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Foreign Students Wary of Studying in US During Trump Presidency


A large crowd gathers during a protest over some of President-elect Donald Trump policies and to ask school officials to reject some of his plans at Rutgers University.

A large crowd gathers during a protest over some of President-elect Donald Trump policies and to ask school officials to reject some of his plans at Rutgers University.

Hussain Saeed Alnahdi was one of the almost 400 international students attending the University of Wisconsin-Stout.

Alnahdi, 24, was from Saudi Arabia. He began his studies at the school in the Midwestern part of the United States last year. But early on the morning of October 30, Alnahdi’s experience as an international student came to a violent end. An unnamed attacker beat him until he died outside a restaurant in the city of Menomonie.

A few weeks later, police announced they had arrested a suspect. They said they do not believe the attack was a hate crime. But events like the one in Wisconsin have raised concerns for many international students living and studying in the U.S.

Trump concerns

Study in the U.S.A. is a company that supports international students who want to study at American colleges and universities. A few days before the U.S. presidential election, the company released the results of an opinion study of 1,000 international students from 130 countries. Over 65 percent of the students said they would be less likely to study in the U.S. if Donald Trump were elected president.

FPP EDU Media, which also works with international students, released its own survey of 40,000 students in June. Those results suggested 60 percent of their students felt the same way.

During his campaign, President-elect Trump made statements about Mexican people that many critics called racist. At one point, he called for a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group based in Montgomery, Alabama, has received 437 reports of incidents of intimidation and harassment in the six days following the election.

Rutgers University junior Carimer Andujar, of the Dominican Republic, speaks at a protest against some of President-elect Donald Trump's policies at Rutgers University, Nov. 15, 2016, in New York.

Rutgers University junior Carimer Andujar, of the Dominican Republic, speaks at a protest against some of President-elect Donald Trump's policies at Rutgers University, Nov. 15, 2016, in New York.

Renait Stephens, chief executive officer of Study in the U.S.A., says international students and their parents are worried. However, she is also hopeful, arguing that what a politician says during a campaign, and what they do once they are in power, are two different things.

Stephens says international students will have to wait and see what happens.

"It’s early days and, until we know something more about any policy changes...we’re just trying to reassure students that nothing has changed," she said. "U.S. campuses are still safe. They’re still open. They’re still diverse, and you still get a fantastic education."

No real threat?

Other experts say there has never been any real threat to international education. The Institute of International Education (IIE) is a nonprofit organization that studies and supports international student exchanges.

Together with the U.S. Department of State, the IIE releases a report every year on the number of international students in the U.S. The 2016 Open Doors report says about 1,044,000 international students attended American colleges and universities last year. That is a record number.

Peggy Blumenthal, an official with the IIE, says the organization has been recording international student numbers for over 90 years.

She says international students are mostly concerned with the quality of the education they can get in the U.S. The rest of the world still values the strength of the American higher education system above almost any other country, she adds.

Blumenthal points to historical examples. When the U.S. accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in the capital of Serbia in 1999, major protests took place at the U.S. embassy in Beijing. But, she says, shortly after the protests, Chinese students were complaining the American embassy was not processing their visas fast enough.

Blumenthal says this shows world events do not easily affect international student exchanges.

"International students really value their opportunity to study in the United States. And throughout the whole history of our collecting data, there has almost never been a drop in the number of international students coming to the United States," she said. "There have been many important changes in American policy, in international circumstances, in the economy. But the numbers of international students pretty much continues to rise regardless of what’s going on elsewhere around them."

Blumenthal acknowledges there could be a small decrease in the number of Muslim students coming to U.S. schools. That also happened after the terrorist attacks in New York on September 11, 2001. But she says a decrease in students from one country is often balanced by an increase in students from other countries.

Economic boost

Foreign students bring a lot to the economies of many towns and cities across the U.S. The U.S. Department of Commerce says international students added about $30 billion to the U.S. economy in 2015. Blumenthal argues that no politician is willing to risk losing that.

Protesting students ask Rutgers University officials to reject some of President-elect Donald Trump's plans, at Rutgers University, New York, Nov. 15, 2016.

Protesting students ask Rutgers University officials to reject some of President-elect Donald Trump's plans, at Rutgers University, New York, Nov. 15, 2016.

However, Philip Altbach remains worried. Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education, which works through Boston College to research and support international study, says there are examples of decreases in international study in other countries.

He notes the major decrease of Indian students studying in Australia after several Indians were attacked there in 2009 and 2010. He also says the language Trump and his supporters used during the campaign has lowered the world’s opinion of the U.S.

"I think that the toxic discourse of the campaign, and of what Mr. Trump has said for a long time, actually is extraordinarily damaging for the image of the United States in general, and in the thinking of students and faculty members overseas, who may be considering studying in the United States or coming here as professors," Altback said. "Because the choice of where to study in the world depends very significantly on the comfort that students and their families will feel about the country to which they are planning to go."

Significant loss

Altbach says international students and professors bring different perspectives to the universities where they study or teach. Losing them would cost the American students a lot -- educationally and financially.

He says international graduate students and professors are involved in much of the research done at most U.S. universities. Also, decreases in international student numbers may not affect large, well-known universities, he says. But many others need international students to pay the full price to attend. Having international students pay more makes it possible for schools to let American students attend at reduced cost, he says.

Altbach admits there is no way to know what will happen until the new administration takes office. But until then, universities must make clear public statements saying they will support and protect international students. If not, Altbach says, America may no longer be the first choice for people seeking the best education in the world.

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