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When international students die violently, the reverberations are global. Plus, what to expect from Biden and Trump and a new OPT office.

Safety Fears

In April 2013, a pair of brothers set off two homemade pressure-cooker bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. More than 260 people were injured, some grievously, and three spectators died. One of those who died was a 23-year-old Boston University graduate student from China named Lingzi Lu.

That week I was in Michigan, where I’d spent much of the past year following a group of freshmen navigating the adjustment from China to college. I was pulled into the marathon coverage — a classmate accused of hiding evidence for one of bombers had entered the U.S. on an expired visa. For months afterward, international students were subject to additional screening, sometimes waiting for hours as customs officials gave their paperwork extra scrutiny.

But that wasn’t the only way Lingzi Lu’s death reverberated. I could see it in the students I was spending time with at Michigan State. They paused as bulletins about the manhunt played on the TVs in the international center, scanned the headlines on Chinese and American social media, shared rumors in group chats. The arbitrariness of Lu’s killing made them contemplate their own vulnerability.

And it terrified their parents, who questioned letting their children go so far away.

“Her parents are of the same age as my parents; they cannot have another child. She is the only child of her family,” one student told me after detailing her own mother’s many calls and texts. “That must be really hard for her parents, for her to die suddenly.”

Another student asked me to do a Skype call with his parents and explain, in my terrible Chinese, that he was OK, that East Lansing was a safe place. Of course, I would have said the same of Boston.

I thought back to the marathon bombing last week after the death of another Chinese student. Yiran Fan was a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, memorialized by friends and professors as brilliant and kind. Like Lu, he was caught up in arbitrary violence, killed as he sat in his car, the first of seven victims of a shooting spree.

Coming within days of the assault on the Capitol, Republican challenges to the presidential election, and President Trump’s second impeachment, Fan’s killing got little attention in the U.S. Not so in China.

It’s a grim reminder about how perceptions about violence and safety color how prospective students and their parents view the United States. The U.S. ranks last among major study destinations for safety. When World Education Services surveyed international students specifically about gun violence, a quarter said they worried about a shooting on their own campus.

On Friday afternoon, I got on the phone with Justin Gelzhiser, who wrote his doctoral thesis on international students’ views on gun violence. After academic quality, local crime statistics can be an important factor for students choosing where to study, he said.

Gelzhiser is now a postdoc at Harvard, and his fellowship is named for another victim of the Boston bombing. Gillian Reny survived, and her family’s gift funds trauma research.

Gelzhiser said the outrage over the deaths of Fan and Lu means that international students and their families have not become habituated to violence; it can still shock. “For me” he said, “it’s a reminder that we should also never become desensitized.”

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First Days, Last Days

As I write, it is almost exactly 72 hours until Joe Biden is sworn in as the next president. For journalists like me, that means a double dose of uncertainty, trying to pin down what could happen in the final days of the Trump presidency while figuring out what the new administration might mean for international education. Here are a few things I’m hearing:

The clock may run out on a proposed rule to set strict time limits on student visas. More than 32,000 individuals and groups submitted comments on the regulation, which would have forced students to apply to American degree programs without a guarantee they could complete them. Getting a new policy through the regulatory process in less than six months was always going to be a heavy lift. But don’t discount the (negative) PR impact of proposing the change.

The Trump administration could put in place new disclosure requirements for Confucius Institutes. Axios reports that colleges that fail to comply with reporting requirements for the Chinese-funded language and cultural centers could lose their certification to admit student-visa holders. The rule would reportedly also apply to student groups or cultural associations that receive funds, directly or indirectly, from the Chinese government, such as Chinese Students and Scholars Associations. Even if this doesn’t happen, scrutiny of CIs is bipartisan.

President-elect Biden plans a blitz of executive orders in his first days, including a repeal of the ban on travelers from a half-dozen predominantly Muslim countries. The travel ban was one of President Trump’s first actions in office, stranding students and scholars abroad. It signaled the administration’s restrictionist visa policy and set the tone for an isolationist presidency.

The new president will make comprehensive immigration reform one of his first priorities. Legislation, which could be introduced this week, could put undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children on a path to citizenship and make it easier for foreign graduates of American colleges and other skilled workers to get green cards. But passing broad immigration measures has bedeviled both Democratic and Republican leaders in the past.

As more policy comes into focus, I’ll report it here. And for real-time updates, follow me on Twitter.

New OPT Compliance Office Formed

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said it is forming a new OPT Employment Compliance Unit to ensure that international students and employers taking part in the popular work program abide by government rules.

The new office will be ”dedicated full-time to compliance matters involving wage, hours, and compensation” within optional practical training, the OPT STEM extension, and curricular practical training, the department said in a broadcast message on Wednesday. It will recommend investigations of students and employers to DHS’ investigatory arm and will notify authorities of unlawful practices.

The unit will also publicly release annual reports on its findings, including detailed information on duties, hours, and compensation of OPT participants.

More than 223,000 student-visa holders were on OPT during the 2019 academic year, a nearly 200 percent increase over the past decade. The program was a frequent target of the Trump administration, which said it took jobs from American workers. In November, officials announced that 15 students had been arrested on charges of OPT fraud and an additional 1,100 would have their work authorization revoked for being out of status.

International Day of Education

I’ll be joining speakers including the heads of UNESCO and Education International as part of Global Minnesota’s celebration of International Day of Education. The January 25 event will tackle urgent questions about how to design the future of learning in a world affected by Covid-19, climate disruption, and other forces. It will also highlight the collaboration and international solidarity needed to place education and lifelong learning at the center of the pandemic recovery. You can sign up for the free virtual symposium here.

Around the Globe

International students are suing an Iowa community college, alleging it coerced them into working in food processing and packaging jobs under threat of deportation.

The U.S. Department of Labor has released a final rule on wages for workers on H1-B visas, a companion to a recent DHS regulatory change.

DHS published a strategic plan for countering China, which includes setting up a working group with universities to address threats to intellectual property.

A MIT professor has been arrested over research ties to his native China, while a NASA scientist pleaded guilty to making false statements about his participation in China’s Thousand Talents program.

A Maine woman has admitted to defrauding students from Taiwan by misrepresenting the cost of tuition and other educational expenses and pocketing the difference.

Google will pay for the DACA application fees for 500 Dreamers.

The coronavirus outbreak sparked a huge rise in philanthropic giving to support vaccines and drug research at Chinese universities and research institutes.

Many British students will receive rent reductions after the government’s latest lockdown delayed a return to on-campus teaching.

Canada will allow international graduates to extend their work permits.

Academic and human-rights groups are circulating a petition in support of Turkish students’ protests against a new university president.

Top-ranked universities in India will now be permitted to set up offshore campuses.

A measure that would set higher quality standards for Greek universities would also create a special force to handle campus security.

To combat youth unemployment, Hong Kong is offering incentives to employers to hire graduates of local universities.

And finally…

Readers may know Jenny Lee as an expert in global higher education and research. She’s also the dog-mom of a guide dog-in-training. Isadora (the dog) recently visited a local school on what happened to be school picture day, and they sent Jenny the yearbook-worthy results:

I’m not usually a sucker for cute animal photos, but the shots — featuring what Jenny called Isadora’s “subtle Mona Lisa grin” — were my moment of Zen in a decidedly un-Zen-like week.

’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.