KU international enrollment drops, support staff blames US immigration policies

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Jayhawk Statue

International enrollment at the University of Kansas fell for the fourth consecutive year in the 2019 fall semester.

International enrollment at the University of Kansas fell for the fourth consecutive year in the fall 2019 semester, according to data provided by International Support Services

Total international enrollment at the University has fallen from 2,363 to 2,031 students — approximately 14% — since fall 2015, according to the data. 

This stands in contrast to previous years as international enrollment grew from 1,740 to 2,363 students — about 36% — between fall 2008 and fall 2015. On average within that time frame, international enrollment increased each year by about 5%.

The decline mirrors a national trend. Institutions across the country continue to report dropping international enrollment numbers, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal.

Chuck Olcese, director for KU ISS, said the drop caught staff by surprise.

“We thought, ‘Oh, all you had to do was have a presence on the internet, and [international students] would find us, and they’d come.’” Olcese said. “And they did. Quite frankly, we were just blindsided by the perfect storm.”

Olcese described the “perfect storm” as a combination of primarily three phenomena: the rapidly growing cost of higher education, expanding institutional competition for international students and the message being sent out to the world by President Donald Trump’s administration.

Olcese said he believes Trump’s controversial Muslim travel ban, which was initially put into place in January 2017, and continued anti-immigrant rhetoric has sent an unwelcoming message to the rest of the world. 

Trump’s rhetoric has made agencies more stringent in immigration law interpretation, Olcese said. In the past when a student’s visa fell out of status, ISS advisers had wiggle room in options they could present to students.

Now, advisers are at a loss as to how they should counsel those in need.

“It’s kind of a crapshoot,” Olcese said.

The shifting political climate is even affecting students whose visas are still within legal status. Students who could once take breaks to visit their families now often spend their holidays at the University, fearing if they left the United States their visas could be declined upon re-entry.

“We’ve got students here who haven’t been home in years,” Olcese said. “There’s a real risk as to whether they’ll be able to come back.”

Hai Anh Le, a sophomore from Vietnam, said it’s draining for international students to be away from family when they have never been to the United States before. When international students choose to abandon their degrees, Le said she believes homesickness “definitely plays a major role.”

“You really have to find a reason why you are so far away from your family to keep doing what you’re doing,” Le said.

Students often find, however, that it is more difficult to obtain a visa than it is to maintain proper status after the fact.

In junior Roy Ricaldi’s third year at the University, he said he feels lucky to come from a family with enough money to expedite his approval process. Ricaldi was raised in a higher class family in Lima, Peru, that traveled to the United States countless times before he submitted his visa application. His student visa was easy to obtain.

Many other potential international students were not as lucky.

“I know other of my peers… that are from small cities in Peru, had to try multiple times to get the visa,” Ricaldi said. “That actually made them lose a semester. Some of them, a year.”

As a staff attorney for Legal Services for Students at the University, Adam Mansfield provides legal advice to international students. 

Mansfield said since the 2016 election, bureaucratic agencies like United States Citizenship and Immigration Services now change legal interpretations of policies on a regular basis. Those interpretations had previously been consistent for years — some for as long as a century, Mansfield said.

“The way things are going right now, stuff changes so frequently that it’s really hard to stay on top of,” Mansfield said.

Mansfield gave examples of a few changes he’s witnessed: Policy related to visa expiration changed. The public charge rule interpretation changed. Now, there is a potentially changing opinion on the legality of optimal practical training, which allows international students upon graduating to work in the United States at a job within their field of study. 

All of these changes have resulted in court challenges, the proceedings of which are ongoing. 

The uncertainty of the legal system has only made it more challenging for international students to navigate an already complex immigration process, Mansfield said.

“It puts them in a very difficult position, and it puts the people working with them in a very difficult position as to what to advise them, how to deal with that,” Mansfield said.

That uncertainty has made work more challenging for international advisers, Olcese said, but ISS still works to improve the international student experience within the purview of factors the advisers can control, notably with respect to expanding mental health services for international students.

ISS is now working with Student Senate to bring the services of Morneau Shepell to the University. Morneau Shepell is a human resources consulting and technology company that provides mental health services to individuals who may face language barriers when seeking counseling or psychological treatment.

Mercedeh Tavacoli, Student Senate director of diversity and inclusion, has been an advocate of the service since it was brought to Student Senate for funding consideration in the 2018-2019 academic year.

“For international students and immigrants, and even students who were born and raised here but grew up with different cultures and backgrounds, there are a lot of barriers when it comes to mental health,” Tavacoli said. “Being able to retain those students and give them that home away from home where they actually feel comfortable here, comfortable enough to speak to someone, is a top priority.”

While Olcese said he believes services like the ones provided by Morneau Shepell will improve the experience of international students at the University, he said he sees little that can be done to fix the damage to the United States’ reputation abroad. Olcese said he’s optimistic international enrollment at the University will grow again, but reversing the trend will not be an easy task.

“I think it’s going to be a long climb out,” Olcese said.