Despite Trump, US will still welcome foreign students

“Educational exchange can turn nations into people, contributing as no other form of communication can to the humanising of international relations.” So said Senator J William Fulbright.

I know that some of you are concerned about the outcome of the recent US presidential election and its impact on international students. You read reports about a deeply divided country and ask yourself questions such as: Is the US still a welcoming country? Are people still open and tolerant? Will my child be treated with dignity and respect?

There are currently more than one million international students studying in all 50 states of the US, including over 29,000 from Viet Nam, most of whom are enrolled in the nation’s colleges and universities.

The US is the world’s second leading host of Vietnamese students and Viet Nam ranks sixth in the countries which send the highest number of students to the US. The flow of Vietnamese students to the US increased 640% from 2001-02 to 2014-15, based on Institute of International Education Open Doors data.

Why the US?

Why is the US the world’s leading host of international students? Because of the quality, diversity and flexibility of its higher education system. There is truly something for everyone in terms of field of study, affordability, location and types of institutions. There are also post-graduation work opportunities through the Optional Practical Training or OPT in a job related to one’s major.

According to the 2016 Global University Employability Ranking, a survey conducted by the Paris-based HR consultancy firm, Emerging, and the Berlin-based business research institute, Tredence, global hiring managers identified the US as the top country for producing employable graduates.

While I share your concern about the political events unfolding in the US and sincerely hope for the best for the sake of all US Americans and the world, I have worked in international higher education for my entire career and know how much my US American colleagues appreciate and enjoy working with international, including Vietnamese, students.

They strive to create and maintain an inclusive, nurturing and diverse environment in which international and US students can learn, work and play together with lasting mutual benefits.

In fact, many US college and university presidents issued post-election statements reaffirming this core dimension of their institutions’ mission. Here are a few excerpts:
  • • “The University of California is proud of being a diverse and welcoming place for students, faculty, and staff with a wide range of backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. Diversity is central to our mission.” (Signed by President Janet Napolitano and all of the University of California chancellors.)

  • • “It is my hope that ideals that we hold dear at Penn – inclusion, civic engagement and constructive dialogue – will guide our nation's new administration, and that they will work hard to ensure opportunity, peace and prosperity for every person and every group that together form the diverse mosaic of the United States.” (Amy Gutmann, president, University of Pennsylvania)

  • • “A core principle of our college is that everyone who comes to this campus feels respected and supported. We are a community of learners who engage and invite robust, respectful conversation. This means we come together to listen to each other and move forward with respect for those presenting opinions that may differ from our own.” (Cheryl Roberts, president, Shoreline Community College, Washington)
Mutual benefits

They tell me on a regular basis how hard Vietnamese students work, how well they do academically and in other respects, including extra-curricular activities and leadership roles that many assume in their involvement with on-campus student organisations. In other words, most take full advantage of all the opportunities afforded them by institutions that are truly full-service, staffed by caring and dedicated colleagues.

The US ambassador to Viet Nam, Ted Osius, recently highlighted the importance of Vietnamese students studying at US colleges and universities, saying they not only help US Americans learn more about Viet Nam, but that those Vietnamese make a significant contribution to their own nation upon their return home.

As a candidate, Donald Trump spoke in positive terms about the value of international students. However, he also helped to create a heightened climate of fear and anxiety, which persists in the current interregnum between the election and inauguration day, by targeting specific groups of people.

For example, in June 2015, he had this to say about Mexican immigrants: "When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending the best. They're sending people that have lots of problems and they're bringing those problems. They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime…”

Later that year, after the San Bernardino shooting, Trump told supporters that he was “calling for a complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on." On another occasion, he mentioned that “it would just be good management” to create a database of Muslims.

Since he became president-elect, Trump has softened his rhetoric and changed his position on a number of key issues. This transformation often occurs once a successful US presidential candidate is catapulted into the White House and becomes the representative of all US Americans.

Yes, there are other good-quality, English-speaking overseas study destinations, and no, study in the US is not for everyone, but if the US is where you want to study, don’t let the result of a presidential election dissuade you from realising your dream.

Nothing will change in terms of the higher education structure and curriculum under President Trump. This is because of the decentralised nature of the US educational system, in contrast to most countries, and the academic autonomy of the nation's colleges and universities.

This is an especially good time to study in the US because educational institutions want and need international students for a variety of compelling reasons, including demographic reasons (decreased US enrolment in higher education) and the many ways in which they enrich the campus and local communities of which they are members.

Open door

Hosting large numbers of international students is one way to bring the world to local US communities, most of which have little contact with the rest of the world. This means that there are a lot of choices for students and parents, along with scholarship opportunities for qualified and deserving students.

I recently reached out to Vietnamese students in US boarding schools, as well as at community colleges and four-year institutions, and received some of the following responses:
  • • “To be honest, the US election result doesn't affect me or my school that much.”

  • • “There were a few protests last week downtown and at the [university] student union, but no one was hurt and everything is fine.”

  • • “I'm doing really well here. The host family is kind, and my studying is better and better. Besides, I have lots of friends.”
I can assure you that the doors of the US and its nearly 4,000 regionally accredited colleges and universities remain wide open. I know how much the US government and host institutions value the presence and contributions, both tangible and intrinsic, of international students, including those from Viet Nam.

Those teachers, faculty and staff who are responsible for their well-being will continue to take good care of them regardless of who is in the White House. It is their honour and privilege, as well as their joy and passion.

Internationalisation, which includes hosting international students, is an important part of virtually every US institution of higher education’s mission. It is, as Senator Fulbright once said, about turning nations into people and humanising international relations.

The commitment of US colleges and universities to international education and to giving the over one million students from around the world, including nearly 30,000 from Viet Nam, the best possible academic experience, remains as strong as ever.

Mark A Ashwill, PhD, is managing director of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in Viet Nam that works exclusively with regionally accredited colleges and universities in the United States and officially accredited institutions in other countries. He served as country director of the Institute of International Education in Viet Nam from 2005-09. This is a slightly revised version of an essay written for Vietnamese parents and students.