International students stressed out by visa rule changes

The general population in the United States barely registers the ins and outs of visa rules and immigration regulations for students from overseas, but for international students themselves, keeping up with the fast-changing immigration landscape – particularly in recent years – is imperative.

US immigration rules and international student mobility are inextricably linked, but this is barely acknowledged by US policy-makers and often by universities themselves, says international education expert Rajika Bhandari, who herself arrived in the US as an international student and who went on to become immersed in virtually every aspect of policy and data on international students in the US as a senior researcher at the Institute of International Education (IIE) in New York.

“There are now a million international students in the US, but they are largely invisible, an unknown entity” within the country, she said in a wide-ranging interview, noting “a huge gap” in the conversation in the US between the policy perspective and what it is really like living as an international student in the US.

“However, there’s a lot that hasn’t changed. First and foremost are the enduring challenges around immigration, which rule the existence of an international student’s life in the US in a way that most people who don’t have to experience it will never fully understand,” she said.

In her new book America Calling: A foreign student in a country of possibility, Bhandari sheds some light on this large group of young people in the US and adds the human dimension to the dry figures and analyses. What does it actually feel like to be a foreign student in the US? What are the pressures, the constraints, the cultural and educational shocks that local students do not face?

“It is a multi-layered experience, and not just one of being a foreigner in a foreign land,” she explained.

Bhandari found that, surprisingly, there is a universality to the experience of international students who “arrive in the US each August, thousands of them with dreams in their eyes and nervousness in their hearts, their belongings usually contained in just suitcases,” as she vividly describes them in her book which is part memoir, part analysis.

Bhandari grew up in India and arrived in the US in 1992 as a postgraduate social science student at North Carolina State University, joining hundreds of thousands of international students in the country, and sharing their anxieties over visas, cultural dislocation and educational differences.

Worries and concerns of international students have not changed

While much has changed in the higher education landscape since her own early experiences, the worries and concerns faced by foreign students have not, she found.

In common with many international students, Bhandari stayed on to do a doctorate, and then was steeped in data about international students as a senior researcher at the IIE, a student exchange and aid non-profit which puts out its annual Open Doors report on data and trends on international students in the US.

“Through my work, I’ve always been immersed in a circle of international students, but then also deliberately interviewed them for the book to try and understand how some of these dynamics had or had not shifted over time. And what was striking to me was that a lot of the gaps that I had experienced as an international student still remain,” she told University World News.

Particularly with students from Asia, who form the bulk of international student in the US, “there’s still a deep chasm of fully grasping the American academic culture both on campus and within the classroom. The independence that students in an American classroom are expected to exercise in shaping their learning is in direct contrast to what most Asian students are used to,” she said.

“Many international students, despite being savvy about social media, despite knowing American popular culture, do not really understand American society. You could argue that that’s true for anybody who enters a new society for the first time, not just students. But I think for students, it then becomes compounded because they feel like a misfit in the classroom, and the campus culture, which is then also compounded by the fact that they are in a foreign society.”

This came to a head over the past few years with the Black Lives Matter movement and the focus on social justice issues, and later as Asian Americans faced racism in the US due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s origins in China.

They were not just outsiders or foreigners. “International students were confronted for the first time with a very complex experience, both about their own racial identity and where they set that in the framework of race and ethnicity within the US,” she noted.

Immigration policy

What also has not changed is that while international students are not immigrants, their experience is nonetheless bound up with immigration policies. The book revealed that even small tweaks and changes in US immigration policy have huge implications for these students, and their emotional and mental well-being as they are buffeted by changes over which they have no control.

“US immigration policy that could potentially affect international students and foreign workers may just be a blip on the radar, if at all, of many mainstream Americans, but back home in India, for example, every time there’s a development, it’s widely scrutinised in the media and widely discussed,” she explained.

In her book she wrote: “In 1998 – the year I finished my doctoral degree – two-thirds of international doctoral students who had completed their degrees alongside me were preparing to stay on in the US, with Indian and Chinese students having the highest ‘stay rates’.”

“Two decades later, 75% of all international doctoral students still plan to stay on in the US, with over 88% of Indian students planning to stay,” though more Indian and Chinese students have returned home in recent years, drawn by opportunities in Asia. Nonetheless, “for every one US-educated Chinese expert who returns home, 1.4 Chinese scientists remain in the US”.

“In 1998, almost 17,000 international students like me applied for OPT (Optional Practical Training), which would allow us to work in the US for 12 months after completing our studies,” she noted. Since then, OPT has been extended to three years for international students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, quadrupling international students’ participation in OPT between 2008 and 2016.

Under former US president Donald Trump, OPT and other policies to attract international students were under attack. Now under the administration of President Joe Biden, they are being relaxed again.

But it is true to say that over recent years OPT was “like a sword hanging over every international student: Will I be able to pursue a year of work after my studies or not? What’s going to happen? It’s terribly fraught,” she pointed out.

Changing aims of international students

The disconnect between the US wanting to attract international students but without more welcoming visa policies is a legacy of the 1960s when being an international student was more about cultural exchange. Immigration policies during the post-1960s reforms “sought to attract the best and the brightest from around the world”, she said.

Now “it’s also about overall opportunity, and going abroad as a pathway to seeking that opportunity that anybody would seek anywhere”.

“Does it mean that every student wants to stay and immigrate to the US? No, not at all. That’s why we also talk about this idea of circular mobility, or the idea of talented students circulating across different countries. But I think it is important for students to have those options available [to them] should they wish to act upon them.”

Instead, “there’s this crippling sense of uncertainty that governs your entire time in the US”.

“OPT has certainly been under immense scrutiny because it was not created by legislation and is something that clearly is extremely important in the overall pathway for international students, yet has been consistently challenged and been vulnerable,” Bhandari noted.

“All the back and forth over the past several years, and the attempts to either scrap OPT entirely or constrict it in other ways, has been watched very carefully,” she added, pointing out that OPT has been important in attracting students to the US, just as post-study work visas have been in Canada and the United Kingdom.

But while there is a multitude of examples of successful Americans who came to the US as foreign students, there is still the idea that they will, and must, return after their degrees, unlike in Canada which has “a very clear understanding and acknowledgement that there’s a direct link between that pathway of education to immigration”, she said.

Canadian policy is “framed within the idea of a society needing to build its talent pool where some of that’s going to be homegrown, but some of it needs to be global talent that’s already coming into your universities, and then facilitating that process so that they stay on and contribute to the economy”.

Compared to her own student years, Bhandari noted, “students are quite different in how they’re approaching the idea of a foreign credential. They’re seeing it from the perspective of a very savvy consumer. ‘Should I go to the US? Is that the best return on investment for my family’s money? Or am I going to go to the UK (which unveiled a new post-study work visa scheme in 2019) or some other country?’ Students are armed with information in a way that they never were before.”

Universities want international students. “They help internationalise campuses, and they’re very good for the bottom line. But [universities are] really not paying attention to what happens to students afterwards,” she says.

“On the other hand, the business sector or employers who very much want that, are not really partnering with the higher education sector to make sure that that transition is seamless. And the policies in the US don’t reflect that.”

Trump’s targeting of international students

Trump’s travel ban in January 2017 was “the start of assault after assault on international students in the US over the next four years”, Bhandari wrote in her book which has poignant interviews with students affected.

“I found myself losing track of the long list of hostile proposals and executive orders targeting international students that were floated. Three versions of the Muslim ban; the threat of constricting or altogether eliminating work-study programmes; visa restrictions against Iranian and Chinese students; placing strict limits on the duration of an international student’s stay in the US while pursuing a degree … the list seemed endless,” Bhandari wrote.

Then, in July 2020, at the peak of a pandemic that had already crippled US universities, the Trump administration “launched its most damaging attack against international students in the US”, ordering that all current and future international students stay away from the US if their campuses were to offer online classes only.

“The US higher education sector convulsed, then coalesced, and several high-profile universities and organisations filed lawsuits. The proposal was eventually rescinded, but the damage had already been done in the minds of students and their families,” she wrote.

“Every proposal to restrict or exclude international students has created a larger void between the US and the rest of the world. By the end of the Trump era, global opinion of the US had sunk to its lowest level in recent history. There was a pervasive sense of fatigue.”

And for the first time, “there was a palpable anger amongst current international students in the US. After all that they had invested in coming to America, all the money they had spent, and all the rules that they had dutifully followed, they had expected to be treated better.”

Repairing the damage

The damage of the Trump years is slowly being repaired, though the pandemic has played havoc with arrivals. “I think there’s been hope and very high expectations placed on the [Biden] administration, and rightly so, to repair some of the damage done previously around attracting international students to the US and to have friendlier policies,” she said.

In January the Biden administration announced the expansion of OPT to allow more international students in more STEM-related fields of study to remain in the country for three years after graduation.

But there are still other challenges to address, said Bhandari, now an independent international higher education expert. These include the F-1 student visa which is still a ‘single intent’ visa, “requiring students as young as 17 to know what their future plans will be”, although updated guidance is more flexible on determining non-immigration intent then previously.

“Those are the bigger changes that still need to occur,” she said.

Rajika Bhandari. America Calling: A foreign student in a country of possibility. She Writes Press.