In the midst of uncertainty surrounding travel restrictions in the United States, American universities are seeing fewer foreign students on their campuses.
A new study by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that about 40 percent of universities across the country reported a drop in enrollment of foreign undergraduate and masters students this year. According to the study, almost a third of colleges nationwide have 10 percent fewer foreign students this school year compared to last year’s international enrollment.
Elizabeth Barnum, the director of the International Student and Scholar Services, said the federal administration’s rhetoric surrounding foreigners is making students think twice before attending an American university.
“We haven’t seen a shift in international student numbers yet, but there are some anecdotal stories about visiting scholars and faculty not wanting to come here because of the political climate,” she said. “For people who have other options, they may choose to exercise them.”
Barnum said UNC hasn’t been particularly affected because it has very few enrolled students from countries included in President Donald Trump’s foreign travel ban.
“In general, what we understand is that it has a chilling impact on determining whether someone feels welcome here," she said. "There are just a lot of unknowns.”
To make foreign students feel more comfortable, Barnum said the ISSS office provides a range of resources to help international students adjust to life in Chapel Hill.
“We have international student advisors for all kinds of questions,” she said. “People ask everything from, ‘How do I put my child in kindergarten?’ to cultural questions about fights with roommates. Being available so someone can just ask questions about life in the U.S. is so important.”
Celeste Huang, a sophomore at UNC from China, said she regularly attends social events hosted by the ISSS office.
“I went to a few dinners, but the problem is every time it’s the same people who go,” she said. “And because it’s all international students, it’s not really diverse and it’s hard to connect. I don’t find it really helpful.”
Nicole Egerstrom, a first-year at UNC from Costa Rica, said she wishes there were more University-held programs aimed at socializing international students with American locals.
“I know they have events specifically for international students, but it would be an easier transition for us if we weren’t made to be a different group and rather integrated with the rest of the student body,” she said. “That way I feel like we would be more culturally sensitive to the American society and they would be more sensitive to us.”
Egerstrom said the lack of integration causes some international students to transfer elsewhere.
"I have found that a lot of people are ignorant to cultures and countries outside the U.S.,” she said. “People will ask me how I know how to speak English, and make little comments like that make us feel like outsiders and like we live under a rock when in reality, we don’t.”
Huang said although UNC students are generally friendly, she feels left out of the locally-dominated social scene.
“I guess it’s just human nature for people to avoid different groups they’re not a part of,” she said. “I’m in a class this semester where there is only one other Chinese girl and the rest of the people are white. On the first day, they formed groups where they all sit together and even though some people are very nice, it’s just a different atmosphere when you’re an outsider.”
Barnum said nationwide international enrollment could continue to drop if the political climate affects student work opportunities.
“Some students may be relying on working for a few years before returning home,” she said. “If we see employment authorization opportunities reduced, we may also see a decline in students, particularly for students in MBA programs and other professional programs.”
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