"Since the pandemic began, life here in America has not been the same," a student from China says.
by Cynthia Furlong Reynolds
From the February, 2021 issue
"The Chinese are discriminated against," says the U-M PhD candidate, who asked not to be named. Former president Donald Trump and others "speak of the 'Chinese virus.' I have been confined in my apartment with only my roommate for company, and we only go out to shop at the market. Everything seems out of my control here."
This student has been studying in Ann Arbor since 2018. "The University of Michigan's reputation is 'outstanding--much better than what I could find in China, which is why I chose to come here. I love Ann Arbor," she says. But while she hasn't experienced any discrimination here, "I have heard of many other states--California and New York, 'especially--where bad things have happened. I am afraid the same thing might happen to me. I don't feel safe anymore."
"There have been some racist situations, certainly with our Asian students, but not exclusively," concedes Louise Baldwin, senior associate director of the U-M International Center. "I'm not aware of any of the incidents being life-'threatening. We immediately connect students with the necessary university resources whenever we're alerted to an issue ... We're available for any emergency, as is the Department of Public Safety."
U-M typically hosts about 6,500 international students each year, with more than 3,000 of them coming from China. The next largest contingents come from India, South Korea, Canada, and Taiwan. The Trump administration's restrictions on immigration were already making their lives more difficult when the pandemic took it to a whole new level.
Though 80 to 90 percent of U-M classes are virtual this year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that their visas required international students to attend at least some classes in person. After protests, the rule was limited to students enrolling for the first time this year--many of whom then opted to remain in their home countries.
"We expect more international students to study remotely this term," Baldwin emails. "Obviously U-M is encouraging remote study for undergraduates
anyway, and there's also a great deal of concern among international students about the increasing prevalence of COVID cases here in the U.S."
The Chinese grad student is among those marooned here. Her father ordered her to return home in March, but--like approximately 90 percent of all international students in U.S. colleges, she elected to finish her semester. She'd planned to return to China last summer--she knew her high school sweetheart planned to propose--but when the new rules came out, she canceled her trip home, afraid that if she left she wouldn't be allowed back into the U.S. to finish her degree.
Divyani Paul, a U-M PhD candidate in biochemistry from India, also put off a trip home last summer. "Since March, there's been a lot of talk that if we leave, we can't return," she explains. One international student she knows is trapped between two national policies: "His visa expired, and he must go back to his own country to renew it--but because of Covid, he can't go back," she says. "And he's in the middle of his doctoral defense."
Paul says she's "never encountered any racism" in her program, "but I have heard people talk, blaming the Chinese for the coronavirus. I'm sensitive to that because my lab mate is Chinese."
"We're doing our best to monitor changes and proposed changes in immigration legislation," Baldwin says. "The U-M, along with professional associations, have been advocating for some proposals, writing letters, joining in lawsuits, and staying active in advocacy for international students."
Baldwin says it appears that the latest regulations will allow international students to "stay in the U.S. as long as they need to complete their program--but so far we've had no final regulation by the DHS."
Studyportals.com reports a 45 percent decline in prospective international students interested in studying in the U.S. They are looking instead at schools in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. The site predicts that the "tone and policies toward international students" will change under the Biden administration but cautions that "damage to the once-welcoming image of the United States can't easily be erased."
"Although we don't know yet what the new administration will do, we certainly anticipate that the Biden-Harris administration's immigration policies will be more supportive of international students," Baldwin emails. "So I think that will make a difference in how welcome international students feel."
In addition to an education, international students gain broad cross-cultural experience. "I had never heard of Thanksgiving before, but this year I baked a turkey for the first time," Paul says. "One of my roommates was from Egypt, so I learned about her country.
"My lab mate celebrates Chinese New Year. I am Hindu, but my roommate is Jewish--and she gave me a Christian Advent calendar this year!"
[Originally published in February, 2021.]
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