will be open to any refugee fleeing conflict from any part of the world, but applicants from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen – all named in the ban – will receive priority consideration.
Mr. Trump's travel ban has sparked protests across the US and abroad, with longtime Trump critics and even many Republican officials condemning the order. While many academic institutions offer collegiate scholarships specifically designed to assist refugees across the US, Wheaton College seems to be the first to offer a scholarship specifically in reaction to the ban.
"The current executive order on immigration, which was signed on Friday, January 27, endangers the broadly diverse learning environment that is essential to our mission," reads a statement from college president Dennis Hanno. "This new policy implies that international students are neither needed nor wanted. This is false, and we must counter that divisive message."
Even though the travel ban was temporarily halted nationwide by a federal judge in Seattle, the executive order has the potential to affect thousands of students studying in the US. All combined, there were 23,763 students from the countries named in the ban studying in the US in 2015, according to data from the Department of Homeland Security. Of these, most (14,981 students) were from Iran, with the fewest coming in from Somalia (only 67 students).
"More than 1 million students come to the US each year to study. The international coverage that the executive order on immigration received has prompted many students from other countries to reconsider traveling to the US," says Michael Graca, assistant vice president of communications at Wheaton College in an email. "By establishing the scholarship, we hope to send a message of welcome."
Mr. Graca says that the new scholarship is not intended to be a political statement, but is intended to reaffirm the college's commitment to recruiting students from around the world.
"We believe the global nature of our campus benefits all students, by providing opportunities for them to learn from each other as well as from our faculty," says Graca.
Wheaton is not the only college to share this idea. On Friday, a group of 598 college and university presidents released an open letter to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly voicing their concerns over the ban.
"International exchange is a core value and strength of American higher education," reads the letter, which was sent through the American Council on Education. "Moreover, our nation's welcoming stance to scholars and scientists has benefited the U.S. through goodwill and a long history of scientific and technological advances that have been essential to the economic growth our country has experienced for decades."
But despite assertions like this, the ongoing refugee crisis in the Middle East, especially surrounding Syria, has kicked off intense political debate across Europe as well as the US, with right-wing populist movements calling for the end of, or heavy restrictions on, the entry of refugees into their respective countries.
While many refugee supporters say that there is a moral obligation to take in refugees, many Americans would disagree with that assertion. In October 2016, 87 percent of Trump supporters surveyed by Pew Research Center said the US had no responsibility to accept Syrian refugees. In comparison, only 27 percent of Hillary Clinton supporters surveyed agreed with that sentiment. In total, only 41 percent of registered voters said that America had a responsibility to accept Syrian refugees during the time of the survey, with 54 percent taking the opposite stance.
Despite these percentages, Graca says that the reaction to the new scholarship has been largely positive, at least on Wheaton's campus. However, the college has experienced some criticism on social media, partially based on an incorrect notion that the college will accept undocumented students, he says.
"Some people have worried that this scholarship takes funds away from domestic students," he adds. "It actually is an addition to the more than $41 million in financial aid that Wheaton invests in students, more than 90 percent of whom are U.S. citizens."
The tuition and fees for the current school year at Wheaton adds up to $49,012, not including $12,500 for room and board. The scholarship will cover all costs associated with attending the college, and the usual $60 application fee will be waived for interested students. Officials from the college also called on other academic institutions to put similar scholarships and programs for refugees into place.
"These students have faced hardships unlike anything we could imagine and will need significant assistance to make acquiring an education possible," said Grant Gosselin, vice president of the college in the scholarship announcement. "We believe it is our responsibility as contributors to global education to make this commitment."