Fear Factor

In wake of high-profile murders at Louisiana State, experts consider the impact on conceptions of U.S. campus safety among prospective international students.
December 21, 2007

International students and their families sometimes perceive campus life in the United States, especially in urban areas, as dangerous. This perception is heightened by international media coverage of violent incidents, which, fortunately, occur very infrequently. Universities and colleges in the United States want to provide you with a safe and secure environment in which to pursue your academic and social goals.
--From the international student handbook at the University of Missouri at St. Louis

The murder of two Indian students on Louisiana State University’s campus last week became an international incident. The Indian embassy immediately sent diplomats to Baton Rouge, and the Indian press has closely covered the shooting of two male Ph.D. students at the Edward Gay Apartments, where 94 percent of residents are international students.

Natalie Rigby, director of the LSU International Services Office, said she hasn’t heard from prospective international students about the murders yet. But she’s expecting their inquiries and concerns.

“It would certainly cross a student’s mind” during the decision-making process, Rigby said. “I think that’s human nature.”

“It would be ignorant to think that this would not.”

Those involved with international student recruitment say high-profile violent acts like what happened at Louisiana State -- and the recent massacre at Virginia Tech, which claimed the lives of several international students -- can have an impact on prospective international students’ perceptions of the safety of studying in the United States and fuel commonly held conceptions that the country is a dangerous place. But they stress that questions about violent occurrences don't seem to be dominant considerations in students' decisions to study at American institutions.

“Certainly with the shootings at Virginia Tech last year, it’s always in the back of people’s minds,” said Heather Augar, who, as director of international admissions at Farleigh Dickinson University, spends two to three months a year in India (which sends more international students to the United States than any other country). “But I’ve always gotten the read, and I could be wrong, that students understand that these are unfortunate isolated incidents.”

Violent images in movies and on television and murders like the one at LSU that are splashed across newspapers, the Internet and television have an effect on parents and prospective students abroad -- "How could they not?” asked Kathleen Trayte Freeman, an independent consultant and chair-elect of the Recruitment, Admission and Preparation Knowledge Community for NAFSA: Association of International Educators. "If I were a parent in India and I heard about this, I would think twice about sending my child here."

But, Freeman added, “That’s the responsibility of the U.S. officials who are recruiting: to break down the perceptions that the U.S. is supposed to be unsafe.” A forthcoming international student parents' guide from the NAFSA knowledge community, a network of professionals focused on prospective international students, will include a section on safety. The overarching message, Freeman said, is that "the crime rate in the United States is not what it seems to be in movies," that universities go to great lengths to make their campuses safe and that there are college officials parents can call on.

“These are real things and are reasons why we go to India and other countries so that we can meet with students and parents,” said Ann Gogerty, the global recruitment coordinator at Iowa State University. “I have found, interestingly enough, that when I’m outside the larger cities in India, I get a lot more questions about safety,” she said -- adding that questions she’s been fielding about Virginia Tech are “intelligent questions” in that they reflect the fact that Iowa State and Virginia Tech share many similar qualities. “Gun control issues are at the forefront of many students’ and parents’ minds when they think about studying anywhere in the U.S.," Gogerty said.

“Safety and perception of safety in the U.S. is a huge issue,” added Susan Whipple, assistant director for the Office of International Education at Marquette University. “I do think students sometimes arrive with the idea that we’re all packing pistols.”

For parents abroad who can't visit campus, "The only picture they have is in the press," Whipple said. And, citing the heightened concerns that even sophisticated American travelers can have when they visit unfamiliar places, she pointed out that, "When you don't know about something, your fears, they grow exponentially."

Yet, Whipple compared concerns among international students about particular incidents to concerns that any female student, regardless of nationality, might have upon hearing reports that a number of women have recently been raped in a certain part of town. Women are likely to avoid that section of town at night, and maybe during the day too -- but are they going to move out of the town, or, in the case of international students, give up their dream of studying at a top institution?

“It’s not the first question we get,” but an inquiry about safety is often the sixth or seventh, Whipple said. “It is a factor in the decision-making process.”

Still, it's important to note that perceptions of the safety of studying in the United States vary greatly according to what region of the world a student is from, said Christopher Sullivan, assistant director of the Office of International Student and Scholar Services at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. He hears the typical concerns while recruiting -- “There are lots of guns in America, it’s a violent society, things like that" -- but pointed out that a student from a larger city than mid-sized St. Louis might feel very differently about coming to the campus than someone from a smaller town.

“I think there are short-term impacts," said Darryl Calkins, executive director and co-owner of Linden Educational Services, a company that aims to help universities increase international student enrollments. But “Columbine or Virginia Tech or the incident in Louisiana, those kinds of incidents haven’t had long-term negative impacts on international student perceptions that I have noticed,” he said.

“I think you would find that most Indians would still view the value of a degree from the United States to the extent that it would overpower any negatives,” Calkins said. “Certainly issues of foreign policy, difficulties in [obtaining] visas, visa denials -- those have much more long-term impacts on perceptions about the United States being a friendly place or a place that actually wants international students in it. And those are the questions we do get over and over and over.”


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top