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Will Trump administration keep foreign students away?

Will Trump administration keep foreign students away?

Policies raise questions about ability to travel or stay and work
Will Trump administration keep foreign students away?
Union College students, left to right, Talah Janjua and Akshay Kashyap talk about concerns they have as international students.
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ

Editor's note: This story was corrected at 11 a.m. on February 27. A previous version included an incorrect spelling for Akshay Kashyap.

Local college admissions officials are starting to worry the shifting tone and policy out of Washington could make it harder to attract international students to American campuses.

The admissions directors at both Skidmore and Union colleges said that, while it’s too early to see a slide in international applicants or enrollees, they are concerned that President Donald Trump’s recent executive actions and rhetoric will have a chilling effect on the flow of international students.

“It has laid this huge fear over these (students) that, are we even welcome in the U.S.?” said Matt Malatesta, Union vice president for admissions and financial aid. “It’s absolutely at the top of international students’ minds.”

Trump’s executive order last month briefly halted immigration by refugees from seven African and Middle Eastern countries and resulted in some students and researchers being detained at airports across the country.

RELATED: Skidmore, Union see record applicant pools

But with that order on legal thin ice and Trump promising a new one this week, college officials are worried the president’s approach could dissuade students from around the world from considering American schools. Brad Farnsworth, a vice president who focuses on international issues at the American Council on Education in Washington, said Trump’s order could have a “contagion effect that goes well beyond the seven countries affected.”

“I think that is something we are all worried about,” said Mary Lou Bates, Skidmore vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid.

At Union, some international students said Trump’s policies and campaign promises raise questions about their ability to travel or stay and work in the U.S. after graduating. They agreed the new president is likely to give prospective international students second thoughts about coming to American schools.

Talha Janjua, 19, a Sophomore economics major from Islamabad, Pakistan, said he stopped considering a spring break trip to Mexico after Trump’s executive order and pointed out that Pakistan natives were in line for “extreme vetting” at the border. Of course, it’s possible Pakistan is included in future travel restrictions, Janjua said.

“Once I leave the country, who is to say I can enter?” Janjua said.

But Janjua and Akshay Kashyap, 21, a junior computer science major from Bangalore, India, and president of Union’s international students club, said they were comforted by Union’s response in the wake of the executive order and the support of fellow students. Malatesta said the school has received about a dozen applications from prospective students living in the seven countries listed in Trump's executive order: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Libya.  However, no current Union students come from those countries, he said.

“On campus, no one feels unwelcome,” Kashyap said.

Janjua and Kashyap said extra challenges in receiving or using student and work visas also complicates the decision-making of current and potential international students. If a prospective student feels it will be harder to stay in the U.S. to work, they may opt to study in a different country. Janjua and Kashyap also said international students are more likely to leave the U.S., taking the skills and knowledge they gained at an American school back home or to a different country.

If asked to advise prospective students in their home countries, both agreed they would tell them to consider changing immigration, visa and travel policies, but to not let Trump and his ideas be a determining factor in their decisions.

“I interact with people enough to understand people are very welcoming, regardless of the administration,” Janjua said. “But to the outsider’s perspective, they don’t know this; they haven't interacted with local communities or people on a college campus … they just see what’s in the media, and that is dominated by Trump.”

Students with options

This year, for the first time, there are more than 1 million international students studying at American colleges and universities, according to an annual report by the International Institute for Education. The number of international students has grown by at least 7 percent in each of the past four years and has nearly doubled in the past 10 years.

At Skidmore, 11 percent of students hail from 59 countries outside the U.S. Union’s international students make up 8 percent of the student body and represent 37 different countries.  

College officials point out international students accepted to schools like Union and Skidmore can also find acceptance at schools in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and throughout the world. In the aftermath of Trump’s executive order banning travel from certain countries, Canadian schools explicitly welcomed students from the banned countries, in some cases waiving application fees or extending application deadlines.

“Other countries are beginning to respond; this is a global market,” said Farnsworth, with the American Council on Education. “We are concerned about students going to other countries… one of the things that has been underplayed is the amount of choice that international students have.”

The local admissions chiefs said they have to ramp up the message to international students that their schools’ campuses are welcoming and inclusive places, looking for ways to reiterate those values in admissions materials and recruitment and by connecting prospective students to opportunities on campus.

“A student who gets admitted to Union College will have good choices,” Malatesta said. “If they don’t feel welcome, we need to help them see themselves here, see the opportunities here.”

Skidmore is looking to tweak language in its international student acceptance language and in the college president’s message to emphasize the school’s values of inclusivity and diversity and its appreciation of how international students improve the overall learning environment, Bates said.

“College campuses continue to support values of inclusivity and being a welcoming place to all students,” Bates said. “We are very eager to bring students from different backgrounds and international backgrounds, and that commitment has not changed.” 

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