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By Tom Dretler
March 30, 2017

Recently, the father of Alok Madasani, the Indian man injured in a racist attack last month while having dinner with his friend, called on “all parents in India not to send their children to the United States” under “present circumstances.” As a father, I fully understand his sentiment. And as an American, I want him to know that this incident does not represent the views of either our country or our universities towards foreign residents, visitors, and students. I hope Alok’s father has seen the #YouAreWelcomeHere hashtag campaign, which a number of higher education institutions and related organizations have used to post messages celebrating immigrants and international students and reaffirming that our diversity makes us stronger.

The U.S. continues to be a top destination for international students to study. In fact, despite the steady stream of news questioning the U.S.’s commitment to international education, the majority of American colleges and universities report that they are not seeing a decrease in the number of international student applications. Yet there is increasing evidence that Alok’s sentiment is becoming increasingly widespread. In a recent survey, one-third of international students expressed a less-favorable view of studying in the U.S., citing the current political climate, travel restrictions, and personal safety as their top three concerns.

This is an extraordinarily important trend for the higher education community. College is a time when many Americans leave their cities and towns and experience a broad diversity of backgrounds and perspectives for the first time. For those who come from homogenous areas, this experience can be an eye-opener. And the faculty, administrators and staff of our world-class institutions do an exceptional job of promoting respect and dialogue. For their part, international students who come to the United States often return home with a greater understanding and respect for American culture.

There is another reason why the prospect of fewer international students coming to America is concerning. With enrollment down at many colleges and universities and costs skyrocketing, international students, who typically pay full tuition, have become an increasingly important revenue source. In fact, in the 2015-16 academic year, international students contributed nearly $36 billion in tuition and fees to American colleges and universities. Given the industry’s precarious financial condition, losing this key revenue source could spell real trouble.

For every high-profile instance of prejudice reported in the news, we know that there are thousands of examples of American colleges and universities thoughtfully and deliberately welcoming and including international students into their campus communities. But it is not enough for us to know this—we need to continue to promote these stories by speaking out vocally on behalf of the values that make American colleges and universities the greatest in the world.

For example, in addition to their specialized orientations that help international students adapt to academic life, one of our partner universities also supports an “International Buddy Program” that connects international and domestic students helping them cultivate meaningful relationships. In the short three years since its inception, the International Buddy Program has brought together nearly 1,000 domestic and international students to share their own cultures and learn about others, while forming friendships in the process.

Increasingly, colleges and universities have dedicated, full-time staff who work with international students to help them navigate the cultural transition from their home country to the U.S. I recently heard from a student at Adelphi University, who had been homesick and was especially sad about missing Diwali, a Hindu celebration of lights. She recounted how the staff at Adelphi helped her plan a Diwali celebration where she was able to share her culture with fellow students and staff.

These are not isolated examples. Our nation has cultivated its reputation as the global beacon for higher education over many decades. And we won’t stand by while this hard work is threatened. Leaders in higher education across the country are engaging and activating their campuses, prospective students, and local and national media in the U.S. and abroad to highlight the win-win benefits to Americans and international students that result from international education. By proactively promoting positive stories, we are reaffirming to our current and prospective international students that the U.S. is still the best place in the world to study.

Politics and news cycles are unpredictable and often sensational, but the values we hold as Americans, especially in higher education, are consistent and strong. Recent events do not change our commitment to diversity, inclusiveness, and tolerance. Leaders in higher education will continue to ensure that current and prospective students around the world know that our commitment to them remains steadfast.

Tom Dretler is CEO and Co-Founder of Shorelight Education.

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