The issue of international students coming to the US for higher education degrees is a deeply personal one for me. Like the thousands of other students who have come to America to attend world-class colleges and universities, I came to the University of Virginia in 1998 when I was 18 years old.
Far away from my family and friends in Dhaka, Bangladesh, I found a new home in Charlottesville.
My father, who also attended university in the states, was a staunch supporter of American colleges, which he considered to be the best in the world. When I was a little girl, before I could even place America on a map, I could recognize the mascot for Georgetown University, where my father pursued post-graduate studies. Georgetown memorabilia, like the cobalt blue paperweight by our family phone, (it was the pre-cellphone era), and the navy blue and gray pillow on my father’s black leather reclining chair are etched into my memories of my childhood.
My father’s belief in educating all four of his daughters and in sending us abroad for college – to America, no less – was unheard of in Dhaka in the 1980s. Higher education was something that was not offered to girls, and most families married off their daughters after high school graduation.
Getting to attend college in America was a game changer for my sisters and I. Between us, we have three degrees from UVA, one from Georgetown, where my sister also went, following in my dad’s footsteps, in addition to one from George Washington University (GWU). My father’s firm belief in educating his daughters changed the course of my life.
So when the Trump administration recently announced new guidance barring foreign students from staying in the US if they are taking online-only courses this fall semester – to be safe during a pandemic – I thought about my own experience and the more than one million international students who are in the US trying to change the course of their lives.
Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have taken action, suing the Trump administration Wednesday over the new rule. In a statement provided to CNN, the university said the guidance would affect approximately 5,000 international students.
“The order came down without notice – its cruelty surpassed only by its recklessness,” Harvard University President Larry Bacow said. “It appears that it was designed purposefully to place pressure on colleges and universities to open their on-campus classrooms for in-person instruction this fall, without regard to concerns for the health and safety of students, instructors, and others.”
The targeting of international students by the Trump administration while the country is gasping for air mid-pandemic is not only unnecessarily cruel but also dangerously dumb. But it fits right into this President’s pattern of targeting any and all foreigners coming to America, seemingly for anything – whether it’s to seek asylum, legal immigration, and now, even education.
Why does this matter, and why should you care? Because students who come to America on international visas connect America to the world and connect Americans to the world. Let’s look around us. Who are our doctors? Who are our medical researchers? Who are the country’s top scientists?
Ask yourself – who works to make America stronger than she already is?
The fact is, immigration is a mutually beneficial and beautiful relationship, whether Trump and his supporters want to admit it or not. And international students are a beautiful part of that process. International students enrich America just as much as America enriches us.
Today, 18 years after my UVA graduation, I am a Washington, DC based journalist and political analyst. The first American friends I made in America, my college roommates, are still my best friends 20 years later. One of those girlfriends is my daughter’s godmother.
Today when I travel, from Istanbul to El Salvador to Pakistan, scattered across the world are my former international student friends–from college in America. I even stayed in touch with the former dean of international admissions, and a few years ago, I took some brilliant young kids of some family friends to meet and get guidance from this dean about applying to UVA.
When I moved two years later to the United Kingdom to pursue my Master’s degree, it was through the UVA alumni club in London that I was able to find and connect with fellow UVA graduates in a new city where I didn’t know anyone. Even today in work or professional events, if I bump into a UVA alum, we have an instant connection.
My point is that studying in America as an international student is not just about the classes. It’s about the experience – of taking classes in some of the world’s best colleges and universities in tandem with the experience of being in a new country, learning about the American culture, experiencing the country alongside your courses.
The American education system is a beautiful, multidimensional, and multi-layered academic experience that is frankly unlike anything else in the world. I don’t know where I would be without my American college degree. I definitely wouldn’t be in DC doing what I do, and I definitely would not be an American citizen today raising my American daughters with my American husband living in America.
The F1 student visa is not just a piece of paper and a stamp in your foreign passport. It represents the dreams of some of the best and brightest students of all ages from around the world, and the hopes of their parents. President Donald Trump may think that with this new guidance he is just hurting foreigners and immigrants, but as with most Trump-related policies, ultimately it is America who he is hurting the most.