Others say their faith in a country where they’d long dreamt of studying has been shaken. For a few, their response can be summed up in a single word: fear. “George Floyd was killed because of his black skin,” one told me. “Do you think my brown skin will keep me safe?”
VG, a master’s student at a regional public university in Illinois, said he no longer feels comfortable in certain places as a person of color, a wariness he says began before the protests, with the election of President Trump. “I walk into a bar, I have to look over my shoulder when someone is staring at me. Go to a supermarket, we have people blocking our way, and we have to stay quiet.”
To VG, public officials’ handling of protests, at times employing excessive force, calls into question the United States’ moral authority around the globe.
Some of his friends, he said, are considering going to other countries like Canada. He wonders if he is still welcome here. “I chose this country and moved here, leaving everyone behind, since this is a land of opportunities,” he said. “I am in love with the USA from my childhood.”
The unrest has made some prospective students think twice about studying in the U.S. But Ajay Pokharel, who is set to begin at Howard University this fall, said he sees the protests as contributing to “national solidarity and mutual respect.” He still plans to come.
Growing up in India, Gitanjali Poonia, a recent San Francisco State graduate, was used to societal divides, there along religious lines. The country would sometimes erupt with sectarian violence, with “ugly” riots, she said.
Now she’s come to understand how deep America’s divides run. “The more I read about it, the more I realized that the system was designed to leave the African-American population disadvantaged. As an outsider you never see that because the system hides its flaws well…It’s a little unsettling how the problem stares at you in the face, and the government doesn’t want to do much about it. I never thought it was this bad.“
“It makes you wonder how idealistic western ideals are. It is the land of the free as long as you are white.”
Bikalpa Neupane, a Ph.D. candidate in informatics from Nepal at Penn State, says many of his international friends support the protests, in part because they have also dealt with discrimination. But they hesitate to join the demonstrations because an arrest could jeopardize their student-visa status. "They are speaking for the right reasons,” he said of the protesters. “We want to speak, too, but we can’t, we’re helpless.”
WS has gone to two marches in the small southern city where she is studying law. The protests have been peaceful and well-organized and the environment supportive. Attending has given her a new perspective on the issues facing her neighbors, things she might not have learned in the university bubble, she said.
Public protest is risky back in in the authoritarian Eastern European country where she’s from. “In my country, the very act of speaking can be dangerous for you,” WS said.
While the American demonstrations are spurred by anger and grief, she also sees the good in them. “It’s giving me hope that you can advocate for change peacefully and powerfully.”
Public dissent is also rare in Xinyi Chen’s home of Singapore. Demonstrations require government permission.
Despite being busy finishing up her final days as a student at the University of California at Riverside, Xinyi, who goes by Heidi, has thrown herself into learning all she can about American history and its racial aspects. She has been heartened that so many Americans are speaking out, and she’s trying to be a good ally and a supportive friend. “This sounds so cliché, but in the current difficult times, every word has consequences,” she said, “but every silence does as well.”
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