Rather than action on OPT, a new presidential order focuses on Chinese students. Plus, coping with coronavirus-related layoffs in international ed.

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Seeing America from Abroad

This weekend’s protests in cities across the country put a spotlight on America’s tragic problems around race. But as peaceful demonstrations devolved into violence and police used force, the events also magnified one of U.S. higher education’s greatest vulnerabilities — that around the world, this country is seen as unsafe.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that people exercising their right to speak is problematic. Indeed, most international students I know find this aspect of American democracy admirable. But when skirmishes break out in major American cities like D.C., when looters break down storefronts in college towns like Madison, when police deploy tear gas and batons and other aggressive tactics, that’s another matter.

Safety is a top concern for international students and their families, and of all the countries popular for foreign study, they rate the U.S. the worst. The coronavirus pandemic is bad for international education and global mobility, but it’s a problem equally for all major destination countries. The violent nature of some of the demonstrations — and, critically, the horrific incident that precipitated them — reinforces a central and unique liability for American colleges. The painful images of the past week may be difficult to unsee.

New Limits on Chinese Students

Image by 文 邵 from Pixabay

For the last few weeks, higher ed has been anxiously waiting to see what restrictions the Trump administration might make on optional practical training, the work program for international graduates.

Surprise! The president did announce an order Friday afternoon — but it had to do with Chinese graduate students, not OPT. The White House zigged when everyone was watching for it to zag.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean OPT is out of the woods. (More on that later.) If anything, the action against Chinese students seemed opportunistic, part of a broader set of anti-China measures occasioned by the mainland government’s moves to tighten its control over Hong Kong.

But the proclamation reflects the U.S. government’s longstanding suspicion that China is attempting to obtain sensitive research and intellectual property from American campuses. This mistrust has informed previous decisions: to limit visa length for some Chinese students, to scrutinize colleges’ foreign gifts and contracts, to investigate university researchers’ China ties. The latter, in fact, predates the Trump administration.

The latest order bars the entry of certain graduate students and researchers who are affiliated with universities that have ties to the Chinese military. But it does not do what initial leaks said it would — it does not expel these students or cancel their visas, though presumably it would prevent them from returning if they left the country. BUT — and truly, this is an all-caps but — the proclamation opens the door to expulsions, directing the Secretary of State to consider whether to revoke these students’ visas.

It also gives the State and Homeland Security Departments 60 days to recommend additional measures that “would mitigate the risk posed by the PRC’s acquisition of sensitive United States technologies and intellectual property.”

The order does not affect Chinese undergraduates, and it exempts students in nonsensitive fields — though it doesn’t spell out just what majors and research areas it applies to. Nor does it list the institutional affiliations that would trigger the ban, just that these entities implement or support China’s “military-civil fusion strategy,” its effort to acquire foreign technology to support military aims. Whether that vagueness is because the proclamation was hastily drafted or to deliberately give government officials greater latitude in its implementation, I do not know.

What I do know is that China, like the U.S., sees knowledge and innovation as central to its status as a global power, and it has sometimes sought to acquire that know-how from abroad, rather than develop it itself. But there is no evidence that students have engaged in wrongdoing. And while this new measure — which took effect today and is in place indefinitely — applies to just a small slice of the 370,000 Chinese students in the U.S., it likely will increase scrutiny of all of them.

Meanwhile, no news is not necessarily good news when it comes to OPT — everything I’m hearing is that the delay is more about the scope of the eventual order, not whether to do it. (I wrote about some possible directions the administration may go and key dates last week.)

Still, a group of Republican congressmen is circulating a letter to the Trump administration in support of international students and OPT. Some half-dozen lawmakers have already signed on.

Tell me what you think. You can find me on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Coronavirus and Job Loss

At colleges across the country, international offices are reducing staff hours, eliminating positions, and furloughing workers to make up for coronavirus-related budget shortfalls, a recent NAFSA survey found. And they’re bracing for more cuts.

Tom Millington knows what this is like first hand. During the Great Recession, he was laid off not once but twice. He went on to start Abroadia, which provides intercultural experiences in Latin America, but continues to build a support group for international educators coping with unemployment. Since the pandemic began, he has been organizing webinars; the next, on managing the emotional impact of a job loss, is this Thursday at 2 p.m. ET. We talked about coping with unemployment during a downturn and what he wished he had known. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

You don’t like to use the word “laid-off.” Could you explain why?

I think it puts the burden of the problem on the person being laid off. I’ve always preferred the term “in transition” because it’s more dynamic. There’s a book called Not Working, by D.W. Gibson. He went across the country to interview Americans who were laid off during the Great Recession, and he begins a chapter by listing all the different words people have used for laid off: downsized, excised, surplused, reorganized. All of these words, and none of them are very positive. If we can use “in transition,” it’s a small step, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Is there practical advice that you took away from your own experience that you think translates to the current environment?

Each person has to make a decision and say, look, I’m going to do a job search in international education for five months, six months, but f I don’t get a job by then, then I’m going to have to start looking for jobs in other fields. I waited way too long. I wanted to stay in the field, but I think that loyalty is hurtful as it is helpful. It’s not practical when the economic conditions are the way they were in 2008 and the way they are now. The other thing I would say: Talk to people, talk to a psychologist or psychiatrist. I wish I had done that when I was unemployed. I just felt really disconnected, abandoned, alone, frustrated. I’m seeing more and more people on LinkedIn who are connecting with others who have been laid off in the field, and I think that’s a good thing.

What was it like for you?

The first time I was laid off, it was a shock. It took me several weeks before I could finally process it. Six or seven months into my unemployment, I had severe shoulder pain because of the stress. Nothing helped.

It manifested physically.

It manifested itself. Obviously, stress plays a part in our work days. But when you lose such an important part of your life, your job, it can have an effect on your mind and on your body. It took a long time before I could have closure. What helped were a few organizations or universities that had hired someone else but took the time to send me an email or to call. It was a very small gesture, but it was cathartic. Even if it was a rejection, it was recognition: I’m no longer just a number or an abstract concept to them, I’m a person.

How did you get to the point where you said, I need to do my own thing?

It was something I’d been thinking about for some time, but I always wanted to stick one foot in the water rather than jump in with both feet. I finally said, I want to be able to take more control of my career. It’s been slow and it’s been challenging, but I don’t regret it.

Do you think there are any silver linings, either to losing one’s job or to the current crisis we are in?

Someone mentioned to me today, look, Tom, I’ve been out of work for three months now. But it’s sunny, it’s a beautiful day. And I’m realizing just how tied up I was in my work, I couldn’t separate myself from it. For me, this is a break to reflect a little bit. And I think ultimately, that is healthy. I’m not saying everyone should have a layoff. People are hurting. But to have the opportunity to reset, to step back and look, I think in the big picture, that’s a good thing.

Around the Globe

Twitter and Reddit have filed an amicus brief in a lawsuit that challenges a rule that requires visa applicants to register their social-media handles.

Case Western Reserve is the latest university to face U.S. government scrutiny of foreign contracts and gifts.

During Chinese government annual meetings, a Shanghai education official proposed that students who cannot return to their studies abroad be allowed to enroll in technical colleges.

Some U.S. business schools may not allow international students to defer.

A resolution supporting the Hong Kong democracy movement failed at a British university after mainland Chinese students objected.

The University of Queensland has banned foreign diplomats from being given honorary academic positions after a Chinese official praised pro-Beijing protestors who sparked clashes on the Australian campus.

Top British universities are calling for the creation of an “Office for Tackling Inequality” to help bridge socioeconomic and educational divides.

The coronavirus outbreak is likely to worsen the struggles of Chinese college graduates trying to find work.

Morgan State University will offer three degree programs in Ghana.

Nigeria is establishing a dozen research centers of excellence.

I’m late to this recommendation, but this piece on activism and social engagement of some young Chinese in the diaspora is worth a read.

Spot international news I may have missed or know of developments I should cover? Email me at latitudesnews@gmail.com.

And finally …

My hope for this newsletter was to foster community and spark conversation. Now I’m starting latitude(s) coffee hours, a chance to connect virtually. We’ll talk about the latest in international ed, share advice, and hear new perspectives. These sessions won’t be fussy or formal and I’ll keep them short — I know you’re busy, plus all those Zoom happy hours, amirite?

First up, OPT. I’ll be joined by Miriam Feldblum, who in addition to running the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration is an immigration scholar with a long view about the politics of visa policy. We’ll discuss the possible future of OPT and why the program is under fire. I’ll also talk with a recent international graduate about how he’s handling the uncertainty.

So, I hope you’ll join us for the first coffee hour this Thursday, June 4, at 1 p.m. ET. Sign up here. Bring your questions, your comments, and your beverage of choice!

’Til next week — Karin

A freelance journalist and expert on global issues in higher ed, Karin has been writing for more than a decade about the changing relationship between American colleges and the world.