If Cyrus Namdar had known that a newly inaugurated President Donald Trump would issue an executive order banning all immigrants from Iran, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, and Sudan — each one a Muslim-majority country — from entering the United States for 90 days, he says he might have chosen to study elsewhere.
Namdar, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, is an Iranian graduate student who has been attending the University of Arkansas (U of A) in Fayetteville for five years. And he’s not the only international student rethinking his decision to study in the U.S., says Martin McFarlane, director of international student and scholar services at the University of Illinois (U of I). “Choosing your place of higher education is a massive choice,” says McFarlane. “Right now, the message the United States is sending is not one that is welcoming to an international population.”
That negative message may very well lead to a drop in the number of international students seeking to study in the U.S., says McFarlane. According to the Institute of International Education (IIE), in the 2015-2016 academic year, 17,354 students from the seven countries named in Trump’s January 27 executive order were attending colleges or universities in the U.S. These are the students who were affected by the ban until it was blocked by a federal judge in early February. In total, though, there are over one million international students in the United States, according to IIE. While these individuals have not been directly affected, the executive order has left many of them feeling uneasy — a feeling that probably wasn’t ameliorated by Trump’s signing of a new immigration order on March 6, which, besides removing Iraq from the list of banned nations, largely resembles his original order.
McFarlane says in the weeks since the initial executive order was signed, international students have been coming to him wondering whether their home country will be next. “The message we’re hearing is that they feel unwanted, unwelcome, and are concerned that their dreams of graduating and working in the United States will be stopped by future executive orders or immigration reform.”
Namdar echoes this sentiment. “For the last five years, we did not think we were immigrants,” he says. “I have always been telling my family in Iran that Americans are friendly, nice, and generous — and I still think so. However, I realized that behind some of those smiling faces, there may be a person who voted for Trump with anti-immigration ideas.”
Another graduate student at U of A, who asked to be identified by the initials ZA, says that for the first time, she feels uncomfortable wearing her hijab and walking alone at night near campus. “I was terrified and expected myself to be out of the country in a week,” says ZA, who is from Iraq. “I felt I was hated and unwelcome here.”
If fewer international students choose to come to the U.S. to study, the impact on universities and students will be profound. STEM disciplines — a popular field among these students — will likely suffer, and both universities and the broader society will likely take a financial hit. Christopher L. Eisgruber, president of Princeton University, joined 47 other U.S. college and university presidents in sending an open letter to President Trump on February 2, which said, “American higher education has benefited tremendously from this country’s long history of embracing immigrants from around the world. … America’s educational, scientific, economic, and artistic leadership depends upon our continued ability to attract the extraordinary people who, for many generations, have come to this country.”
If U.S. universities are to counter the fears created by any immigration ban, they must reassure their international students that they are welcome and safe — both now and in the future, McFarlane says. When the original executive order was announced, he sent an email to U of I students, staff, faculty, and scholars from the countries named in the order. In it, he outlined a number of logistical steps that they could take to protect themselves legally.
More important, he stated that the university was there to support them. “I want you to hear the following very clearly,” wrote McFarlane. “You are wanted at the University of Illinois. You are needed here. And you are valued here. [International student and scholar services] will continue to advocate for you at both a local and national level.”
This sort of statement of support is exactly what international students and faculty are hoping to hear from their universities, says Aboozar Mosleh, a former U of A graduate student who is now a visiting assistant professor at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville.
“We know that [U of A] cannot do something in one second to change [the ban],” says Mosleh, “but it is a collaborative effort among all the universities around the state to stand up against it and show support.” And he believes the university could be doing a better job of making students from the banned countries feel supported.
ZA feels differently about U of A’s response. She notes that Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz sent an email emphasizing that students affected by the executive order were a part of the campus community, and she appreciated that the university held a meeting for those international students and faculty. However, ZA hopes the support doesn’t end there.
She wants her university to continue to speak up for those who may be affected by an immigration ban. “[The university] can explain that we are valuable and essential members of its community,” she says. “We came here because we are willing to learn.
This sort of continuing support is something U of I is taking seriously. McFarlane says the university formed an administrative working group a few days after the ban was announced to follow changes to the order, legal challenges, and other developments and to provide statements and resources to the campus community. The university is also maintaining a comprehensive FAQ web page that addresses questions university members may have.
The final question on Illinois’ FAQ page is perhaps the most important: “What can I do to help?” The answer is one that all universities should share with their students, faculty, and staff: “We urge you to reach out to colleagues from the affected countries and reassure them that you care. Make sure [they] know that they are wanted and supported.”●
Alice Pettway is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.