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The Value of International Students

February 09, 2018

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    President Wim Wiewel and his wife, Alice

With newcomers’ eyes, Alice and I have been marveling at the warmth our community shows every day for each other. We especially want to recognize how kindly and graciously you have welcomed us. But I shouldn’t be surprised. I have found that genuine care is a deeply ingrained trait of Lewis & Clark. This is in addition to what I already knew: our passion for deep learning and critical reflection; a focus on the environment, social justice, and our responsibilities as global citizens; and a strong belief that the liberal arts and our professional programs are the foundation for a good life and a successful career. So I’d like to share a piece I wrote recently that extends our work and our welcome out into the world beyond Palatine Hill.

I remember sailing into New York Harbor, past the Statue of Liberty in 1968, an 18-year-old exchange student from Old Amsterdam now exploring the vastness of New Amsterdam. In contrast to the relative homogeneity of the Netherlands then, the multicultural tapestry of the United States was staggering and electrifying.

Of the 2,000 undergraduates at Lewis & Clark College, more than 1 in 10 come to us from overseas. That’s as many as come from Oregon. Seventy-five countries are represented on our forested campus in Portland, itself a global hub and port city (like my hometown). And the traffic is two-way: 6 in 10 Lewis & Clark undergraduates will study overseas during their time at the college. The national average is 1 in 10.

International education is in Lewis & Clark’s DNA: In 1965, ours became the first U.S. program to be invited to Hiroshima since the 1945 bombing. And ours was the first to send students to study behind the Iron Curtain. Through the years, Lewis & Clark students continued to bear witness to history. After President Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972, Lewis & Clark was the first undergraduate college to initiate an exchange program with a Chinese university. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Lewis & Clark students were there.

But, as my colleagues and I work to foster these vital exchanges of people and ideas, a surge in isolationist xenophobia from the highest levels of American government is undermining our efforts. I heard concerns firsthand when I visited prospective students in Hyderabad, India, earlier this year. Is it still safe for foreigners to study in America? Are we still welcome? These observations are not mine alone. A recent survey by the Institute of International Education found that half of the responding colleges and universities said they are worried about perceptions of the United States among prospective international students.

As reported in the Washington Post recently, “Except for a brief period after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, international enrollment at U.S. schools has grown consistently for decades.” However, this streak is in jeopardy. For the first time in the 12 years that the Institute of International Education has been tracking, the number of new international students has declined. If this continues, the downturn in revenue will impact services and programs for domestic students and our local economies.

More important, we need international students as part of the worldwide exchange of people and ideas. Neither institutions of higher education nor society at large can afford to stifle the movement of people and ideas when the greatest challenges facing humanity— from climate change to the global refugee crisis to terrorism and health crises— can only be solved through greater collaboration and innovative applications of knowledge.

Nearly 50 years ago when I arrived in this country, I couldn’t have predicted how dramatically my first experience as an international student would shape the course of my life: Returning to the United States several years later to earn my PhD, and entering the world of academia, first as a teacher and then as an administrator. That’s the magic of an education. We can’t predict how it will change us, how it will shape us. But we know it will, and both individuals and the world will be better for it.

This op-ed appeared in the November 26 issue of the Oregonian.

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