US “at risk” if not open to global talent

Published 17/09/2021

A new book by education expert Rajika Bhandari argues that the US should consider international students and immigration in the same discussion to avoid losing out on the world stage.

At a webinar launch of her new book, America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility, held by non-profit industry body The Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, Bhandari, an advisor to the body, noted the US’s shrinking population.

“By all accounts, college enrolment by domestic students is going to decline. If the US does not remain open to global talent from other countries it is really going to be at risk in many ways,” she said.

“International students and immigrants have been at the forefront of the American success story. Global talent has either remained in the US and helped build the US to what it is today or gone back home and built connections with the US.”

“To consistently talk about that value in terms of finances is really detrimental to the student experience because it reduces it to a commoditisation”

However, despite the Biden administration’s recent roll-back of the fixed-time visa rule, Bhadari expressed concern for the future.

“Our policies and the hurdles that are placed in the way of both international students and those who wish to become skilled immigrants are immense,” she said.

Stephanie Kim, assistant professor of the Practice & Faculty Director of Higher Education Administration, Georgetown University, emphasised the holistic value of international students.

Kim noted how, since Bhadari’s student days in the 1990s, international students were seen “specifically less as a source of high skilled talent and more as a source of tuition revenue”.

She argued that the US needed to “reframe how we talk about value, whether that’s the value that international students bring to American campuses or the value that American education will bring to students”.

“We all know international students bring $30 billion to the American economy,” said Kim, “but to consistently talk about that value in terms of finances is really detrimental to the student experience because it reduces it to a commoditisation.”

The webinar also explored the perception of international students from the point of view of the general public and how that impacted on their student experience.

Bhadari, once an international student and often asked by her contemporaries if she intended to stay in the US, ventured that “there is this sort of narrative and myth about ‘oh, first they’re taking off classroom seats, now they’re working in the US. Maybe they’re taking our jobs away?’”

This conception was key to a subsequent discussion about the “intersectionality” of international students.

Fanta Aw, vice president of Campus Life & Inclusive Excellence, American University, noted that the experience of international students was multilayered, taking into consideration the dimensions of race, gender and religion.

Recounting her life journey as a “global nomad”, Aw said, “What does that mean to me, as a woman who was born in a country that is predominantly Muslim? Fast forward to America and the depictions of Muslims in this country after 9/11. You add those extra layers, then you begin to really understand how complex the international student experience is.”

Aw talked about international students having a “hybrid identity”. This was a notion that Jorge Gonzalez, president of Kalamazoo College in Michigan had anticipated when he earlier observed that, as an international student “you’re no longer there; you’re no longer there”.

“Every time we come back, the fear of the immigration official is very real”

Drawing on his own experience, Gonzalez remarked on how this feeling can persist, even among those who have settled in the US.

“Many of us have lived in this country for decades. Every time we come back, the fear of the immigration official is very real because they have discretionary authority that can make your life really, really complicated.”

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