How One University Is Contending With the Aftermath of Trump’s Travel Ban

January 31, 2017

Michael Henninger for The Chronicle
Sara Berzingi, president of the Muslim Students Association at West Virginia U., prepares to speak Monday night at a vigil in support for people affected by the immigration crackdown. "It’s not that hard to reach out to someone," she said, and simple gestures have "a huge impact, beyond what you’ll ever know."
"No hate, no fear, everyone is welcome here."

The chant swelled across a candle-lit crowd of hundreds of people at West Virginia University late Monday. Students, professors, and others had gathered on campus for a vigil to support Muslims, refugees, and members of the university’s international community.

Campus officials are trying to reassure international students that they are safe, while acknowledging the gravity of a situation that has many people alarmed.
Their words were a direct response to an executive order signed on Friday by President Trump that imposed a 90-day travel ban on citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries and a 120-day ban on all refugee admissions. The measure has been widely condemned by the academic community and has left universities like West Virginia scrambling to respond to anxious students and scholars about what might happen to them.

The university enrolls 127 students, most of them at the graduate level, from the seven countries named in the order: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. William I. Brustein, vice president for global strategies and international affairs, said there are more than 1,000 students from the Middle East and Persian Gulf regions on the campus, including 470 from Saudi Arabia and 415 from Kuwait.

Members of the campus community here were still in shock on Monday about Mr. Trump’s order. Many international students had lingering questions about their status and the likelihood that other countries, particularly in the Middle East, would be added to the ban.

Meanwhile, campus officials are treading a fine line. They are trying to reassure students and others about their safety, but they are also being realistic about the gravity of the situation, acknowledging that the travel ban could be extended or expanded to other nations at any time.

E. Gordon Gee, the university’s president, released a statement on Sunday saying that "the university takes this order very seriously and moved quickly to assist our students and faculty who are directly impacted."

In this state, there is also a backdrop of strong support for Mr. Trump. Sixty-eight percent of West Virginia voters supported him, and many in the state probably back at least some of the restrictions the president put in place. About half of the university’s students are from West Virginia.

No such positive sentiments were visible at the vigil, though. Students and professors spoke about the importance of supporting international students and Muslims during this trying time. Signs saying "We Value Unity" and "No ban, no wall, freedom for all" dotted the crowd.

Caught Off Guard

On Monday, in the late afternoon, the campus global-affairs office was relatively quiet; a few students were sitting in the reception area, waiting for appointments. That’s because much of the rapid response to the travel ban occurred over the weekend. The office started hearing from people late Friday and received hundreds of phone calls and emails in the 72 hours after Mr. Trump signed the order.

"We just had to go into top gear, really — just 24/7, dealing with it," Mr. Brustein said. About a dozen people in the office worked throughout the weekend.

Staff members said they were caught off guard by the order, but they had been prepared for some sort of action by the Trump administration, given Mr. Trump’s rhetoric about Muslims and immigrants during the campaign.

"In some respects, it was coming," said Radhey S. Sharma, associate vice president of global strategies and international affairs. "But the extent of it, nobody was aware."

One of the first challenges involved figuring out whether any of the 127 students were out of the United States when the order was signed — and if that was the case, encouraging them to return right away. Those efforts yielded some good news: All of them were here.

The staff members also had to do their best to answer a flood of questions, despite the fact that there was not much clarity around the order and that border agents weren’t necessarily enforcing it in a standardized way.

There were some queries that the office could answer pretty easily. Students from the seven countries wanted to know what the order meant for them if they were fully enrolled at West Virginia and attending classes.

They wondered, "Are people going to come in and just ask for my papers and take me out of here?" Mr. Brustein said. "So we were explaining to them that, No, you’re here, you’re OK. Let your families know that everything’s fine."

He and his staff also stressed to students that the ban was temporary and that, for the time being, they should expect to be able to travel in and out of the United States by the summer.

But other questions were more difficult to answer. Students from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were also emailing and calling, asking whether their countries were likely to be added to the travel-ban list — and if so, when. Faculty members with green cards wondered whether they should stay put.

The global-affairs office has several immigration specialists on staff, but Mr. Brustein said they’re encouraging students and professors who have more complex legal queries to contact a lawyer.

More than half of the emails Mr. Brustein received were from faculty members who weren’t affected directly by the ban. They wanted "to encourage us to do whatever we could for our students and scholars who are impacted" and "to take a strong stand," he said.

Mr. Brustein was candid about the office’s long-term concerns: He and his staff are worried about how the ban will affect international-student enrollment next fall and beyond. It would be all too easy for talented students to look at other study-abroad options, particularly in Canada and Western Europe, he said.

That’s not only a hit to the university in terms of diversity and talent, he said, but it’s also a significant financial loss, particularly for a public institution like West Virginia that has faced years of budget cuts. "To tell you something different would be telling you a tall tale," he said.

Another potential concern is that West Virginia is planning to open a global "portal" in Bahrain in September, a collaboration with the Royal University for Women. But Mr. Sharma actually believes it’s good timing for that program to enroll its first students. Now students in the Middle East and Persian Gulf will be able to obtain a West Virginia education outside the United States, even if the travel restrictions are extended or expanded, he said.

The global-affairs office held a meeting on Monday specifically for Iranian students to answer their questions about the ban. Students from Iran make up the vast majority of students from the affected countries who are studying in the United States.

Staff members will be holding sessions for students from each of the other six affected countries throughout this week, said Ruby Pentsil-Bukari, the office’s coordinator for the federal Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, known as Sevis.

Ms. Pentsil-Bukari said she was heartened by many messages she received from faculty members who wanted to know how they could help. One professor offered rooms in his nearby house rent-free to any students or scholars who might now be unable to travel home for spring break or during the summer.

A Flood of Questions

Late Monday afternoon, about two hundred people turned out for a campus forum to discuss the travel ban and to ask questions of a panel that included three West Virginia officials, a student leader, and an immigration lawyer. The event was also streamed online to West Virginia’s two regional campuses.

Questions poured in from the audience and from social media throughout the 90-minute event. What do I tell a student who is an American citizen but is studying in Jordan right now? Do immigrants and work visitors have free-speech rights, and can they participate in protests? Will the university offer on-campus housing for international students who can’t go home during spring break or summer? (Yes, said Corey Farris, the dean of students; the audience applauded.)

Many of the questions were from students inquiring about their status or the status of a friend; the panelists ended up skipping over most of them because they didn’t want to comment on particular cases without more information.

As Barbara L. Bower, the immigration lawyer, broke down Mr. Trump’s immigration enforcement priorities, there were concerned murmurs from the audience. "This is scary," whispered one student to her friend.

Some of the responses from West Virginia officials reflected the difficult position they were in, legally and otherwise. One student asked whether the university would issue a stronger condemnation of the ban. Joyce McConnell, the provost, said she expected any future statements to take the same tone as the statement issued on Sunday.

Another student asked whether the university would declare itself a sanctuary campus, which some institutions have done to show that they would not cooperate with federal immigration officials if they tried to deport undocumented students. Ms. McConnell paused. "Right now," she said, "I think the best thing that I can say is, we are all in and using all of our resources to make sure we’re doing everything we can possibly do at the moment."

The discussion also touched on how students and faculty members who weren’t affected by the ban could express their support for those who were. Participate in peaceful protests, Mr. Brustein said. Call your representatives in Congress, Ms. Bower added.

Sara Berzingi, president of the Muslim Students Association, suggested that people could participate later this week in her organization’s "hijab challenge," during which people learn how to put on the traditional Muslim headscarf and can wear one all day in solidarity.

Later, at the vigil, Ms. Berzingi — who was born in Iraq and came to the United States when she was a few months old — gave a passionate speech about why that community support was so critical.

"It’s not that hard to reach out to someone with a very simple gesture of saying, Hey, how are you doing? How’s your family?" she said. "But it makes such a huge impact, beyond what you’ll ever know."

Sarah Brown writes about a range of higher-education topics, including sexual assault, race on campus, and Greek life. Follow her on Twitter @Brown_e_Points, or email her at