Last year, I traveled to India with a straightforward assignment
: In the wake of the travel ban and other Trump administration policy changes that took aim at foreigners, how welcoming did prospective international students and their parents see the United States? Would the so-called Trump effect scare them away from studying in America?
What I heard on the ground, however, was far more complicated. Yes, there were questions about visa policies and OPT and the general U.S. political climate. But the thing that people kept pulling me aside to talk about, the thing that caused parents’ foreheads to crease with worry, it was something altogether different. It was guns.
Is it really true every American can have a gun, one father asked me. I saw the faces of the children, a mother said, referring to the shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, a few weeks earlier. If my son goes to America, could that be him?
Over the past year, I’ve begun to wonder more and more if guns aren’t the X factor in international admissions. When I called up a longtime source to talk about enrollment trends, he, unbidden, began to tell me about his fear that the legislature in his state would pass a concealed-carry bill. It would be a nightmare for overseas recruiting, he said. At the Association of International Education Administrators conference, I organized a panel session featuring international students. An audience member asked about guns during the Q&A, and the stories came pouring out. One of the students said she felt like she was “really in America” when she went through an active-shooter drill during orientation. A South Korean student said he reassures his nervous parents by reminding them that he had live-fire training during his mandatory military service.
I’m not the only one taking note. World Education Services regularly surveys international students about their experience on American campuses. This year, WES asked students about gun violence, and the finding
was startling, said Paul Schulmann, the associate director of research. A quarter of the students were concerned about the possibility of a shooting on their own campus. “It’s the elephant in the room,” he told me.
For this week’s Chronicle cover story
, I took measure of the impact that American gun culture may be having on international students’ perceptions of studying in the U.S. The implications could be enormous. As William Pruitt, a former coordinator of international-exchange programs at Virginia Tech, put it, a multibillion-dollar industry could be at risk.
When Pruitt started at Virginia Tech, shortly after the mass shooting there, the message he and other administrators sought to convey abroad was that the violence was an awful aberration. “You could say it then,” he said. “You can’t say it now.”
I’d love to hear your thoughts on international students and American gun culture. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @karinfischer.