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Letter to the Editor: Do international students need saving? Some thoughts on the notion of diversity

It is convenient for university educators to criticize Trump, but they have yet to realize how the “American First” catchphrase has always been encoded in the policies that they make or follow.
Image by Morgan La Casse

On July 14, ICE rescinded the policy threatening to deport international students who will take online courses in the fall semester. International students received a cheerful email from the University of Minnesota saying, “We are delighted by this ruling! We think it’s important to acknowledge the considerable advocacy on behalf of international students across the U.S. and here at the University of Minnesota.”

The celebratory message is misguided. It is as if to say our benevolent American saviors shielded us from ICE’s deportation. University administrators took for granted that they knew our plight and they could speak for us. “Let’s celebrate this good news and that there are thousands upon thousands who support you,” the email from International Student and Scholar Services said. For us, the news was at best a sigh of relief. To call it a moment of celebration conceals real issues of diversity and inclusion running deep in the University’s services for and policies towards its international community.

In the past few months, the University constantly assured us everything was alright when it was not. When George Floyd was murdered and protests broke out in the Twin Cities and worldwide, while affirming our right to protest, the University reminded international students, “most protests are peaceful, but there is a possibility that you could get arrested — something that could impact your immigration status.” Put the message otherwise: protest at your own risk, and we’ve informed you.

When the White House issued a proclamation on May 29, which bans the entry of certain Chinese graduate students and scholars, the University sent an email only to Chinese international students (about 40% of the University’s international student population), emphasizing that the ban “does not affect undergraduate students” and “does not have any immediate impact on current graduate students or scholars” (emphasis original). While the email said that “ISSS and the University of Minnesota stand fully behind our international students and scholars,” the University made no efforts to push back against this Sinophobic policy. When Trump suspended work visas on June 22, at least 12 international scholars at the University have been affected. Again, the University didn’t push back against the government. Instead, on behalf of the government, it went in length to explain to us who would NOT (emphasis original) be affected, without any promise or plan to protect the affected scholars.

Since ISSS communicates these policy updates only to international students through emails, their adverse impact has been little known to the university community at large. This way of communication isolates our presence, diminishing the public awareness that international students, while holding non-immigrant visas, face similar systemic challenges as immigrants. Only when there was a national uproar against ICE’s visa rule to deport international students did the University, along with other 200 universities, support Harvard and MIT’s lawsuit against the White House.

The issue at heart is the way the University represents us, especially through its contradictory notion of “diversity.” On July 17, 3 days after ICE rescinded the new visa regulation, the Diversity Office of Graduate School announced the Leadership in Equity, Inclusion and Diversity (LEID) Fellowship, partly as a relief fund to help those who “lack sufficient funding as a consequence of COVID-19.” But we were disappointed to see that this fellowship restricted the eligibility only to U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Fortunately, on July 20, Graduate School extended its eligibility to international students. Again, we are saved. But this afterthought on international students is indicative of our precarious status because of the University’s inconsistent notion of diversity. Unexpected policy changes, be that of Graduate School or ICE, are detrimental to our sense of security, belonging and mental health.

It seems that diversity is most relevant to us when it comes to our financial contributions. The international admission website states, “We are very proud of our long history of inclusive, global engagement and the community we built that embraces diversity.” The former president Eric Kaler noted that during recession years, tuition fees paid by Chinese students helped the University avoid sharper tuition increases for Minnesotans and boost its undergrad financial aid.

But the myth that international students are privileged, rich foreigners elides the economic disparity and financial challenges that we face. The ignored reality is that many of us are employees of the University; we are student workers, instructors, research and teachings assistants, but only to be allowed 50% appointment at maximum. Since the IRS labels most of us as “non-resident aliens,” we have to pay more tax than our native-born peers. Moreover, we do not qualify for the majority of internal and external dissertation grants, nor those fellowships promoting diversity For example, at the University, both Graduate SEED Award and DOVE fellowship reward scholars who work on issues of diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice, but only U.S. citizens and permanent residents can apply.

We think there should be more funding resources for underrepresented people. But the University’s denial of our eligibility for these funding opportunities based on nationality and citizenship in effect pits us against the underrepresented domestic peers. Also, by excluding us from these funding opportunities, the Graduate School undermines the merit of our scholarship, especially our intellectual credentials for advancing diversity. The visa regulations and the barrier of citizenship have always been part of our daily frustration and the peculiar set of plight due to the ongoing pandemic exacerbated our struggles.

Thus, the University can’t be self-satisfied with ICE canceling the visa rule. It is convenient for university educators to criticize Trump, but they have yet to realize how the “American First” catchphrase has always been encoded in the policies that they make or follow. Diversity is not just about recruiting underrepresented students, but also reducing and resisting systemic barriers that deny opportunities to the underrepresented, domestic and beyond. We need more systemic changes to get rid of the hurdles that exclude international students. Otherwise, the University’s support and advocacy for us will always be well-intentioned but misguided.

This letter was written by Lei Zhang, a Ph.D. candidate in American studies, and Soyi Kim, a Ph.D. candidate in cultural studies & comparative literature, both of whom are students at the University of Minnesota.

This letter to the editor has been lightly edited for style and clarity.

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