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Published on 10th July 2020

By Lakshmi Iyer and Divya Sahni

Sannam S4 has observed with increasing consternation the challenges brought on by the pandemic on the international higher education sector, especially international students. As an organization, we proudly support international HE with a stated commitment to the promotion of cross border student mobility. The ill-considered announcement by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) earlier this week, requiring international students to leave the United States if their entire program has shifted online, has signaled to the world that international students may not be welcome in the country as they thought. This is very much against the ethos of many American institutions of higher education that have always warmly welcomed international students.

Divya and I were both international students. Although our study abroad experiences are 20 years apart, our narratives are very similar.

Am I welcome here?

These four words reverberated in our minds as International students when we first arrived on campus, and persisted, for as long as it took for our institutions to feel ‘at home’. It can take a lot for an international student to achieve this feeling: from taking the initiative to strike up conversations with strangers, to stepping out of our comfort zone by engaging in new activities and perhaps most importantly, by surrounding ourselves with a group of like-minded individuals who acknowledge our presence, appreciate our view point of the world and make us feel safe and secure.

For a generation of international students, the ICE announcement is devastating news. According to a recent report by IIE that surveyed 599 institutions hosting 519,456 international students on their campus in 2018-19 – only 18,551 International students left the United States at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, leaving more than 500,905 International students at risk.

ICE’s action has the ability to leave thousands of international students across the US stranded with very limited options none without significant risks:

  1. Continue to maintain lawful status by attending in-person classes, but take the risk of possibly jeopardizing their health and safety
  2. In case their institution is only operating online for the fall semester, transfer to a university that is providing in-person classes
  3. In case neither option works, face the risk of being deported from the United States
  4. In case students don’t want to continue staying on campus, they have only 10 days to pack up their belongings and leave the United States – a move that is not only prohibitively expensive but also seemingly impossible in the case of those students who belong to countries that have not lifted their international travel ban

At Sannam S4, we recognize that international students form a vital component of the overall success of the American higher education system – both from a financial as well as cultural perspective. The total number of international students make up 5.5 percent of the overall U.S. higher education population and contributed nearly $41 billion to the U.S. economy. Besides their direct financial contribution, they also support the United States in a myriad of positive ways:

  • According to the latest data released by the U.S. Department of Commerce, education service exports ranked 5th among service exports in 2018 And international students supported over 455,000 US jobs.  A decline in international students will financially hurt local business and tax revenues of state and local governments.
  • 1 out of every 4 start-up companies in the US, individually valued at USD 1 Billion or more has been founded by individuals who arrived in the United States as international students. This means that not only will America’s long-reputed innovation culture face risk of decline, but there will be fewer jobs emerging for Americans in the long run.
  • More than 300 former and current world leaders have enrolled in a higher education institution in the United States – enabling various bright minds from across the world to experience American culture and perspectives. The United States can significantly hurt its future soft diplomacy efforts by proceeding ahead with the ICE ruling.
  • International students often pay out of state tuition, which may help subsidise the costs of enrolling more domestic students from the United States. Tuition costs also supplement the high cost of R&D initiatives.

As students, outside of India, we benefited most when we interacted with people from different cultures – it enhanced our ability to think more critically, consider different perspectives, and prepared us to operate in an increasingly globalized world.

For countries that export higher education, international students help create a more competent workforce, which is important considering how employers increasingly value employees who can work effectively across national and cultural borders.

The stance taken by Harvard, MIT, USC, Stanford, Princeton, Cornell, and Dartmouth challenging the ICE announcement is the first step towards protecting the community of international students. We hope more will join; it is a moral imperative. No student should be exposed to the risk of infection and universities must take every measure to safeguard students and the wider community. For international students, thousands of miles away from home, this is even more critical.

International students are a key component of the overall higher education experience and should not be left in limbo, especially during these precarious times. So far as prospective students who are still contemplating their study abroad plans are concerned, this announcement will push them to re-think their decision of studying in the United States and consider alternative destinations. We are already picking that up in India.

The United States has attracted the best and brightest minds from around the world and has prided itself in nurturing an academic environment enriched by the exchange of global cultures and ideas. In this public health crisis, the international higher education community looks to the United States to do the right thing by the international students.


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