Foreign students settle into dormitory housing at Portland State University, Portland, Oregon, 21 September 2017 (Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian via AP)

By Emily Isaacman

After the 2016 presidential election, Tom Lewis, interim director of the Intensive English Program at Indiana University, said his class of foreign students felt amused, not concerned.

“I think they feel that their experience here has been very stable over the time that they’ve been here, and their plans are in place,” Lewis said. “And their government’s supporting them, so they think the election of the president, no matter how bad or good, is not going to have much of an effect on them.”

Many critics have blamed hard-line immigration policies adopted by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump for the 3.3 percent drop in foreign student enrollment across the United States in 2016 — the first decrease in 12 years.

But while global media attention on political rallies, gun violence and political discord has heightened concerns among foreign students applying to American universities, the experience of those enrolled remains largely unchanged.

At Indiana University’s Office of International Services, undergraduate students generally tell administrators they feel safe within the university’s enclave.

Some first-year students from countries such as Iran, which has been targeted with travel restrictions and U.S. sanctions, have told administrators they felt surprisingly comfortable once they settled into the university and its surrounding town, Bloomington, in late 2017.

“Once we get them here in Bloomington, we can reassure them that all is well,” said Rendy Schrader, director of student and scholar advising for OIS.

“We support you.”

Below the front desk of OIS, where foreign students visit to discuss immigration, academic and personal matters, hangs a large, white banner filled with colorful notes surrounding the words: “To the international community: We support you.”

The banner was created by Bloomington community members at a town hall convened in January 2017, after Trump barred citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.

In response to the initial ban, which was subsequently revised, Schrader said her office had to adjust its website, communications and advice to students. Suddenly they had to counsel students who were weighing whether to return home and risk losing their education, or to stay put and risk never seeing their families again.

“It can be very demoralizing to realize that you can’t fix what they’re suffering through, or the worries that they have,” said Jennifer Bowen, associate director of student services.

But only a small share of IU’s total student population faced this dilemma.

The university had 43,710 students in the 2017-18 academic year, with 8,555 of them from outside the United States. The Trump administration’s ban affected about one percent of the foreign student population.

“This is going to pass.”

Not all of foreign students succumbed to panic.

Ozen Bas, a Turkish graduate student who started working toward her doctorate in 2010, said the contrast between the ban and the rest of her “American experience” led her to view it with skepticism.

“Deep down I was thinking, this is going to pass,” Bas said. “It can’t really affect me.”

Victor Sanchez, a first-year student from Mexico, said he feels safe at IU despite political tensions.

Sanchez attended high school in the United States during the last six months of the administration of Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, and has noticed a marked shift since then.

After Trump was elected in November 2016, Sanchez said he started to feel more hesitant and insecure. His parents barred him from bringing hats or shirts stamped with Mexican symbols to college. They insisted he draw on his family’s distant Spanish lineage when asked where he came from.

Sanchez now hangs a Mexican flag in his dorm room, and he has never been challenged about his background.

“I love telling people I’m from Mexico,” Sanchez said.

“We’re also creative.”

The discrepancy between Sanchez’s experience at school and his parents’ more anxious perspective from afar has become commonplace as media reports shape prospective students’ expectations about studying in America.

“What they read about doesn’t encapsulate all Americans, all of the environment. There’s a lot of nuance,” said Seth Walker, an international student recruiter for IU.

Over the past two years, prospective students and their parents have started asking more about work prospects. Applicants, especially from Latin America, have asked whether they will feel welcome on campus.

Schrader said university administrators keep students in mind when implementing new government regulations.

“We’re very much bound by policy, but we’re also creative,” she said.

To pursue practical training such as an internship before graduating, a student must prove the work experience is “integral” to their primary discipline and “part of your program of study.”

Over the past two years, federal agencies have started to run more stringent checks to make sure universities are following these guidelines, Schrader said, and the shift started before Trump was elected. OIS has encouraged academic departments to create more courses with internship components.

“It’s a way to beat the regulations at their own game,” she said.

Bowen said IU President Michael McRobbie and Provost Lauren Robel had worked hard to nurture a supportive environment across the university.

“They know it’s not just our Office that deals with international students,” Bowen said, “but that all of the university is happy for them to be here and wants them to feel safe and welcome.”

Emily Isaacman is from San Diego, California and a student at Indiana University, studying political science, international relations and journalism. In the past year, Emily wrote about campus life for the university newspaper in the spring semester, and this summer is an intern reporting on higher education policy in Washington, DC.

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