Photo by Max Bender on Unsplash

How International Students See the Protests

The death of George Floyd and the protests that followed have evoked many responses from international students — hope and disillusionment and even fear.

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When Divyansh Kaushik first came to the U.S., his goals were straightforward: to do computer-science research and earn his Ph.D. But over the past three years, he’s become more politically and socially active, first around science policy, and then on a broader swath of issues, including DACA, food insecurity, and optional practical training, the work program for international graduates.

When protests broke out following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Divyansh felt compelled to speak out, leading the drafting of a statement by the Graduate Student Assembly at Carnegie Mellon University, where he is vice president for external affairs. University leaders were right to decry racism, the students wrote, but as an institution, Carnegie Mellon must do better.

“It’s not enough as an international student to just stand up for international students. I try to stand up and be an ally to my black colleagues and to underrepresented minorities,” he said. “We cannot turn a blind eye to this.”

In the days since Floyd’s brutal death, I’ve been talking with international students across the country about their thoughts about his murder and the demonstrations that followed. It goes without saying that international students are not homogenous, and their responses have been varied. Some, like Divyansh, feel called to act. “It’s great that people are protesting,” he said. “It’s not great they have to protest and decide between staying safe from COVID or from systemic racism.”

Lobbying in D.C., photo courtesy of Divyansh Kaushik

Others say their faith in a country where they’d long dreamt of studying has been shaken. For a few, their response can be summed up in a single word: fear. “George Floyd was killed because of his black skin,” one told me. “Do you think my brown skin will keep me safe?”

VG, a master’s student at a regional public university in Illinois, said he no longer feels comfortable in certain places as a person of color, a wariness he says began before the protests, with the election of President Trump. “I walk into a bar, I have to look over my shoulder when someone is staring at me. Go to a supermarket, we have people blocking our way, and we have to stay quiet.”

To VG, public officials’ handling of protests, at times employing excessive force, calls into question the United States’ moral authority around the globe.

Some of his friends, he said, are considering going to other countries like Canada. He wonders if he is still welcome here. “I chose this country and moved here, leaving everyone behind, since this is a land of opportunities,” he said. “I am in love with the USA from my childhood.”

The unrest has made some prospective students think twice about studying in the U.S. But Ajay Pokharel, who is set to begin at Howard University this fall, said he sees the protests as contributing to “national solidarity and mutual respect.” He still plans to come.

Growing up in India, Gitanjali Poonia, a recent San Francisco State graduate, was used to societal divides, there along religious lines. The country would sometimes erupt with sectarian violence, with “ugly” riots, she said.

Now she’s come to understand how deep America’s divides run. “The more I read about it, the more I realized that the system was designed to leave the African-American population disadvantaged. As an outsider you never see that because the system hides its flaws well…It’s a little unsettling how the problem stares at you in the face, and the government doesn’t want to do much about it. I never thought it was this bad.“

“It makes you wonder how idealistic western ideals are. It is the land of the free as long as you are white.”

Bikalpa Neupane, a Ph.D. candidate in informatics from Nepal at Penn State, says many of his international friends support the protests, in part because they have also dealt with discrimination. But they hesitate to join the demonstrations because an arrest could jeopardize their student-visa status. “They are speaking for the right reasons,” he said of the protesters. “We want to speak, too, but we can’t, we’re helpless.”

WS has gone to two marches in the small southern city where she is studying law. The protests have been peaceful and well-organized and the environment supportive. Attending has given her a new perspective on the issues facing her neighbors, things she might not have learned in the university bubble, she said.

Public protest is risky back in in the authoritarian Eastern European country where she’s from. “In my country, the very act of speaking can be dangerous for you,” WS said.

While the American demonstrations are spurred by anger and grief, she also sees the good in them. “It’s giving me hope that you can advocate for change peacefully and powerfully.”

Public dissent is also rare in Xinyi Chen’s home of Singapore. Demonstrations require government permission.

Despite being busy finishing up her final days as a student at the University of California at Riverside, Xinyi, who goes by Heidi, has thrown herself into learning all she can about American history and its racial aspects. She has been heartened that so many Americans are speaking out, and she’s trying to be a good ally and a supportive friend. “This sounds so cliché, but in the current difficult times, every word has consequences,” she said, “but every silence does as well.”

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Bill Gets Tough on Foreign Ties

Proposed legislation would give the U.S. government greater powers to police foreign researchers and American universities that accept U.S. and foreign grant money. The bipartisan bill, which comes on the heels of a presidential proclamation placing new limits on Chinese graduate students and researchers, would also expand authority to deny visas to students and scientists.

While the bill would affect universities’ foreign ties broadly, it should be viewed as a response to concerns about China in particular. The senators who authored the bill also led a Senate inquiry into Confucius Institutes and Chinese money in higher education last year.

One more point: While scrutiny of China tends to get painted as a GOP position, it’s become more bipartisan. A longtime China hand told me the most startling thing he found returning to D.C. was the bipartisan nature of the “get tough on China” sentiment.

As of late Friday, the text of the bill had yet to be posted. I’ll share more details on Twitter when they’re available.

Talking OPT

Thanks to everyone who turned out for the first latitude(s) live chat, focused on possible restrictions the Trump administration could put on OPT. Sam, a recent graduate working here in California, shared the unease he feels, not knowing if his life could be uprooted by a presidential order: “It’s easy for people to look at us as an economic number, but every one of us is a person.” And Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, outlined steps that individuals and institutions can take, from reaching out to offer support to international alumni to finding new advocates, such as local employers, for international education. “We can’t do everything, but you can do one thing,” she said.

If you missed the coffee hour, you can watch a recording. Please feel free to share it with interested friends and colleagues. I do plan to hold future live chats, so send me your suggestions for topics and guests and share your feedback, good and bad. I’m at latitudesnews@gmail.com.

Meanwhile, it was another wait-and-see week when it comes to OPT. Here’s the congressional letter in support of OPT I mentioned in last week’s newsletter. Twenty-one Republican representatives signed on.

Around the Globe

The Department of Homeland Security updated its guidance for colleges on student-visa regulations during the pandemic to say that it still had no new guidance for fall.

On the regulatory front, the department has submitted a rule for review that would replace “duration of status” with a fixed period of admission and extension of stay procedure. It will be subject to public comment.

Three Chinese students were sentenced to federal prison for illegally taking photos of a Florida naval station.

Investors in a Chinese education company asked a judge to approve a $3.15 million settlement of their class-action lawsuit. They say the company, a subsidiary of test-prep giant New Oriental, hid the fact it was ghostwriting clients’ college-application essays.

Five of Hong Kong’s eight university heads signed a statement saying they “understand the need for national security legislation” imposed by Beijing. But some observers worry that the new law could be used to curb academic freedom.

A British lawmaker is calling on the government to block Chinese students from enrolling at universities if they are “used to empower state censorship.”

UK universities could have 14,000 fewer students from East Asia this fall because of the coronavirus, a £463 million hit, a new British Council report said.

Australian researchers predict international enrollments in the country’s universities could be cut in half by 2021.

The German government has started a new emergency fund to aid international students facing financial hardship because of the pandemic.

NYU Shanghai’s founding chancellor has retired.

When it comes to international students, Chinese universities should focus on quality not quantity, the Ministry of Education said.

A University of Miami professor who is an international scholar on drug cartels and money laundering pleaded guilty to laundering more than $2 million as part of a Venezuelan bribery and corruption scheme.

And finally …

4:22 PM — 5 Jun 2020

’Til next week — Karin

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