When I first saw the hashtag for #YouAreWelcomeHere, a social media campaign launched in the weeks following the 2016 presidential election as a means of reassuring concerned international students and encouraging them to study in the United States, I was afflicted with a momentary case of cognitive dissonance.
The first questions that popped into my head were "What about on a different campus, an adjoining neighborhood, the city up the road, or another state? And by whom, everyone or just international educators who see the value of hosting large numbers of international students?
The “glass half full” part of me likes this heartfelt, upbeat messaging campaign. But while it gives me a small measure of hope, however fleeting, it is ultimately a hollow sentiment that has little meaning against a grim backdrop of xenophobia, racism, and violence.
Yes, #YouAreWelcomeHere is true in many places but the sometimes harsh reality in a nativist climate rife with acts of hostility towards “the other,” including foreigners, tells a very different story, including at the highest levels of government. For example, there seems to be no end to official proposals that, if approved, would have the net effect of discouraging international students from choosing the US as an overseas study destination.
Contempt for “The Other” and garden-variety violence
The US is a diverse country in more respects than one. There is no national standard governing how US citizens treat one another, evidenced by a long list of hate crimes, not to mention casual comments made in public places that are emotionally damaging to those targeted but that do not violate any law. This includes the case of the Golden West College professor videotaped last March telling a young, Asian-American couple out for a walk with their baby to “go back to your home country.”
The US is an extremely violent country when compared with peer nations in the industrialized world, many of which are friendly competitors that host large numbers of international students. Sharath Koppu, arrived in the US from in January 2018 to begin a master’s degree program in computer science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and was murdered during an attempted robbery in July.
Not surprisingly, in a country where violent crime is a daily occurrence in many communities, coverage of his murder was sparse beyond Kansas City. Not so in India, the victim’s home country. The murder was plastered all over the national media with headlines like Indian-origin student killed in Kansas City and Sharath Koppu Student From Telangana Shot Dead In America.
It’s safe to assume that more people in India and the vast Indian diaspora read those articles on- and offline, and saw the news reports within hours of the incident than those who have watched the #YouAreWelcomeHere YouTube video, uploaded on 23 November 2016 and, as of October 2018, had just 13,532 views.
Do you really want to study in the USA?
Even though study in the USA, both secondary and postsecondary, is still a valuable brand in many other countries, it no longer sells itself. Current news— the mass shootings, visa denials, US government policy announcements such as the submission to social media information from all visa applicants for the past five years, the latest missile strike, travel bans, and a roiling cauldron of perceptions and misperceptions can have a decisive impact on where a young person studies and where parents want their children to study.
US higher education needs to do more, much more, to stanch the hemorrhaging of international students and the increasing velocity of their flow to competitor nations such as Australia, Canada, and the UK than post hashtags, spout slogans, produce feel-good videos watched by a handful of people, and offer scholarships to a limited number of students, as commendable as that may be.
Since the US government is not going to be of much assistance, this urgent task falls to those of us around the world who work with international students who might wish to study in the USA. US educational institutions that welcome international students to their campuses need to make the case that their students are safe, a primary concern of parents and students, for obvious reasons.
Rather than simply say that their campuses and communities are safe, they need to prove it with student testimonials, written and video, documentation in the form of crime reports, etc. Just like the country in which they are situated, not all institutions are equal in this respect. This should be one of a number of key “selling points”.
Institutions must also stress appropriate strengths against a positive backdrop of why international students should study in the USA in the first place; tell their story in a compelling and appealing manner, especially digitally; and provide superior comprehensive service to students, even if they are working with many of them through agents. If that means hiring additional staff, then that’s the price institutions have to pay to stay in the game.
That Which Is Within Our Power
Saying something doesn't make it so. At the end of the day, it’s only so much cheerleading, regardless of how it is packaged. The writing is on the international student recruitment wall in large, fluorescent, spray-painted letters with exclamation points. Those of us who work with international students whose dream is to study in the USA ignore it at our collective peril.
In The Enchiridion, a text that dates to 125 AD, Epictetus, a Greek philosopher born into slavery, wrote: There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Fully cognizant of the latter, we must work quickly, creatively, passionately, and with greater urgency on those tasks related to US international student recruitment that are within our power.
Mark A. Ashwill is an international educator who has been living and working in Viet Nam since 2005. He was country director of the Institute of International Education in Vietnam from 2005 to 2009. Ashwill is the co-founder and managing director of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Viet Nam. He blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam.