There’s an air of uncertainty confronting college-age students this month. Applications are due, acceptance decisions are eagerly anticipated and final exams signal the end of the semester.
The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States magnifies that apprehension for some, especially international students. The president-elect made strong rhetoric about immigration and Muslims a central part of his campaign.
Kawsar Wayit said his friends are asking him what to do. He and his friends are Uighur, a Muslim minority group of northwest China, and back home they’re worried because they’ve heard about the president-elect’s plan for a Muslim registry and reports of increased numbers of hate crimes against Muslims across the country.
Wayit came to the U.S. to study mechanical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology a few years ago. It’s one of the universities that attracts the most international students, but his friends are wondering if it will be safe for them to do the same next year.
“If I was just watching the news back home, I would be worried,” said Wayit. “I probably wouldn’t come if I didn’t have someone in America telling me what I have told others. But I tell my friends most presidents can’t accomplish most of what they say, and I tell my parents who are worried about my safety that I am in Chicago, one of the most liberal cities in the country.”
It seems that most prospective international students are similarly upbeat. In a survey of about 7,000 prospective international students, more than half said they would still consider studying in the U.S. after Trump’s win.
About a third of prospective students from Russia and China indicated that they were more likely to consider studying in the U.S. after the election. While the majority of prospective students from the Middle East said they would still consider studying in the U.S., three times as many said they were less likely to study in the U.S. than more likely to.
The Institute of International Education, a non-profit organization that works with the U.S. and foreign governments on initiatives such as the Fulbright Program, has been tracking education trends for nearly a century. Only twice has the flow of international students to the U.S. declined year-over-year.
A large capacity to enroll qualified students in world-class institutions and a predominantly privately funded system make the U.S. unique in higher education, said Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education.
“The U.S. will remain a destination for international students, as it has through war, years of isolation, recession and depression,” Goodman said. “People come here because they have such a diversity of opportunity. This diversity is not going to change with any given president.”
Many universities are making it a point to be sure international students feel welcome and respected, declaring their campuses safe spaces. Maureen Sheridan, manager of the International Student and Scholar Services at The New School, another top choice for international students, said that the school has been holding regular town halls and teach-ins for its students and community, including sessions with an immigration attorney.
But for some students, the uncertainty is too much.
Francisco Contreras, 24, was born in Mexico and moved to the U.S. when he was young. He holds dual citizenship in the two countries, but said he never felt more out of place than after the U.S. election.
“You create networks in the area you go to school,” he said. “If I see the president of a country doesn’t want me there, how do I know that society — and most important to international students, employers — want me there?”
Others from China, India and Saudi Arabia – the top countries of origin for international students in the U.S. – and Indonesia also expressed concern over perceived visa vulnerability that could affect their ability to complete their studies or get a job after school.
Goodman, of the Institute of International Education, says that government-sponsored scholarships to study in the U.S. could be affected by foreign relations. While most international students are privately funded, he says, a cut to Saudi Arabia’s program has the potential to create the most dramatic shift in the number of international students coming to the U.S. to study.
According to the survey of prospective international students, Canada, Australia and the U.K. were the top alternative destinations for those who said they were less likely to study in the U.S. after the election.
Contreras said if he was deciding where to pursue his higher education today, he would have considered pursuing opportunities in the U.K. or elsewhere in Europe. He plans to discuss international study with his younger brother and others when visiting family in Mexico over break. Wayit, too, said he may have thought about Australia or Europe.
Universities in the U.S. won’t know until late spring, once admissions decisions have been made and students agree to enroll, how much of an effect the election results may have had on prospective international students’ decisions.
But, so far, hope seems to outweigh fear.
“It is Islamic belief that everything will be OK, that God will help” Wayit said. “I am optimistic.”