May 10, 2021

It Starts at the Top

Photography by Ben White for Unsplash

Click here to watch the full recording of Webinar #1

It may feel like a new day in the United States; we have a new administration in office, businesses  and schools are opening up, and more availability of vaccines means more time with friends and family.

While these signs and the warmer weather may be the boost we needed for Spring, there is still a chill in the air, like a cloud looming above, from the work done over the past four years from the Trump administration that sent a message to international students: “you are not welcome here.

This past week, GAISA, in partnership with the New England Board of Higher Education, held its first webinar in a 3-part collaborative series on the recruitment, retention, and post-graduate success of international students. The session included four panelists spanning from government relations to student support, each of whom touched on the policy changes that would need to take place to shift this tide, but also the work on our campuses to let international students know that the United States is safe and they are welcome on our campuses.

It all starts at the top

Sarah Spreitzer, the Director of Government Relations from ACE, started by reminding us that there are a few policy regulations that are being reviewed or updated with regard to immigration and international student status - nearly 400 to be exact.

These policies range from issues such as the duration of status, number of online courses an international student may take, and changes to the processes for DHS and homeland security. All of these speak to the number one need which is for the Biden administration to send a clear message to international students: that they are welcome and appreciated in the United States.

Sending this message not only takes leadership at the top but also collaboration across different sectors as well.

President Ensign of Dickinson College spoke to how colleges do that at an institutional level. She has personally worked to play an integral role on her campus in creating a collaborative environment that sends the message of her campus as a safe and welcoming space. She takes part in new student sessions and conversations with her international students to better understand thier concerns and how her team can best address those. President Ensign also reminds us that all of our students, including international, are part of the local community. Therefore decisions about return to campus timelines, vaccine policies, and integration to the campus cannot be made in silos, but rather need to extend beyond the gates of thecampus.

Bureaucracy and Delays

While these efforts can make a difference, there are still administrative barriers for our international students; and collaboration at the ground level is key to student access.
Isthier Chaudhury of Trinity College highlighted  the competition that US colleges face globally for international student enrolment. While US universities may still serve as a leader in higher education, we are not the only players in the market. Students now have options in the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and even countries in Asia.

Therefore, we need to not only better position our academic offerings, but also promote the positive aspects of what students would experience in coming to the US.
If they were to watch the news, they would see stories of gun violence, protests calling for racial equity, and an inconsistent message regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. These concerns, coupled with the administrative concerns shared by Kushar Safi bring to light the true barriers students face in coming to, and receiving their education in the United States.

If the process of applying for and receiving their visa were not already burdensome enough, COVID has exploited these challenges. Safi shared his work to help students through their visa application process, but also to overcome the hurdles associated with administrative review, particularly at a time when many of the embassies are not fully operational or open. These conversations about the on-the-ground experience of our students brings us full-circle back to how administrative decisions at the top impact the day-to-day experiences of our students, and therefore where we are called to work.

The Call for True Global Reform

Finally, within our administrative capacities, we need to call for national legislative reform but we need to be mindful of how the policies and practices play out on our campuses and with our students. We cannot simply implement a one-size-fits-all approach to international student recruitment and experience when the climate in China is different than that of India, South America, Europe, and other places around the world. The work to message the US as a welcoming place will need to start at the top, but continues each day with us on our campuses. 

Our second webinar in this series focused on the challenges students face on-campus. International students have always had to work to navigate the campus climate in unique ways. This will only be further exacerbated by returning after more than a year in a half, or for many, coming to campus for the first time this fall. Our panelists described these challenges but offered tactics to how we can work together to address them.

Kelly Golden

About the author: Kelly Golden, Ph.D., currently serves as the Associate Dean of Student Affairs and Enrollment Regis College in Weston, Massachusetts. She has over 12 years of experience across areas in higher education and  always seeking ways to eliminate barriers for students throughout their lifecycle. Kelly is a member of the GAISA executive team.