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‘Racism Is Always There’

The shooting at Asian-run spas near Atlanta were a dark moment in a grim year for anti-Asian racism — since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the group Stop AAPI hate has catalogued nearly 3,800 of anti-Asian discrimination or xenophobia. It’s a theme that’s been echoed in many of my exchanges with international students, so I wanted to talk with an expert. I called up Yingyi Ma, a Syracuse University sociologist and author of a terrific book on the Chinese-student experience. Our conversation was edited for space and clarity.

How do you think international students are absorbing this news?

American higher education doesn’t score high on the safety front, and last week’s event definitely exacerbated that fear that America is unsafe, that a random person can use guns to kill people. The very fact that six out of eight victims are Asian women definitely makes the violence racialized and gendered. And given that 70 percent of all international students in the United States are from Asia, I think that would definitely make them very, very afraid.

But I would argue that anti-Asian racism is always there. It’s just made prominent last week, made more visible last week.

I agree that anti-Asian racism isn’t new. But I wonder if you think that the pandemic — and now these shootings — has changed how international students perceive racial attitudes and racism towards them in the United States?

Certainly. I think it’s not surprising that before the pandemic, international students did not view the issues through the lens of race. Take Chinese international students, for example. They’re coming from a society where race is not a salient social category. They don’t really have the vocabulary, this analytical lens of race, in their home country. China isn’t a ethno-racial society as the United States is. A lot of them came here to attend college and probably for the first time ever had a conversation about race and racism. It’s not surprising for me that they do not really tend to interpret their experiences as being targets of racism. Probably they have experienced it, but they do not interpret it that way. The pandemic probably has changed this for many students.

I have done research and published a paper during the pandemic focused on mask wearing. Chinese international students were among the very first groups in America who started to wear masks before mask wearing was mandated or endorsed by CDC guidelines. I’ve interviewed students from California to the East Coast and almost every single one of them struggled with this decision of wearing one. When they wear a mask to the classroom, they were even questioned by their dear professor who asked them, are you sick? If you’re sick, please don’t come here. If you’re not sick, why do you wear a mask? Are you selfish? They were caught in these cross-cultural differences in responses to the public health crisis. Sometimes when they wear a mask, they were yelled at on the street. And several people mentioned that this is actually the first time ever they have experienced racism in America. So yes, to answer your question, the pandemic has really made their experiences with racism more visible.

Do you think this will have a lasting effect?

I think only time can tell. But I think if you ask how Chinese students feel, a good starting point is how the American public views them. And I think you and I are both aware that the American public does not really view them very favorably. As long as the geopolitical tensions are there, and are escalating to some extent, Chinese students are going to be viewed as part of that tension.

I see a lot of institutions making statements supporting their Asian American students. Are there ways in which colleges ought to be offering messages of support to their international students?

I’m the director of the Asian and Asian American Studies program at my institution, and I am very intentional in getting our international students from Asia included in our messaging and our programs. Because both groups are the targets of xenophobia and racism, anti-Asian racism, in the United States.

I think data shows that violence against Asian Americans is less likely to be defined as hate crimes compared to other racial minority groups. As tragic as the recent events are, they shed light on this invisible shadow that Asian American communities are under. Oftentimes, they are targets of racism and hate crimes without the full recognition of the mainstream society and the criminal justice system.

Send tips and questions to For up-to-the-minute coverage of international ed, follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Vaccine Rules

Rutgers University will require all students next fall to be fully vaccinated against Covid, making it one of the first institutions to adopt a vaccine mandate. Notably, students will have to have gotten a vaccine authorized in the U.S.

But most international students, at least at the moment, don’t have access to American-approved vaccines in their home countries, if they can get vaccinated at all. Take China, which accounts for a third of all international students. People there are being vaccinated with Chinese-developed and -approved vaccines, not those created by Pfizer or Moderna. If students are vaccinated before they come to the U.S., will they have to get a second vaccine under the Rutgers policy?

Rutgers permits medical and religious exemptions from the vaccine requirement, but a posted FAQ makes no mention of international students. I reached out to the university, and a spokeswoman responded:

“As international students begin the process of enrolling, we will work with them to help get them vaccinated upon arrival in the United States and in accordance with public health guidelines. The science regarding re-vaccination is still uncertain, and we hope to have a better answer within the next few months.”

Does your college have a vaccine policy yet, and how will it apply to international students? If a plan is under debate, as I suspect most now are, is your office’s international expertise helping to shape it? Email me at

A Sharp Decline

Follow this newsletter, and you’ll be aware of the spate of Confucius Institute closures. Still, this stat brought me up short: Over the past four years, the number of Chinese-government-funded language and cultural centers in the United States has been cut in half.

In 2017, there were 103 CIs in the U.S., according to a tally maintained by the National Association of Scholars. As of last week, there were just 51, 44 of which are on college campuses. What’s more, that count includes seven centers that are scheduled to close later this year. It also includes one, at St. Cloud State University, that is “paused” for an institutional review. 

A few takeaways: Concerned about a lack of transparency in some of the center agreements and fearful that the Chinese may be using them as “propaganda arms,” Congress is considering legislation that would impose tougher restrictions on CIs and the American colleges that host them. But that measure, if passed, may be a bit after the fact if closures continue at the current pace.

Meanwhile, the accelerated rate of shutdowns in the last few years suggests that a rider tucked in a 2018 defense bill is having its intended effect. The provision, which blocked institutions with CIs from receiving certain defense funds, has been cited by a number of colleges in the closure announcements, including the University of Maryland, the nation’s oldest center, and the University of Kentucky, one of the most recent to shut down.

Get up to speed: A new brief from the Congressional Research Service is a good primer on CIs and their controversies.

Tell me: Are you on a campus that hosted a Confucius Institute? What has the closure meant for access to Chinese-language instruction? For your institution’s Sino-American relationships more broadly?

Around the Globe

Students who participated in a remote global internship in 2020 experienced the same or better gains in skill development as peers who completed an in-person international internship the prior year, says a new report.

As a presidential candidate, Vice President Kamala Harris criticized a fake university the U.S. government set up as a student-visa sting. Now the Biden administration is trying to dismiss a lawsuit brought by former students in federal claims court.

Parents of current Chinese students still overwhelmingly see the U.S. as their first choice for their children’s college education, according to a survey.

Moody’s cited the gradual rebound of international enrollments as part of its more optimistic outlook for American higher education, although the rating agency noted that foreign-students numbers could be slower to bounce back because of travel restrictions and other hurdles.

Elite Education Group, a company that links Chinese students with overseas-study opportunities, began trading on Wall Street.

Support for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants has dropped since President Biden took office among both Republicans and Democrats.

In an open letter, Scholars at Risk sounded the alarm about the impact of the coup in Myanmar on scholars, students, and universities, and on civil society broadly. Meanwhile, the military released some student protestors.

China has targeted European academics with sanctions after the EU joined the U.S., UK, and Canada in blacklisting certain Chinese Communist Party officials that they accuse of violating the rights of Uyghur Muslims.

Academics from Israel, Switzerland, and the UK could be excluded from certain sensitive projects funded through Horizon Europe, the European Union research program.

The Welsh government is planning a new international-exchange program for its universities after the UK pulled out of Erasmus.

Some South African universities have agreed to register students with outstanding tuition debts.

What sort of experience should new SIOs have?

A former Lehigh University student has been sentenced to up to 20 years in prison for attempting to poison his roommate and will be deported to China when he is released from prison.

A Mexican graduate student at the University of Texas at El Paso on her way to meet her thesis adviser was detained at the border by officers who threatened to take away her student visa.

And finally…

Hey guys, remember when I wrote about the USC professor who vowed to read a book for every U.S. state and so many of you messaged me to say that you wished there was a similar reading project for countries around the world? There is!

’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.