Jessica Trisko Darden is an assistant professor at the American University’s School of International Service and associate director of Bridging the Gap, a program promoting public discourse on U.S. and global foreign policy challenges and solutions. Here, she writes her opinion about President Trump’s executive order on immigration — an order that drew praise from people eager to tighten border security and protect the country, but widespread criticism from those who felt it went too far and threatened religious freedom and other important American principles — and worried about its potential effect on international education. — Susan Svrluga
I first came to the United States as an international student. Ten years later, I returned as a professor. I know, firsthand the many ways foreign students benefit from an American education and contribute to making American education great.
About 16,000 U.S. college students were affected by President Trump’s first executive order on immigration. That order was stayed on Feb. 3 by Judge James Robart — a ruling upheld by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit — and was ultimately revoked by the president on March 6. However, the issuance of a new Executive Order effective on March 16 means that many U.S. college students will continue to struggle with the uncertainly of their immigration statuses.
The claims of the states of Washington and Minnesota against the first executive order were based, in part, on direct harm to the states as a result of the travel ban. This included students and faculty at state-funded universities who were stranded overseas.
The second executive order addresses these concerns by exempting people already in the United States with valid visas — an exemption that would in theory cover many of the affected college students. In addition, the recent order gives border guards the discretion of allowing entry by nationals from the named countries if they are returning to the United States to resume study.
However, this discretion opens the door to potential denials of entry if these students leave the United States to visit family back home or simply go somewhere sunny for spring break.
The uncertainty felt on campuses is not limited to liberal colleges that designate themselves “sanctuaries.” It affects blue and red areas of the country, private and public universities and colleges, and secular and religious institutions.
Liberty University, one of the most conservative evangelical colleges in the nation, has more than 900 international students from more than 80 countries enrolled.
It is vital that universities continue to serve as incubators for cross-cultural exposure and communication. This is especially critical in the field of international affairs, where we teach the value of the American tradition of going out into the world and where students often prepare for careers in public service, international development and international business.
Those who study international affairs do so because they possess a curiosity about other cultures and an understanding that the history of their own country is inextricably linked to that of others. Often this curiosity is sparked or deepened when students travel abroad, or when they build relationships with those who visit from other countries.
The latest executive order reads: “Each of these countries is a state sponsor of terrorism, has been significantly compromised by terrorist organizations, or contains active conflict zones.”
These are places where few Americans will travel. This is precisely why we should ensure that students from these countries are able to pursue an American education.
Cross-cultural engagement, whether on campus or in communities, diminishes the fear of “the other” that can so easily grow when we limit opportunities for interactions with those who are different from ourselves.
In the current political climate — in which “nativism” is being emphasized — it is of paramount importance that educators encourage and increase our students’ opportunities to engage with people from different national origins, religions and ethnicities rather than block these opportunities out of fear or misunderstanding.
Diversity exists in all societies. For every potential security risk, there is a potential Nobel Prize winner such as Shirin Ebadi of Iran, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her tireless efforts in support of women’s rights and democracy. (Ebadi, a lawyer, now lives in exile in the United Kingdom.)
As a professor at the American University’s School of International Service in Washington, and as associate director of Bridging the Gap, a program that forges connections between academics and policymakers, I work to show how our understanding of international affairs often comes from personal engagement — whether by field research abroad or by engagement with foreign students and scholars at home.
A policy that restricts travel from critical countries not only denies young people access to the best educational system in the world and a deeper understanding of democratic governance, it robs American students of the benefits of a globalized campus.
International students bring an array of benefits that range from language tutoring to cultural exchange. More than that, hosting students from other countries often challenges our worldviews, tests our assumptions, and helps us to better understand nuances that would otherwise be missed if we weren’t engaging with them directly. Seeing the plight of refugees in the news does not have the same effect on our understanding of the world and our moral compass as does sitting next to someone whose family sought refuge in the United States.
Without the exchange that underlies international affairs education — an exchange that is supported by the U.S. government through programs such as the Fulbright Scholarships — we will be less capable of leading the world in so many different fields.
We must keep the international in international affairs education because we cannot learn about the world unless we are confronted with what we do not understand. We cannot grow unless we face new experiences. We cannot imagine unless we seek a world beyond ourselves. We must continue to teach the profound implications of taking pen to paper, not only to our students, but to the students of the world.