Like many others around Wisconsin, I was perplexed at the news recently regarding the status of international students during this pandemic. The federal government stated that foreign students will have to attend at least one class in-person to maintain their legal status in our nation. With COVID-19 cases increasing sharply in Wisconsin there is no way to truly know the manner in which higher education will take place come the fall, regardless of the best intentions to proceed as normal.
The Sunday editorial in the Wisconsin State Journal surely resonated with the majority of readers as it strongly encouraged common sense during this most unsettling time.
Wisconsin’s congressional delegation must unify against any attempt by the Trump administration to needlessly force international students to leave Wisconsin if universities here can’t offer in-person classes because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The paper made solid points regarding why these students are important to the UW System and the state.
International students pay steep tuition, which helps hold down the cost of college for Wisconsin residents. Many foreign students also stay here after graduation, filling high-demand jobs in science, technology, engineering and math. Some even start successful companies that employ hundreds of people.
What was not mentioned in the column is the human connection these young men and women bring to our city and state. From around the globe, they arrive with cultural experiences, religious customs, exciting recipes, and fresh perspectives about regions of the world we only read about. When we engage with them we are bound to learn so very much.
My better half, James, was a college professor before retiring in 2017. Over the years we had the pleasure of sharing meals at our home with truly engaging and interesting international students from Iran to Russia. Among the visitors to our dinner table was Manzoor from Pakistan, and Ferit from Turkey as they experienced traditional Thanksgiving foods.
Both Manzoor and Ferit connected the dots from viewing our news coverage that much of the real story is never told about international events. The old saying ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ when speaking of what gets press attention was not lost on our dinner guests. They each found that troubling as the real story of nations far from our shores is not really known to Americans.
Manzoor lamented that too many people think that all of Pakistan is in disarray and turmoil. In fact, it is not. He spoke of most Pakistanis not being embroiled in the tensions that make the front pages of the newspapers. Islamic extremists are a small minority of his country. Manzoor says he would estimate that apart from the region near Afghanistan only 1% of Pakistan is made up of Islamic fundamentalists.
As a tour guide in the mountain regions near China Manzoor spoke of the 20 languages that one can find in his country. He speaks three of them, and also English. I reminded him that some Americans can barely speak one.
At the end of our meal and conversation, Ferit looked at me and stated he needed to ask for permission. I thought he wanted to use the bathroom and was about to say ‘down the hallway’. But he quickly added that it was a custom to ask permission to end the meal and leave. I looked at Manzoor and he added it was also customary in Pakistan as well. It was perhaps the most polite ending to a meal I have ever encountered.
The world can seem large and complicated, and in many ways it is. But it can also be very human and down to earth. The role that these young men and women undertake when they come to schools within the UW System serves not only their educational pursuits but in even more important ways it helps to break down barriers and misconceptions. In some respects, these young minds are diplomats who are making the world better understood and friendly.
We must do all that is possible to ensure international students are not treated unkindly by the federal government at this time of the pandemic.