I came to the United States as an international student in August 2002, a month short of the first anniversary of 9/11. I came from and to privilege: I was fully funded and had family in the States. Most importantly, even as the Bush administration tightened scrutiny of international students, I arrived to a welcoming place and people, and have loved being here ever since.
Even so, an announcement like the one from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) requiring international students to leave the US if their campuses went fully online would have chilled me to the core. There was no pandemic back then, but my closest family was already in the US, and I had no source of income in my home country. I was lucky; with help from my family, I could have covered the costs of travel and broken leases. But at that time before the internet, I would have effectively been cut off from my program of study. Most importantly, I would have missed out on the fundamental experience of being, physically and mentally, in the United States.
Both academia and the US are difficult places in which to find a home. Both can be fixed in their ways, hostile and narrow-minded. But being an international student was and remains a way of discovering what is good about America, the land and its people. Many of us come here because American universities remain some of the best ambassadors the US has. Studying in America is something to aspire to and be proud of, and around the world it makes people think kindly of our country: not only the students, but also their families, friends and employers.
Some, like me, stay and make this place our home. We do this for many reasons, but whatever motivates us, we repay the years American institutions have invested in us here, rather than our home countries. We pay taxes, raise children and teach future generations of students. We build businesses, and when we become citizens, we vote and do all the things regular Americans do – because that’s what we are. And we continue to think and speak well of this place we made our home, to ourselves and to those we left behind.
Education, at all levels, is a space uniquely devoted to kindness. It is rooted in the belief that one can get there from here, that people can learn and grow and thrive, and that all the students in the room are worth investing in. This is why education is so often at the root of the pursuit of happiness, and the American university is part of why people come here to seek it.
Sending international students back home during a global pandemic, by contrast, is cruel. It demands that these young people choose between risking their lives or risking their education. And even that is no choice at all. The pandemic has restricted flights, and the US’s hotspot status means that even returning citizens are not always welcome in their home countries. Travel means increased exposure in transit and for those back home.
Universities and academics are moving rapidly to challenge the decision, and so should we all. Not just because of the many benefits international students bring, but because sending them away is a betrayal of the contract of education: it declares, loudly and clearly, that some people are not worth investing in. And what does it say about us when we are sending away some of the rest of the world’s best students?
American higher education is already in crisis. Tearing away at its international reputation will do lasting harm, not only to American universities, but to America’s reputation in the world, a reputation that is already suffering. I fear that the world will soon decide that we are the ones not worth the investment, and, worse, that they won’t be wrong.
There will be a time after Covid-19. When that time comes, I, for one, want my campus to remain the globally vibrant place it was before the pandemic started. Let’s keep our international students where they belong – right here.