What U.S. Colleges Lose If We Lose International Students

Photo by Poodar Chu on Unsplash

Sohini Bhatia remembers the exact moment she found out that she’d have to leave the U.S. abruptly. 

It was 7 PM on a Tuesday evening in early March when Bhatia and her friends were having dinner at the campus dining halls. Their phones buzzed with an e-mail from the administration: They were closing campuses until further notice due to Covid-19. 

Bhatia, who is a freshman at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, remembers sitting in stunned silence for a few minutes, while senior year students around her burst into tears as they realized they’d not be attending graduation. It was only later, when she embraced her Dean of Spiritual and Religious Life, Annette M. McDermott, that Bhatia broke down in tears too – realizing that she had to bid hasty goodbyes and leave without knowing when she’d return.  

It has been a little over four months since Bhatia moved back to her home in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Each month she hopes to hear when it’s safe for her to come back to the U.S. Meanwhile, the pandemic has accelerated since March, with over 15.3 million confirmed cases worldwide with a looming economic recession in the backdrop, and ongoing protests as racial justice movements rise across the U.S.  Since Bhatia left in March, most international flights are no longer operating. Amidst these crises, news broke on July 6 that the U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has released regulations asking international students to leave the country if their campuses weren’t opening for in-person classes in the fall, the regulations also stated that students waiting to come back to the U.S would be denied entry. 

The news felt like a sucker punch to the gut for Bhatia.  

“All of my friends who are international students were frantically reaching out to one another,” says Bhatia. “The international office has been constantly in touch with us. I risk losing my visa if I decide to stay at home but if I decide to go to school, I stand the risk of having to rush back home in case of an outbreak. 

A week later, the Trump administration agreed to rescind the directive, after MIT and Harvard filed a lawsuit against the immigration authorities and 15 other universities joined the amicus brief in support of them. Though the regulations were reversed, it left behind the hurt, trauma, and panic.  

“As an international student, I've seen and experienced multiple instances where we are disadvantaged because of our status,” says Bhatia. We stay away from our families because it's building our futures. We stay up late nights and our families wake up early in the morning just so we can talk to each other. When I traveled over 6,000 miles, I thought I was going to a place that would appreciate my different views, but now I'm being told that they don't care for me. 

The moment initiated a bigger conversation for Higher Education in America: What do campuses lose when they lose international students? 

One clear loss would be the richness of religiously diverse campuses 

“International students significantly contribute to the religious diversity on campus,” says Rev. Dr. C. Denise Yarbrough, director of religious and spiritual life at the University of Rochester. “We have an interfaith chapel, we have Hillel, Muslim Students Association, we have a large population of Roman Catholic Christians. International students are active members of each of these communities and to lose them would be to lose the flavor and quality of campus life. It’d be a huge loss for our community, not just financially but also socially, and it’s true for every major campus in the country.” 

International Students are also eager to participate in formal Interfaith learning opportunities on campus.  According to a recent article in the Journal for the Study of Postsecondary and Tertiary Education, first-year International students are more likely than American students to take part in structured interfaith activities—for example, attending services for a religious tradition outside their own, participating in a service project that incorporates an interfaith dialogue or reflection, or living in a religious diversity-themed residence. 

“I can’t think of Yale without international students and I can’t think of our chaplaincy without them,” says Sharon Kugler, Yale’s university chaplain. “When I first heard the news, I couldn’t believe it. It felt unconscionable to do that to a group of people who are already apprehensive about their visa status during the pandemic.”  

She adds, “There isn’t a group on campus, especially in spiritual and faith communities, that doesn’t have international students in them. They are a seamless part of our community. They are not just a part of our academic programs, but a part of our lives, our conversations; they bring to us the richness of their homes and the depth of their learning circles.”  

Others talked about the impact international students have on the sociocultural diversity and worldview perspectives on campus.  

“International students bring a unique aspect of the diversity that all of our campuses now want so badly – their perspectives on every issue, the histories of their countries and how that informs their opinion-making, and sometimes also very specific racial/ethnic identities,” says Rev. Alison L. Boden, Dean of Religious Life and the Chapel at Princeton University.  

“Roughly 27% of students at Mount Holyoke College are international students,” says Bhatia. “When these students aren't welcome in the country the school is losing such valuable cultural diversity. As a result of the virus, we're already forced to remain virtual. On one hand, it's a comfort to know that regardless of our distance we will be able to maintain our community. On the other, it's disappointing that a lot of us will be unable to meet in the spaces we held so close to our hearts. The religious and cultural spaces where we formed new friendships and were able to educate other people about our beliefs and traditions. 

Both students and campus administrators believe there is a higher need to recognize the value international students bring to campuses and that this moment has propelled them to revisit and think about their approach towards them. 

“I hope it’s even a little bit reassuring to our students that the university is working strenuously to make sure we do everything in our power to help them,” says Rev. Yarbrough. “We know how scary it is for students right now and the lack of in-person communities makes it even harder. But we are thinking of ways to accommodate social distancing and still have in-person classes or some sort of hybrid classes in the future and have spaces for activities so students can come together. It’s the nature of faith communities to build relationships and international students enrich those spaces and bonds.” 

#Interfaith is a self-paced, online learning opportunity designed to equip a new generation of leaders with the awareness and skills to promote interfaith cooperation online. The curriculum is free to Interfaith America readers; please use the scholarship code #Interfaith100. #Interfaith is presented by IFYC in collaboration with ReligionAndPublicLife.org.

 

more from IFYC

Lessons from Thich Nhat Hanh, the person who nominated Martin Luther King Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize and encouraged King to speak out against the war in Vietnam.
What Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh taught me about the power of mindful breathing through art.
A scholar of democratic virtues explains why Dominican monk Thomas Aquinas’ thoughts on hope are relevant today.
From covering spirituality in Silicon Valley to writing an online newsletter about her own journey to Judaism, reporter Nellie Bowles keeps finding innovative ways to reflect on religion and technology.
Six ways religious and spiritual leaders can help the internet serve their communities right now.
At the request of his editors at Religion News Service, Omar Suleiman writes about waiting with hostages’ families.
Regardless of what happens on Capitol Hill, the PNBC leaders said they plan to lobby Congress in March and register voters weekly in their congregations and communities.
King’s exasperation at self-satisfied white Christians holds up a mirror that is still painfully accurate today.
A day before the U.S. Senate was expected to take up significant legislation on voting rights that is looking likely to fail, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s eldest son condemned federal lawmakers over their inaction.
The congregation’s rabbi, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, is particularly well connected to the larger interfaith community and on good terms with many Muslim leaders.
For Martin Luther King Day, an interfaith panel reflects on the sacredness of the vote and the legacy of Reverend King.
In his new book, Princeton historian Julian E. Zelizer reexamines the life of Abraham Joshua Heschel and finds lessons for interfaith political activism today.
King drew criticism from Billy Graham, who told journalists that he thought King was wrong to link anti-war efforts with the civil rights movement.
Some are calling out historical injustices the church has carried out against Native Americans, even as others find their faith empowering.
IFYC’s Vote is Sacred campaign launched on January 13. Faith leaders, public intellectuals, activists, and organizers are joining to advocate for an inclusive, nonpartisan interfaith approach to restoring and protecting our democracy.
One out of five Muslims is in an interfaith relationship, surveys suggest. But few imams are willing to conform the traditional Muslim wedding ceremony to their needs, couples say.
In her popular podcast series, Corrigan invites guests to wonder about 'the elephant in America's living room': belief and religion. 'I hope I have a hundred more conversations like these in 2022 and beyond,' she says.
In his annual address to the Vatican's diplomatic corps, the pope stressed the individual's responsibility 'to care for ourself and our health, and this translates into respect for the health of those around us.'
The very people who have been subject to the worst of the United States have embodied its best.
The Jan. 6 insurrection of the U.S. Capitol drew recent attention to the phenomenon of Christian nationalism, but religious and spiritual leaders acknowledge its existence long before that.
A new interfaith curriculum designed for Christian universities and seminaries recently got a test run. One professor who tried it says it's opened hearts and minds: "The desire is very much there."

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.