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Coping on campuses abroad in turbulent times

With an increase in hate crimes being reported in the US and UK, against foreigners including Indians, parents with children studying abroad are worrying about the safety of their children on foreign campuses while others are opting for less xenophobic host nations – Nandini Reddy

A dangerous xenophobic narrow nationalism fever is sweeping the United States and Europe. The unexpected election of real estate tycoon Donald Trump as President of the United States, Brexit (Britains exit from the European Union, reportedly because of free immigration from EU countries) in the UK, and the growing popularity of far-right political parties in Europe (Marine Le Pen in France, far-right Freedom party led by Norbert Hofe in Austria, Party for Freedom headed by Geert Wilders in Netherlands) have sparked anxiety and fear within the 300,000 strong community of Indian students living and studying abroad and thousands of other study-abroad hopefuls. With an increase in hate crimes being reported in the US and UK against foreigners including Indians, parents with children studying abroad are worrying about the safety and well-being of their children on foreign campuses while others are passing over formerly favourite study destinations such as the US, UK and Australia in favour of less xenophobic host nations.

Kavya Ahuja, a political science student at Delhi University, crossed off the US from her list of study-abroad destinations after President Trump signed an executive order banning citizens from six Muslim majority countries from entering America and changed the H1B visa rules and regulations which have hit Indian IT companies hard. Studying law in a US university was my dream. But America is now a different country where foreigners arent welcome. President Trump has already changed H1B visa rules and theres talk that he will also impose curbs on foreign student visas. I am applying instead to universities in Canada which allows foreign students to stay back and acquire work experience after graduation,” says Ahuja.

Ahuja is one of many Indian students who have changed their study abroad plans in favour of Canada, whose liberal, inclusive and pro-women prime minister Justin Trudeau is the antithesis of Donald Trump and whose cabinet includes four Indian-origin ministers. This northern neighbour nation of the US which hosts a diverse cosmopolitan population and over 90 higher education institutions including the top-ranked McGill, Toronto and Waterloo universities, is increasingly finding favour with Indian students as a welcoming and hospitable country.

According to media reports, over the past six months Canadian universities have witnessed a surge in the number of student applicants from India. For instance, the University of Toronto has recorded a steep increase in admission applications from India for the academic year beginning September 2017 — up from 793 at the end of February 2016 to 1,263 this year.

Vani Aiyer, a Chennai-based homemaker whose elder child is studying in Conestoga College, Canada, is preparing to sign up her second child also in a Canadian university. I send my children abroad to get more than a formal education. I want them to be treated with respect, learn to live in a diverse community, develop confidence and self-esteem. In President Trumps America, they may receive a great formal education but they will have to learn to live as second class fearful individuals. That is an experience I dont want them to have, which is why I chose Canada,” says Aiyer.

While Canadian universities are recording a steady rise in the number of student applications from India, the US and UK are experiencing the opposite. A recent survey of 200 US universities conducted by the New York-based Institute of International Education (IIE), indicates that 26 percent of them reported a decline in undergraduate admission applications from India, and a 15 percent decline in graduate applications. Similarly, the UKs Higher Education Statistics Agency has noted a considerable decline in the number of Indian students opting for higher studies in the UK despite this country having a long tradition of graciously hosting Indian scholars

There has been a drastic fall in the number of students, particularly from South India, applying for admission into US universities. Earlier, American universities were the first choice of nearly 70-80 percent opting to study abroad,” says B.S. Shekar, director of the Hyderabad-based IAEC Consultants, a foreign education advisory and consultancy firm.

Nevertheless, the recent decline of admission applications to Americas fabulous universities which dominate the WUR (World University Rankings) of the highly-respected QS and Times Higher Education — the globally reputed London-based academic rating and ranking agencies — are a recent Trump era phenomenon. According to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, currently 206,582 Indians are enrolled in American institutes of higher education (November 2016). And there are no indications of their exiting their campuses prematurely.

Comments Laasya Chillakuru, a resident of Hyderabad, currently enrolled in a Masters programme at New York University: Though I havent faced any racist abuse or violence thus far, my parents are now very worried about my safety. They have begged me to be extra watchful in the subway and on campus. Im also worried that changes in the visa policy will make it impossible for me to continue my further education here in the US
These apprehensions arent unwarranted. Changing the H1B visa rules has hit Indian corporates hard and there are reports that President Trump will roll back the optional practical training (OPT) programme under which international undergrad and postgrad students are allowed to work or look for jobs for up to three years after graduation.

However for most parents, safety of their children overrides other concerns. The recent broad daylight murder of Hyderabad-born computer engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla in a Kansas bar by a native yelling get out of my country”, has aggravated such anxieties. Parents worry that their children could be the next victim of heavily armed lone wolf weirdos with heads full of mixed racist, xenophobic and misogynist messages freely being broadcast in latter day America, starting at the top. Deepthi V, a Chennai- based homemaker and mother of a high-schooler, says that her plans to provide her daughter an American undergrad education are on hold. The recent racist attacks on Indians in the US are really frightening. Fear is guiding my decision now. Im reconsidering my resolve to send her to the US for undergrad education,” she says.

However, Anitha Reddy, a Chennai-based homemaker whose daughter is all set to enter an American university in autumn (September), believes the excellence of the US higher education system makes taking the risk worthwhile, and that studying abroad per se has its challenges. Indian students studying abroad face overt or covert racism in all countries. And I believe the US is still one of the best countries for higher education with excellent rule of law and grievance redressal systems. Nevertheless, we are taking some precautions because of the changed political situation and have shortlisted colleges in the north east where there is less discrimination and greater diversity,” says Reddy.

While advising normative precautions and safeguards, experienced and knowledgeable education consultants in India say theres no cause for Indian parents to panic about the safety of their children on US campuses. Charushilla Narula Bajpai, founder-director and key mentor of University Connection, a Delhi-based education counseling company, says that US higher education institutions have decades of experience of hosting ethnically diverse student populations and have developed excellent management systems and practices. Its important for Indian parents to understand that US universities have a long-standing progressive tradition and that the value and quality of higher education they deliver is the best worldwide. Most American universities are very welcoming and tolerant of diverse viewpoints and encourage free and open discussions in inclusive and caring environments,” says Bajpai.

Though in recent years race and ethnic tensions have become more pronounced in the US, racism is not a new phenomenon. In fact, overt and covert racism is an unacknowledged undercurrent of student life abroad. And though the distinguishing feature of the Western and Anzus (Australia, New Zealand) countries is the rule of law which reduces threat to life to minimum, students venturing abroad in these uncertain times must be prepared to cope with subtle discrimination and snide remarks. A crosssection of counselors interviewed by PW advise students planning to head West to learn to laugh off racist remarks and respond with humour. They also advise greater sensitivity to the manners and mores of host countries and cultivation of friendships with a diverse mix of students (see box p. 12).

More welcoming nations

Meanwhile with the US retreating into a protectionist and xenophobic shell, other countries are pulling out the stops to welcome Indian students and get a slice of the Rs.45,000 crore Indian students spend annually on campuses abroad. Among them is Ireland which has doubled the postgraduation work period for foreign Masters and Ph D students from 12 to 24 months. The federal government of Germany has also announced it will grant Indian students 18-month visas to acquire post-study work experience. Similarly, Indian students graduating from French business and engineering schools can work for two years after graduation.

Other nations competing for Indian students include China, Singapore, the UAE, Ukraine and Russia. Together these countries already host 30,000 students, mainly medical.

With political pundits predicting a rise in xenophobia and narrow nationalism worldwide — India included — parents of students aspiring for foreign education need to prepare and equip them with the life skills required to cope with the challenges of living and studying in less welcoming and hostile foreign environments far from home.

Coping on campuses Abroad

PW spoke with a cross section of study abroad counselors on ways and means for parents to prepare children to cope on campuses abroad in these turbulent times.

Advise children not to be too uptight and sensitive about racist remarks. They should take them in their stride and learn to laugh them off.

Indian students tend to be clannish and rarely make friends with natives or other foreign students. Advise them to cultivate a diverse mix of friends and acquaintances from all social strata.

They should avoid flaunting their religion, wealth and social status. This will ensure they will have the help of friends in times of distress.

Encourage your child to become financially independent before she leaves, to handle money and responsibility.
Ensure she learns to rustle up a meal, use public transport, manage a washing machine and vacuum cleaner. Housekeeping help is rare abroad.

Advise them to avoid talking and laughing loudly — a common failing of the Indian bourgeoisie.

Teach them to leave lavatories clean and dry after use.

Advise them to study local mores and manners carefully and respect them.

Arrange for a friend or relation to assume guardianship.

Alternative foreign study destinations

With the US and UK tightening their student visa rules and regulations, several new study destinations abroad have emerged on the horizon. Prominent among them are Australia and Canada.

After the US, Australia is the most favoured foreign study destination of Indian students. According to the Australian governments department of education and training, as on July 2016, there were 67,279 Indian students enrolled in higher study programmes Down Under and these numbers have been steadily growing by 15-20 percent annually over the past few years.

Canada. Despite its freezing winters, Canada has emerged as an attractive overseas education destination for Indian students. Data from Institute of International Education indicate that the number of Indian students enrolled in Canadian higher ed institutions has risen from 2,826 in 2005 to 13,626 in 2014. Canadas institutes of higher education offer numerous advantages. Among them are government-funded study programmes, three-year work permits, and access to sizeable Indian ethnic communities. Cost-wise, Canada is easier on the pocket; its also next door to the US and is a Commonwealth country. The country is liberal and welcoming and its universities and higher education institutions offer good return on investment,” says Meera Prem, director, CanGo Consultants, Chennai.

The article was published in the print version ofParentsWorld May (Cover Story) 2017 issue.

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