This is a post I wrote for The World View, a Boston College Center for International Higher Education blog hosted by Inside Higher Ed (IHE). It is as much a wake-up call as it is a call to action.
One of my main points, which obviously went over the heads of some readers who commented, is that perception is reality for many parents and students around the world considering study in the USA. (As one colleague put it, “Some of those comments could support a masterclass entitled Missing the Point.”)
Another is that US educational institutions must aggressively and smartly “sell” not only themselves, responding to current concerns in their marketing and promotional materials, but also study in the USA, in general.
Competition is fiercer than ever and the US currently has a long list of negatives when compared to other countries hosting large numbers of Vietnamese and other international students, e.g., Australia and Canada.
Here’s a link to my last post, Gun Violence & Study in the USA, which is related. And here’s the unabridged version of the #YouAreWelcomeWhere? article.
When I first saw the hashtag for #YouAreWelcomeHere, a social media campaign launched in the weeks following the 2016 presidential election as a means of reassuring concerned international students and encouraging them to study in the United States, I was afflicted with a momentary case of cognitive dissonance.
The first questions that popped into my spinning head were “What about on a different campus, an adjoining neighborhood, the city up the road, or another state? And by whom, everyone or just international educators who see the value of hosting large numbers of international students?
The “glass half full” part of me likes this heartfelt, upbeat messaging campaign. But while it gives me a small measure of hope, however fleeting, it is ultimately a hollow sentiment that has little meaning against a grim backdrop of xenophobia, racism, and violence.
Yes, #YouAreWelcomeHere is true in many places but the sometimes harsh reality in a nativist climate rife with acts of hostility towards “the other,” including foreigners, tells a very different story, including at the highest levels of government. For example, there seems to be no end to official proposals that, if approved, would have the net effect of discouraging international students from choosing the US as an overseas study destination.
Contempt for “The Other” and Garden-Variety Violence
The US is a diverse country in more respects than one. There is no national standard governing how US citizens treat one another, evidenced by a long list of hate crimes, not to mention casual comments made in public places that are emotionally damaging to those targeted but that do not violate any law. This includes the case of the Golden West College professor videotaped last March telling a young, Asian-American couple out for a walk with their baby to “go back to your home country.”
The US is an extremely violent country when compared with peer nations in the industrialized world, many of which are friendly competitors that host large numbers of international students. Sharath Koppu, arrived in the US from in January 2018 to begin a master’s degree program in computer science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and was murdered during an attempted robbery in July.
Not surprisingly, in a country where violent crime is a daily occurrence in many communities, coverage of his murder was sparse beyond Kansas City. Not so in India, the victim’s home country. The murder was plastered all over the national media with headlines like Indian-origin student killed in Kansas City and Sharath Koppu Student From Telangana Shot Dead In America.
It’s safe to assume that more people in India and the vast Indian diaspora read those articles on- and offline, and saw the news reports within hours of the incident than those who have watched the #YouAreWelcomeHere YouTube video, uploaded on 23 November 2016 and, as of 18 October 2018, had just 13,532 views.
Study in the USA: The Export That No Longer Sells Itself
Even though study in the USA, both secondary and postsecondary, is still a valuable brand in Viet Nam and many other countries, it no longer sells itself. Current news— the mass shootings, visa denials, US government policy announcements such as the submission to social media information from all visa applicants for the past five years, the latest missile strike, travel bans, and a roiling cauldron of perceptions and misperceptions can have a decisive impact on where a young person studies and where parents want their children to study.
US higher education needs to do more, much more, to stanch the hemorrhaging of international students and the increasing velocity of their flow to competitor nations such as Australia, Canada, and the UK than post hashtags, spout slogans, produce feel-good videos watched by a handful of people, and offer scholarships to a limited number of students, as commendable as that may be.
Since the US government is not going to be of much assistance, this urgent task falls to those of us around the world who work with international students who might wish to study in the USA. US educational institutions that welcome international students to their campuses need to make the case that their students are safe, a primary concern of parents and students, for obvious reasons.
Rather than simply say that their campuses and communities are safe – official talk is cheap —they need to prove it with student testimonials, written and video, documentation in the form of crime reports, etc. Just like the country in which they are situated, not all institutions are equal in this respect. This should be one of a number of key “selling points”.
Institutions must also stress appropriate strengths against a positive backdrop of why international students should study in the USA in the first place, tell their story in a compelling and appealing manner, especially digitally, and provide superior comprehensive service to students, even if they are working with many of them through agents. If that means hiring additional staff, then that’s the price institutions have to pay to stay in the game.
That Which Is Within Our Power
Saying something doesn’t make it so. At the end of the day, it’s only so much cheerleading, regardless of how it is packaged. The writing is on the international student recruitment wall in large, fluorescent, spray-painted letters with exclamation points. Those of us who work with international students whose dream is to study in the USA ignore it at our collective peril.
In The Enchiridion, a short manual of Stoic ethical advice that dates to 125 AD, Epictetus, a Greek philosopher born into slavery, wrote: There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Fully cognizant of the latter, we must work quickly, creatively, passionately, and with greater urgency on those tasks related to US international student recruitment that are within our power.
Shalom (שלום), MAA
P.S.: Question for IHE: Color me old-fashioned but why not require people to provide their names and, if applicable, affiliation, instead of allowing keyboard critics to hide behind their lame monikers? Anonymity is like alcohol; it can have the effect of loosening the tongues of those who have it. (Here’s an excellent Psychology Today article from 2014 on the phenomenon of online trolls.) Newspapers require writers of letters to the editor to provide their name and telephone number for confirmation purposes. Why not IHE?