International Students: A Risk-Benefit Analysis

By William D. Adams
Published in the Orlando Sentinel, Monday, December 9, 2002
© 2002 Orlando Sentinel

Has our government decided that students from other countries are too dangerous to have around? It appears so, and our leaders ought to think again.

U.S. agencies that regulate and monitor foreign students have made it far more difficult for those students to enroll in American colleges or to return after semester breaks. Visa denials and delays are widespread, but the reasons are not always transparent. The State Department has intensified its scrutiny of student visa applications and now uses a classified list of 26 countries that triggers heightened security screening. Males between 16 and 45 years old must fill out a new form, and all applicants for student visas are warned that the time required for processing requests is "indefinite." Provisions of the USA Patriot Act threaten to strip colleges of the ability to grant I-20s, student visa eligibility forms if they can't or don't meet a Jan. 30 deadline to implement the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS).

A recent Chronicle of Higher Education asked, "Whose visas are being delayed or denied?" and answered, "It's not just suspected terrorists, but stellar students who have been recruited by American colleges."

Some of those students are enrolling in countries with fewer restrictions. I believe most American college presidents would agree that we would prefer to have them here. And not principally because international students inject $11 billion into our economy each year or because of some quaint idea that we have an obligation to lift all boats on the tide of our system's excellence. We need them, rather, for the contributions they make to the educational process itself. We need them to help educate us.

The best liberal-arts colleges in this country have been slow to recognize the value of enrolling significant numbers of international students. Just 10 years ago fewer than 3 percent of Colby College's students were foreign nationals, and fund-raising to increase the numbers was a hard sell. But thanks in part to prescient donors, our international population now stands at 10 percent and continues to rise.

If we are impeded now, just as most of us are working to increase international enrollments, we will rob all our students of an irreplaceable chance to prepare for the world they will work in after graduation. This is especially true for top colleges that, like Colby, are located in small towns. They enroll some of the best students in the nation but cannot possibly fulfill their mission to educate future leaders unless they assemble student bodies from a wide array of groups.

Colby's professors rave about the sense of intellectual purpose and variety of perspectives international students bring to classrooms. A discussion of U.S. involvement in the Balkans, for example, was very different because some of the students had siblings fighting against NATO forces at the time. "Imagine," the professor said, "what that brings to a discussion about the intervention in Serbia and Bosnia."

At a residential college a great deal of learning goes on outside the classroom, and international students can help American undergraduates challenge their own notions about cultural differences. We have some distance to travel before our traditional students learn how to make the fullest use of the remarkable diversity that surrounds them, but insofar as they do take advantage of it, their educations will be richer and more powerful.

While their primary duty is to their own education -- not to instruct American students or to serve as ambassadors -- international students living at Colby confront their preconceptions too. Charles, for instance, an African student who says his culture is steeped in homophobia, notes that working for a gay supervisor and studying alongside activist gay and lesbian students and faculty "led me to wonder why I should have disrespectful thoughts about gay people." As a result, he said, "I just began to let my prejudice go."

Where this kind of interaction ultimately leads is hard to know for certain. I believe the students now being educated at Colby will wind up in places of influence and that their experiences will make them far more capable of contributing to the resolution of conflict. Some may see this conviction as naïve, especially where hate and misunderstanding seem so deep and intractable and when conflicts are bumped off the front page by rumblings of wars to come. Perhaps it is naïve. But ideas are the business of educators, and we have an obligation to expose our students to the most powerful ideas at hand.

Given the political realities that currently confront us, the idea (and ideal) of an international and multicultural community of scholars and students is one whose time has come for America's best liberal-arts colleges. We need the support, understanding and cooperation of our leaders and the American people as we pursue that ideal.

William D. Adams is president of Colby College in Maine. He spent a year in France as a Fulbright Scholar before earning a Ph.D. at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and since arriving at Colby in 2000, he has overseen a dramatic increase in the number of international students on campus. He wrote this commentary for the Orlando Sentinel.