Last week, the Trump administration invited university, higher education association, and private company officials to the White House to discuss international students and post-college work.

At the time of this recording, we aren’t sure what exactly was said or decided. But in an effort to provide some background on international student experiences in American Higher Education, Jenny Lee is with me today to discuss the underlying U.S. political climate for international students and scholars.

In our talk, Jenny discusses the rise in discrimination and hate crimes since Trump’s election and the presence of neo-racism on campuses.

Jenny J. Lee is a Professor at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona. She is currently a NAFSA Senior Fellow, Associate Editor of the Review of Higher Education, and Co-editor of the book series, Studies in Global Higher Education. Her latest piece can be found in the NAFSA newsletter, Trends and Insights.

Citation: Lee, Jenny J., interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 147, podcast audio, March 11, 2019.

Transcript, Translation, and Resources:


Will Brehm  2:17
Jenny Lee, welcome to FreshEd.

Jenny Lee  2:18
Thanks for having me.

Will Brehm  2:19
So, can you give us a sense of just the sort of scale and importance of international students at US universities today?

Jenny Lee  2:27
Sure. We have a little over a million students now studying in the United States, international students in colleges and universities across the country.

Will Brehm  2:36
A million students! And is there a particular country where they come from? Or are they coming from sort of countries all over the world?

Jenny Lee  2:42
They’re predominantly coming from China and India. These two countries represent a little over half of all international students in the US. And I think it’s also important to note when I said over a million, 1.1 million students, I think it’s also helpful for listeners to know that this is quite a large number considering that we have 4.6 million international students across the world. The US is the top global destination hosting about a fourth of the world’s students. So, in terms of the global scale, this is quite significant.

Will Brehm  3:16
Okay, so there’s 4.6 million students that study abroad worldwide. America has 1.1 million, but that’s still relatively a small number of students on U.S. campuses. Is that right?

Jenny Lee  3:28
That’s correct. In terms of the actual proportion of internationals, the US is quite low when we compare other countries that have a higher proportion of international students comprising their college student enrollments. We have a smaller number, but we can go on and talk about the significance nevertheless.

Will Brehm  3:46
So, what is the significance? Why do universities see international students as valuable to their purpose and their function?

Jenny Lee  3:57
Sure, well, there’s four major rationales that are used. The most common is the economic rationale. International students in the United States bring in about $42 billion to the US economy. International education is considered an export considering the funding that international students and their families bring in through tuition, room and board, other expenses. This is all data collected by the US Department of Commerce. But in addition, international students support over 450,000 jobs in the United States. I think it’s also important to know that international students bring in money from abroad. So, we’re not talking about US sources of funding. About two thirds of that is coming from outside sources, including from their family, home governments, sponsoring organizations outside the US. But going back to the original question about what other some of the benefits and why international education, three more. International students certainly contribute to our scientific knowledge production in our research labs. They’re highly concentrated in the science, technology, engineering, mathematics fields known as STEM fields, whether they are postdocs, visiting scholars, international graduate students, and sometimes undergraduate students working in these labs. In fact, according to the National Science Foundation, more than a third of our postdoc researchers are in science, engineering and health and they have temporary visas. Two more: Certainly, adding to the value of our institutional diversity, promoting our intellectual conversations in class, cultural, social, political exchanges. They bring international perspectives to US classrooms. I think any US professor can vouch for the added value that international students bring into their conversations. And a fourth key rationale is promoting political goodwill. The US being well known for its high-quality education attracts global leaders who we’re basically training, providing high quality education, but also promoting American values, such as democracy and academic freedom. So most of the rationales that we read about in the news has to do with the economic benefits but there are certainly many other intangibles, but also what makes US universities so great in regards to our knowledge production and ways that international students and scholars are key contributors to that.

Will Brehm  6:26
So, it seems like there’s great potential for international students to add value to higher education in America, both economically, both in terms of knowledge and diversity and in terms of that sort of “soft power” that you were talking about. So, when Trump was elected in 2016, it was on the idea of America First. Has that idea -has his agenda over the last two years impacted international students in America in anyway?

Jenny Lee  6:57
Absolutely. And I think it’s also helpful to talk about this within the broader context of immigration. It’s hard to separate, especially when it comes to travel bans and other measures. But upon Trump’s election, there has been a rise in hate crimes against minorities and marginalized groups, including immigrants. And we see spikes of hate crimes after elections but what was different compared to Obama’s election -where there was also a small surge of hate crimes upon that election as well- is that there’s been a consecutive rise. So, this is the third year according to the FBI, where we see a rise in right-wing extremism and domestic terrorism and the FBI revealed that the threat of white nationalist violence in the US is as big of a threat as that posed by the Islamic State, but we tend not to call hate crimes, domestic terrorism. But in addition, this is all over the news, Trump’s rhetoric that makes bigotry seemingly acceptable, there’s no shortage of examples. So, this very simple and appealing platform on America First, essentially is saying that we are going to prioritize interests of the United States but that also means that positions the US in competition with other countries, other allies, but also places the blame on foreigners, so called foreigners, for individuals that are feeling disenfranchised, and experiencing a loss of public support. So, there’s this scapegoating that also happens with America First, not just that we are going to make this country great, but how we are positioning this country in light of our allies, other countries, either as competition or as threats. And what does this mean for the individuals, these immigrants in our country is we’re seeing a connection with hate crimes, as well as policies that are being enacted or proposed to create an othering that makes it certainly more difficult for those individuals in ways they probably had not experienced in the past.

Will Brehm  9:03
In terms of the numbers of students that are studying in America from other countries, has that number declined since Trump got elected?

Jenny Lee  9:13
So, in 2016, we experienced a drop off in the number of new enrollments. So, although the US still occupies the top spot as the most favorable destination in the world, but we’re also seeing a lowering of new students coming in. So, this is signaling some concern by universities, especially those heavily dependent on international student revenue and fees, as well as organizations thinking about the future of the US higher education place in the world. So, with possibly fewer international students coming in the years to come, this is certainly of concern. We are seeing some notable drop-offs from South Korea. From China, it has been relatively the same, if not higher, and there’s a lot of nuances but overall, we are seeing a lowering of new international students. And very recently, the Council of Graduate Schools has also indicated a slight drop off in the number of international graduate students. Again, which is concerning, given what I mentioned before about their contributions to our scientific production and knowledge.

Will Brehm  10:22
One of the policies that Trump put into practice was that travel ban, which caused all sorts of outrage in America. Did that have any impact on international students? Either those currently in America or those thinking of going to America?

Jenny Lee  10:41
Yes, and for listeners who are not familiar, we’re talking about individuals from seven countries, five of which are majority Muslim: Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen. But in essence, this totals over 15,000 international students and over 2,000 international scholars who are being affected. This also includes their families. This also includes fears of returning home. This also includes current international students who are then uncertain about whether or not there will be even more bans on their particular countries. And also, as would expect, sends a chilling effect about the uncertainty of immigration policy for particular countries and what this means as to whether or not it’s worth the investment of enrolling in an institution not being certain if the next four, five, however, many years would mean suddenly discontinuing. There was an analysis published by Inside HigherEd. And they found that the number of F student visas had fallen shortly. So, we are seeing a drop off as well as the number of student visa applications. But again, I think the overall concern beyond these specific countries that are being affected is the message that you are not welcome here, especially if you are from certain parts of the world where you might be considered as threats. Just most recently, there was also some concern because Trump had suggested perhaps there should be a ban on Chinese international students. And given that the majority of our students are from China and India, but the highest proportion being from China, that is of great concern. As of now, that has not happened, but we can imagine that that will probably affect how Chinese students view future study in the US.

Will Brehm  12:31
Is that part of this supposed US-Chinese trade war that’s happening? Is that all caught up in that same context?

Jenny Lee  12:39
To some extent. So there has been some attempts. Already in this past June, there is a policy that was enacted that shortens the duration of visas for Chinese students who are studying aviation, robotics, advanced manufacturing. This was a visa for five years that now has to be renewed year-to-year. And anyone who has gone through the visa process knows this is no easy application. There was also some suggestion about reviewing phone records, social media accounts, and White House, Steven Miller and others have reportedly argued that Chinese students are conducting espionage and transferring knowledge back to China. Most recently, we are seeing some news about the Confucius Institutes and US universities cutting ties with them because again, out of similar fears. All of this is around some of the feelings about the trade dispute with China. China now being positioned as a competition or threat. And so, should we trust immigrants coming into the country and particularly those that might steal our trade secrets or knowledge and make the competition even more intense. And again, this is largely unfounded. There has been some speculation. There’s a lot more being done based on my personal opinion, fear than facts. But I think this is also certainly appealing to Trump’s base.

Will Brehm  14:13
What I find so ironic is that Trump has been talking all about America First and that seems to be what’s driving the travel ban, and what’s driving the trade dispute and what sort of fuels the fire of his base. But yet, for instance, in this example of international students, by putting in these policies that reduces the number of international students, discriminates international students and potentially removes them from the American context, it lowers economic prosperity, it reduces the soft power that America might have, it reduces the knowledge and scientific advancement that might actually happen through these international exchanges. So, in a sense, it’s actually putting America last by implementing these policies in a strange way.

Jenny Lee  15:05
Absolutely. When we think about the mission of higher education institutions in creating and disseminating knowledge that cannot be contained within borders. We’re seeing increasing activity of academics realizing the importance and value of international collaboration. And to cut off such potential collaboration on a leading country is certainly shooting ourselves in the foot, is certainly putting US higher education last, and will have some really grave consequences beyond the individual targeted countries. But the way that the US is being positioned now as potentially isolationists. And again, that goes against what higher education is all about. So, I think that that is also the reason why we’re seeing US higher education organizations being very vocal about their opposition to such measures.

Will Brehm  15:56
This might be a hard question: Has the Trump administration done anything to promote, advance, or support the internationalization of higher education in your opinion?

Jenny Lee  16:09
So what good has Trump done for the field of international higher education? And that’s a hard question but I think that there is actually some good coming out of it. I was doing this work about back almost 12-15 years ago, and the work on the experience of international students and their mobility patterns -I’d never would have thought that I would be quoted in major news outlets. And this would be caught that the research would be cited in, you know, public media outlets beyond higher education journals, and even then, it was very marginalized. So, what he has done is certainly brought more attention to international students. I don’t know if the idea of bad press is better than no press but to some extent, it has been raising public consciousness about the role of international students in higher education as well as US society. And the good thing that has come out about it is that when we actually look at the data and the facts, we know that immigrants do not take away jobs, they do not worsen our economies, they benefit the countries where they reside. So, whereas we may have been taking these international student numbers for granted now that there’s some changes, or potential changes, people are actually talking about the value of international education, and what would US higher education be without it, and those consequences are quite serious. So, if anything, we’re making headlines. And I think that in a way, it’s informing audiences like this one about the value of internationals that have been mostly marginalized when we think about US college students, and now we’re seeing that they have certainly added value.

Will Brehm  17:54
And people now feel like they have to be vocal about how that value is added.

Jenny Lee  17:59
Absolutely. And I think that even amongst international students. When I did my interviews, 15 years ago, they had never reported some of the mistreatment -and even though they’re even case of sexual harassment, physical threats- there was such a fear of being deported or being ousted from the university that much of this was kept silent. But now we’re seeing, again, on the news that the Duke University case as an example of administrators saying that Chinese students should not speak Chinese, and how that made such major headlines. And her stepping down from that position, I think that there’s more awareness now that it’s not okay to stereotype international students. There’re consequences for the university and this is just not how we treat our international guests.

Will Brehm  18:42
One of the ideas that you’ve written about is something you called neo-racism, and how that’s sort of a barrier to internationalization. What is neo-racism, and I guess how is it different from, I don’t know, maybe everyday racism?

Jenny Lee  18:58
So, this goes back to a sociologist named Etienne Balibara and he was observing this influx of immigrants coming from Northern Africa and the Middle East and what this meant for the identity of France. Because they were being -and still being- mistreated, discriminated against based on this Arabophobia of changing French identity. I’ve then taken this concept to translate what this means for our international students, especially post-9/11 and neo-racism does not replace the biological racism based on one’s phenotype. But it masks it by encouraging exclusion based on cultural attributes of one’s national origin. So, for example, I’m a Korean-American, as you can tell by my voice, but looking at me, I look very much Korean. My experiences are very different from a Korean international student, based on their foreign accent, based on maybe their dress, maybe based on their cultural ways of how they present themselves, communication styles. All of that is not just racism. When that international student is stereotyped or targeted by their peers or administrators or faculty this is not necessarily because they’re racist. It may be a form of neo-racism, where there is a sense of cultural or national superiority that is used to justify a mistreatment of those outside of one’s nation-state or culture or nation. And so that’s basically what neo-racism is. It doesn’t mask biological racism but is used to justify -in this globalizing world- a hierarchy of countries and cultures where some are favored more than others. And that’s also why I don’t really buy into just blanket xenophobia. You know, where all immigrants are just not welcome. That is certainly not the case. And I think neo-racism adds some more nuance to it in such as suggesting there’s a global order of cultures that goes beyond race and thinking beyond the color of one’s skin. It has to do with how certain countries are positioned in relation to the United States.

Will Brehm  21:12
Does internationalization of higher education, either further neo-racism or does it also sort of diminish neo-racism? How does how does internationalization of higher education fit in to that hierarchy of cultures and countries and national identities?

Jenny Lee  21:30
So, in regards to enrollment, we’re not seeing US universities trying to get students from the UK or Australia. I mean, they’re positioned as our competition -and rightly they are, they are major recipients- and so we’re targeting students from India, from you know, emerging economies, China, of course. But we’re not seeing neo-racism in enrollment, but it has long been happening -well before Trump was elected- in regards to how international students are treated. So, in my research, I have yet to come across a white international student from the UK, Canada, Australia, Western Europe, who complained about ways that they were discriminated against negatively, maybe positively, but negatively based on their country of origin. Very unlike the experiences of international students from Asia, from Africa, from Latin America. And again, going back to broader Trumpism. You know, Trump has made very clear in his own neo-racist remarks, right, that he does not want students from so-called “shithole countries”, referring to Haiti and countries in Africa at the time. He has made clear attempts to refuse students from Muslim majority countries, as well as from China. He also made it very clear that he would like more immigrants from Norway. So, I think if we think about this hierarchy, we’re seeing these particular regions of the world that you know, are referred to in horrible ways but also being banned or attempts to be banned. And so that’s what the hierarchy looks like, where we’re seeing a preference for students or immigrants from the global North -majority European, white, Anglo- versus those in the global South.

Will Brehm  23:16
And what does it look like on campuses for students? So, you know, if you’re an international student, and you are on some university campus in America, are you treated differently than say, just a regular American student, a white American student in particular?

Jenny Lee  23:33
So, based on the interviews that I’ve conducted in the US, and I will mention that neo-racism happens throughout the world. This is not just a US phenomenon. But globally, what we’re seeing is, you know, international students, first of all, if they’re being valued for the economic rationale, this then stereotypes them as cash cows. Almost any Chinese student knows of this stereotype. They know they have this economic value, but that also is a very dehumanizing way of thinking about an individual who comes to study in our universities and all that they have to offer beyond funding or offsetting our operation costs. So, you know, first of all, there’s the most popular stereotype of cash cows. But in addition, international students have reported that they are being stereotyped in class, even by faculty, not just by peers, and sometimes administrators as well. But assumptions being made about them being in a so called third world country, sometimes they are excluded. There are policies in place where they can’t work above particular number of hours, they can’t work full time on a student visa. But not only that, but also not having the same kind of opportunities when it comes to being a teaching assistant maybe because of their foreign accent -on the side, there are actually programs in universities that help students get rid of particular types of foreign accents, so that might be another program in the future. But also, in regards to research opportunities, in regards to making friends, you know, and all of that. I’m happy to refer to my 2007 article of neo-racism with myself and Charles Rice and that goes into far more detail for those who are interested.

Will Brehm  25:17
So, what can be done? I mean, in this time of America First. In this time of sort of neo-racism, maybe on steroids, where it’s becoming so commonplace to talk about, you know, quote unquote shithole countries. What can be done? I mean, what are universities doing to try and mitigate some of the damage that’s being done to international students?

Jenny Lee  25:43
So what universities are doing more and more is, there’s this hashtag that anyone on Twitter or even I think they’re even on websites now. This hashtag, “You are welcome here”. So, universities are signaling to their students -you know, we have deans and university leaders sending letters to prospective international students saying that, “Okay, despite all the craziness that’s happening in this country”- not in those words but despite the craziness, in effect, “that you are welcome here, that this is a safe place. We value your contributions and we want you to come here despite what you might be hearing about our current politics”. So, there are some messaging that’s happening. We’re also seeing, as I mentioned earlier, increase in lobbying from organizations, resisting attempts to restrict immigration that affects international students. But in regards to what more can be done besides the more visible gestures is to acknowledge that these challenges are happening in our own universities. And I think for a long time my research uncovering the neo-racist experience of international students were not very popular in competition with marketing departments that were trying to bring more international students. So, we don’t want to send the message that this is a place that has a lot of problems. But I think acknowledging, right, owning is the first step. In order for us to actually do anything about it, that this is happening in every university that international students from particular countries are being affected. And these are not just people in the community who are making it challenging, we’re talking about administrators, faculty, students, in our own universities that need to be better educated about the value that international students bring. And to combat the stereotype that they are taking the seats of locals or that they are worsening the quality of education, or other stereotypes that simply do not hold in the research. We also need more research, there’s little being done on the actual experience of international students, particularly in a critical way. You know, what is happening in the classrooms? How are they managing with their accents? There’s a lot of academic dishonesty cases of plagiarism and again, that’s also something that needs to be better understood, or is it valid? How do universities deal with that? And I think, how do we incorporate more students? How do we get local students to be more engaged with our international students? That’s an enduring issue. But again, ways to integrate them more in class to promote more discussions we often see in classrooms, international students huddled together in their own study groups, and how can we better promote some more cross collaboration? So, these are just leading issues, these aren’t really concrete solutions for your listeners, but at least giving attention to some of the areas that need more creative thinking and certainly more proactive work.

Will Brehm  28:45
Are you hopeful that this is a direction that universities will pursue even during the presidency of Donald Trump?

Jenny Lee  28:53
I think that universities are pursuing it more than they ever have. I question the motives, because I do feel that a big part of this has to do with potential decline in revenue. So, we need our international students to help fund our universities and we need to make sure that they’re satisfied. So, this consumerist approach is not necessarily the best, but I think it’s better than ignoring them completely, or taking them for granted. But I think that we are also seeing -I didn’t mention this earlier- but there’s been a rise of our own local US students studying abroad. I’m hopeful that as more and more students have exposure to other countries, other languages, and cultures that there will be more demands from our local students as well as faculty and staff on how we can better internationalize ourselves. So, this doesn’t have to be a top-down policy effort only. I think that there is a lot happening with students seeking more of a global education, seeking global careers, global opportunities, traveling abroad, whether it’s for school or for fun and I think that that is inadvertently shaping how universities are positioning themselves

Will Brehm  30:05
Well, Jenny Lee, thank you so much for joining FreshEd, it really was a pleasure of talking today.

Jenny Lee  30:09
Thanks for having me.

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