Professionals in international education have long had to counter stereotypical depictions of the U.S. as a crime-ridden, pistol-packing kind of place, but this week issues surrounding perceptions of international student safety have been especially prominent: not only was Secretary of State John Kerry quoted as saying that prospective Japanese students are deterred by fears of gun violence, but one international student died, and at least three others were injured, as a result of the Boston Marathon bombings.
Boston University has been left mourning Lu Lingzi, a graduate student in mathematics and statistics who was described by The New York Times as “a woman whose aspirations took her from a rust-belt hometown, Shenyang, to Beijing and then the United States.” One other Chinese student was reported injured, as were two Saudi Arabian students, one of whom was initially misidentified by some media outlets as a suspect, leading a Saudi embassy official to tell The Boston Globe, “We’re concerned about the backlash against students based on a false story.” (Officials at the Saudi Embassy did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.)
The numbers of Chinese and Saudi students in the U.S. have grown dramatically in recent years, fueled by a hunger for U.S. education on the part of China’s growing middle class, on the one hand, and a generous Saudi government scholarship program, on the other. But while the overall number of international students in the U.S. is growing, this may be in some cases despite concerns about safety. An October 2012 report from the British Council shows something of a mixed picture in regard to international students' perceptions of safety in the U.S.: students rated the U.S. in the top five in terms of both the safest and the least-safe countries in which to study abroad. This divided opinion “is no doubt a product of [the country's] size, diverse urban and rural nature, and the national celebrity status generated by its media, television, and sports industries and afforded to it by countries around the world,” the report states.
Although students in the survey deemed the risk of terrorist attacks in the U.S. to be comparatively low, they did cite concerns about the prevalence of guns. In regard to Secretary Kerry’s comment, Chris Nyland, a professor of management at Australia's Monash University who studies international student safety and security, said he was not surprised by it, as his own interviews with 200 international students in Australia have shown that while they nearly always rate Australia as being safer than their home country, this is not the case for students from Singapore and Japan, who seem to be especially sensitive to the threat of crime. (That said, and as the Washington Post Fact-Checker columnist pointed out, other explanations for the decline in the number of international students from Japan include the country's aging population and global economic factors.)
The British Council report suggests that student safety is climbing on the list of international students’ concerns, from No. 17 of 19 in 2007 to No 5 in 2012. Attacks on international students in the U.S. are apt to become international incidents, as was the case with the murder of two Chinese graduate students at the University of Southern California last year. However, Nyland said the impact of the Boston Marathon bombings on international students' decisions will likely be marginal, particularly given the lure of Boston’s colleges. Drawing again from his own interview research, this time with Chinese parents -- who are more focused on issues of safety than are their children -- he said that in the end the quality of institutions tends to trump safety concerns.
“Of all the hubs in the world, Boston is where it’s all at.”