Why Foreign Students Are So Important

Security is crucial, but we must also be welcoming.

November/December 2002

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Why Foreign Students Are So Important

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

A 1905 photograph from Stanford’s archives shows a group of 10 serious young men in coats and ties assembled on a porch around the University’s first president, David Starr Jordan. Hanging above the group is a simple sign: Japanese Student Ass’n.

This picture reveals an important facet of Stanford’s history. From the very beginning, foreign students have been a part of University life. Keinosuke Otaki, a student from Tokyo, graduated in 1894 with a degree in zoology. Today, about one-third of Stanford’s graduate students and 5 percent of our undergraduates are from other countries. These numbers reflect Stanford’s reputation as a world-class university.

Foreign students play several important roles at Stanford. They contribute varied perspectives to the experience of all students and enhance our long tradition of having Stanford students learn from one another. Students from abroad are also important in our research mission, particularly in science and engineering, where there continues to be a shortage of U.S. students—a topic I hope to address in a future column.

Since September 11, there has been a growing national focus on international students in the United States. At least one of the suspects in the September 11 attacks was in the United States on a student visa. Obviously, given the events of last year, national security must be a priority. No one wants to play a role in admitting a terrorist into our country.

Earlier this year, the federal government announced that every postsecondary institution that enrolls foreign students must comply with a new computerized system for monitoring the estimated 700,000 international students and faculty in this country. This new system requires colleges to keep track of their foreign students and enter information about them into a joint database administered by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Stanford has been working to meet the January 30, 2003, deadline for complying with these requirements, but the government is now saying it may not have the national system up and running on time.

Meanwhile, citizens have become very aware that increased national security comes at a price, whether it is manifested in longer lines at airports, or the loss of some constitutional protections in extreme cases. In such instances, a sacrifice is weighed against the greater good.

So it must be with potential restrictions on foreign students. As we consider new policies and regulations in this area, we must balance critical security needs with the long-term benefits of attracting students from around the world.

Recently, faculty and administrators around the country have become concerned about this balance. For instance, under one federal policy, the New York Times reported, tens of thousands of Muslim men from more than 26 countries have been significantly delayed in entering the United States. Several weeks into the school year, approximately 30 of Stanford’s international students have still been unable to enter the country and pursue their education at Stanford.

Even for those who reach the University, the trek can be daunting. For example, a new graduate student from Pakistan applied for a visa on July 19 and was told a month later that there would be an indefinite wait before the visa was approved. This clearance finally came on September 30, and he arrived in the United States in early October. Unfortunately, he then missed his connecting flight to California while being photographed and fingerprinted. The good news is that he is now settling in at Stanford and catching up on his academic work.

Since spring, I have been approached by a number of international students. They embrace the spirit of the new policies and understand increased security concerns but are deeply concerned about the unintended consequences some of the policies are having on their ability to get into the country and to conduct research once they are here. As a professor, I have worked with many such students over my 25-year career, and I can testify to the multiple contributions they make to academic life at Stanford. They also contribute enormously to maintaining U.S. leadership in science and technology. Moreover, many of these students return home better informed about our way of life and the importance we attach to the rights enshrined in our Constitution. What better way to increase understanding of Americans among people who have limited exposure to our values and culture?

As we continue to make national security a priority, we must also remember the founding values of our country, the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty, and that we are a nation built by immigrants. This University, to paraphrase Jane Stanford, must strive to be a place where the deserving and exceptional will continue to succeed through their own efforts—regardless of their place of birth. Such principles will help us strike the right balance between security and openness in the days ahead.

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