The ‘first question asked’

Back in the early spring of 2018, I traveled to India, on assignment to report on the impact of then-President Donald Trump’s travel ban on students’ interest in studying in America. But I ended up telling another story because of that trip, too.

As I hopscotched across India, following a college recruiter, I heard a lot about the perceived unfriendliness of the Trump administration and its policy changes. But just as much, if not more, students and parents — parents, especially — had pressing concerns about another topic: guns.

Only a few weeks earlier, there had been a school shooting, at a high school in Parkland, Fla. Seventeen people had been killed, and the images, of police tape and frightened children, their hands raised above their heads, had been broadcast around the world. Now these Indian parents wanted assurances that if they sent their children to the United States, they would be safe.

This isn’t the newsletter I planned to write this week. In fact, I had filed another one, edited and all, when the news of another school shooting, 19 students and two teachers dead at an elementary school in Texas, came across my news feed. And I was taken back to a hotel lobby in India, to a mother telling me she couldn’t live with herself if her son was put in harm’s way — by pursuing his dream of studying in America.

In American higher education, when we talk about students’ choices about international study, we don’t often talk about guns. Much of the focus instead is on prestige on one hand, visa policy on the other.

But in the months after I returned from India, as I did more and more reporting on the subject, I began to realize that fears about gun safety and this country’s gun culture seriously shape perceptions about the United States among students abroad. On surveys, students and parents routinely rank the United States last among major destination countries on safety.

When World Education Services, a nonprofit international-educational research company, polled international students and recent graduates in 2019, nearly two in five said they were anxious about gun violence, on campus or in their local community. Back then, when international recruiters routinely traveled the globe, gun safety was frequently the ”first question asked” in question-and-answer sessions, John Wilkerson, associate vice president for international services and director of international admissions at Indiana University, told me.

Today, when American colleges are seeking to rebound from an enormous Covid-related decline in international enrollments, the headwinds caused by safety fears should perhaps be of even greater concern.

In my reporting, I spoke with Blaire Tian, a Chinese student at Northwestern University, who had made her college decision, in part, by studying detailed crime statistics for the college towns on her short list. And Justin Gelzhiser, who wrote his doctoral thesis at the University of California at Los Angeles on international students and gun violence, said that many of the students he studied moved from fear to a sort of uneasy tolerance of gun culture as they spent more time in the United States. “They consider their decision to become international students in America to be an acceptance of a reality in which guns can be bought and used by almost anyone,” he said.

Gelzhiser had the unfortunate opportunity to witness that firsthand when he and his students were locked down amid a shooting on the UCLA campus in 2016. It was just a matter of time before this happened here, he heard some of them whisper as they texted family members.

Like many of you, I’m sure, I spent much of the last hours following the coverage from Uvalde, Tex., my grief on repeat from previous mass shootings. And I am certain that students and families around the globe were watching, too.

You can read my piece, on gun violence and international enrollments, here. Send me your feedback at

Possible expansion for international-student work program

The U.S. government is taking nominations until August 1 for new fields of study to be included in a three-year work program for international graduates from science, engineering, and other technological-oriented majors.

In a broadcast message, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, an agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that oversees the student-visa program, invited the public to nominate academic programs that “engage students in research, innovation, or development of new technologies using engineering, mathematics, computer science, or natural sciences (including physical, biological, and agricultural sciences).”

Graduates in STEM fields are eligible to remain in the United States for up to three years after graduation through a popular work program known as Optional Practical Training, or OPT. For non-STEM students, OPT is limited to one year.

Some critics have complained that in recent years the definition of STEM has been significantly expanded, permitting programs in economics and even journalism to qualify for the longer work period. In its message, the government said it was also accepting suggestions for programs that should be dropped from the OPT STEM extension.

Changes will take effect in 2023.

Global leaders on the future of international education

What does the future hold for international education? That’s a question I put to a group of global leaders during a panel I moderated kicking off virtual and in-person programming as part of the annual conference of NAFSA: Association of International Educators. They shared lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic and some of the most important challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. Here’s a sampling:

Esther Brimmer, executive director of NAFSA, on international education’s role in broader policy discussions: “It’s the increased relevance of international education to the great debates. The purpose of higher education, the nature of an inclusive society, access to higher education — all those elements are things we are very much part of, so we see the voice of international education is important there.”

Wiseman Jack, president of the International Education Association of South Africa, on the impact of international students: “One of the things we see happening in the future is taking the internationalization of higher education more to the broader society and getting the society to learn more about the tolerance and the acceptance of foreign nationals.”

Pankaj Mittal, secretary general of the Association of Indian Universities, on technology’s reach: “We will be talking about a new normal. Students can study with an international professor, through technology. They can do international research, through technology. I think technology is going to impact international education in a big way and a positive way. Technology will make it possible for internationalization in a cost-effective manner.

Michelle Stewart, president of the European Association for International Education, on sustainability and the next generation: “Some of the most interesting initiatives are coming out of student grassroots movements.... We have a commitment to embed environmental sustainability.We recognize that a sustainable future is a matter of generational equity.”

Sarah Todd, president of the Asia-Pacific Association for International Education, on a new intentionality: “I think it’s put a real focus on international education within institutions and why is it they do what they do and what they want to do going forward. And these are tough conversations. Many will hopefully have sharpened their focus and their strategies around international education.”

Around the globe

The U.S. government will permit special student relief for students from Afghanistan, allowing them to work and lifting other student-visa restrictions because of economic hardship.

The United States’ position as a magnet for STEM talent is at risk because of declines in international students, the National Science Board warned.

Hungary’s top court has thrown out a referendum on a planned campus of China’s Fudan University in Budapest.

The war in Ukraine has led to a stifling of academic freedom and free expression, even at one of Russia’s most elite and westernized universities, The Moscow Times reports.

An alumna of the University of Hong Kong reflects on the impact of Beijing’s repression on her alma mater: It was “a place that had become a shadow of itself.”

European universities have collaborated with institutions in China affiliated with the country’s military on nearly 3,000 studies since 2000, according to an investigation.

Scholars in the Philippines are concerned that the election of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as president could lead a revisionist teaching of history about his father’s dictatorship.

Myanmar’s military ruling junta has been cracking down on university student unions, which have long played a prominent role in the country’s independence movement.

And finally …

Speaking of NAFSA, I’m getting ready to head out to Denver, and I want your advice: The week is crammed with panels, presentations, speeches, poster fairs, receptions, and more — help me cut through the noise by letting me know what events I can’t miss. No need for modesty; if you’ve got something interesting going on, send me the details.

And please say hello if you spot me around the convention hall. (Mainlining Diet Dr Pepper while lugging around a computer and too many notebooks? That’d be me.) I realize, too, that not everyone can attend, so follow me on Twitter for news and updates and, of course, watch this space for my fuller take.

Thanks for reading. I always welcome your feedback and ideas for future reporting, so drop me a line at You can also connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn. If you like this newsletter, please share it with colleagues and friends. They can sign up here.