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‘A turning point’: UF international students are declining

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Sahithya Reddy Kadaru saw the signs of decline in international students this year when her sister delayed coming to the U.S.

Kadaru’s sister, who lives in Hyderabad, India, had planned to come to UF to study computer science. After complications with her visa process and the fluctuating exchange rate of the dollar to the Indian rupee, she chose to wait a year.

Kadaru said her sister’s decision was not motivated by fear, but she sees how other’s choices might be.

“Maybe they saw the (presidential) campaign, and they think politically it might not help them, it might be unwelcoming for them to come here,” she said.

Kadaru’s sister isn’t alone. More than 600 fewer first-year international students enrolled at UF this year compared to last, a 30 percent drop, wrote UF spokesperson Steve Orlando in an email. The biggest loss comes from the Kadaru sisters’ home country of India. There are 365 fewer new students coming to UF to study from the country, a 41 percent drop from last year’s 619 students.

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Kadaru said she understands why people may choose to wait before moving across the world.

“Moving from India to U.S., this is a big step for them,” she said. “So they have to think properly before coming here.”

The UF International Center staff expected to lose students this year, said its dean, Leonardo Villalón. But they didn’t expect the loss to be this steep.

This Fall there are only 1,273 new international students compared to the 1,883 incoming students in Fall 2016. In addition to the lower number of Indian students, enrollment decreased from China, South Korea, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and other nations.

Villalón said the declining number of international students is a national problem. Universities across the country have seen a drop, according to The Atlantic.

Just as American parents fret over their children leaving for college, the parents of international students worry about safety and security. When they hear about racist incidents, like the murder of two Indian men in Kansas in February or the recent riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, they rethink sending their children to the U.S.

“If your children are brown or Muslim or speak another language, as most people coming from abroad are, do you want to send them to an American campus where there might be neo-Nazis marching?” Villalón said.

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In his State of the University Address on Aug. 24, UF President Kent Fuchs said the drop in international students was one of his main concerns.

“We must, as a nation and university, tell the world that we welcome international students and that they have wonderful opportunities here,” Fuchs said. “Our university’s future depends on this — and so does our nation’s.”

Villalón can’t predict if the numbers will bounce back or continue to drop. The International Center can manage certain factors, like creating a welcoming environment for international students, he said. But other aspects, such as the U.S. political climate, is out of their hands.

“There’s every reason to fear that we could see an even further decline,” Villalón said. “It also may be that a lot of people abroad say, ‘Let’s not go this year, let’s wait a year and see how things shake out.’”

Villalón said this moment is a turning point for higher education, and that UF may have to reconsider how it markets itself to potential international students. In the past, UF hasn’t had to work to recruit from other countries.

“I’m hopeful we can turn this around at the University of Florida, but I think we have to understand it’s a more challenging climate than we’re used to,” he said.

Although international students may be more wary to come to the U.S., they’re often reluctant to talk about it, said Debra Anderson, the director of International Student Services at the UF International Center.

“There’s an underlying concern I think many students have,” she said. “Many will not express it.”

When Matin Kheirkhahan boarded a 27-hour flight from Iran, to Gainesville, he was unsure of the welcome he would receive in his new home.

It was his first time leaving Iran. Kheirkhahan and his wife, Sarimah, dreamed of learning and making their way to Silicon Valley.

Though Kheirkhahan said he’s hasn’t felt unwelcomed during his four years at UF, he understands the fears of incoming students.

Members of his own country, Iran, were affected by President Donald Trump’s travel ban in February.

“Safety, security, these are major factors when you want to apply abroad,” the 30-year-old computer science graduate student said. “If you don’t feel safe in a country, probably you would consider some other country to go.”

When the travel ban was announced, Kheirkhahan’s parents were in the U.S. visiting. They were angry and hurt, but they were also scared to not know when they could see their son again.

“My father usually does not show how he feels,” he said. “On the day he was saying goodbye, he was clearly upset and very sad. Saying goodbye and not knowing when he would visit his children.”

For Vishal Mundada, moving to the U.S. was his first time leaving India. While traveling 27 hours from Hyderabad, he was upset leaving his family, but excited to start his studies at UF.

Mundada, a 22-year-old UF electronic and computer engineering graduate student, still video-calls his parents almost every day. He calls in the afternoon, when it’s night for them.

“It’s almost like home, because we see each other,” he said. “So technology makes us close even though we’re really far.”

Mundada said he likes how peaceful Gainesville is compared to his hometown. He thinks of UF as a home, but he understands why some students may not be coming.

More paperwork and tighter visa laws might discourage possible international students, Mundada said.

“I think there is a sense of fear to come and pursue studies abroad, because they’re not sure what exactly’s happening,” he said.

He said schools in India are improving and offering quality education. If people are unsure or don’t have the money to come to America, they may choose to stay in India, he said.

But Mundada said he wouldn’t trade his experience for anything, even if he may return to India after he graduates.

“I feel like home,” he said. “The U.S. has treated me very well.”

Anderson said the center does everything it can to help students acclimate.

“The feeling of unwelcomeness has a lot to do with it ー from the country, not from Gainesville or the university at all,” Anderson said.

Anderson answers an emergency phone to distressed international students about once or twice a week.

Despite UF reaching out to international students, Anderson said many have spoken to her and expressed that they no longer want to pursue higher degrees in the U.S. They’re instead looking at options in Canada or Australia, she said.

International students from all countries, not just those targeted by the travel ban, have been unnerved, she said. Students still come to her with anxieties over travel, even if they’re not from one of the six affected countries.

International students know how much their families sacrifice to get them to America, Anderson said, and they feel pressure to succeed.

“They don’t want to say negative things about their host country,” she said. “They feel very blessed to be able to be here, but yet they can also look at it from a different perspective.”

For other students, America is still a place of promise, but with too high of a price tag.

Anderson said the cost of tuition for a graduate student for the full year, including Summer, is $30,000. For incoming students, the exchange rate with their home currency affects the price as well. Anderson suspects the comparative weakness of India’s rupee contributes to why less students came this year.

Chiara Sparascio, an Italian student, studied at UF’s English Language Institute for two semesters. From Italy, Sparascio wrote in an email that all she wanted was to stay in Gainesville and live out her dream, but the cost of attending was too much for her family.

Sparascio said when she thinks of UF she thinks of her love for campus, the Gators and the family atmosphere.

“It’s perfect, it’s a dream, a life that I saw just in movie before and that I lived just a few months,” the 21-year-old said. “A short dream.”

Anderson believes having international students at UF enriches the lives of American students.

“These kids bring all of that culture and tradition and language and different ways of looking at things to the university, and I think it’s extremely important to integrate them,” she said. “It enriches our education programs here.”

Romy Ellenbogen is a junior journalism major and the University Editor. She religiously checks her email inbox ([email protected]) and makes a great to-do list.