On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States Of America, officially taking over from the current President Barack Obama. Will the 'Trump effect' dilute chances of education for certain “religious minorities” in America? Will he make radical changes in the 'Optional Practical Training' (OPT) program that will impact foreign students pursuing courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels in the US?
“Do you think it is safe for me to go to America to study?” an earnest young student asked me on the sidelines of a session organised by the U.S. Consulate in Mumbai last month to celebrate International Education Month.
I graduated from an American university almost a decade ago and regularly interact with students at such sessions for U.S.-bound students. I am asked about courses, teaching methodology, jobs, cost of living, housing, food options available (vegetarian, especially!). But I have never before been asked this question. His anxiety upset me more than my own discomfort. And, sadly, it came from a young man from a “religious minority”.
Friends and recruiters working on behalf of American Universities tell me that many prospective Indian students across all communities are now reconsidering their decision to pursue a higher education in the U.S., worried about the possibility of the incoming Trump administration making changes in the Optional Practical Training (OPT) period, which allows foreign students pursuing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels in the U.S. to work for 36 months after completion of their degree programme. (Students on the non-STEM programmes can stay up to 12 months.)
The rationale behind the OPT is to give students practical training that complements their education. For Indian students, it is also a chance to earn enough money to pay off their education loans (which is faster when you earn in dollars and return in rupees); augment their C.V. with great work experience; and, for those who want to take it, the first step to getting a legal and permanent job in the U.S. (Employers wishing to hire the student have to file a H-1B visa petition on his/her behalf after completion of the OPT; the petition is subject to the annual H-1B visa caps.) Many Indian students (and their parents) would hesitate to spend of Rs. 25-60 lakh a year (the annual cost of tuition and living expenses, depending on the University) without the OPT guarantee.
As a result, some students are reportedly hesitating now, thanks to what is called the 'Trump effect'. For the young Muslim man, it goes beyond OPT to Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim declarations during his election campaign. “My parents are worried,” explained the young man as I tried to counter his fears with the campaigner’s election rhetoric versus the President’s reality arguments. As he too agreed, Trump has already toned down his words and attitude alike.
American Universities are proactively reassuring students that all is well. In fact, soon after the election result, Dr. Judy Genshaft, President of the University of South Florida (my alma mater), sent an email to all students stressing the University’s “respect for diversity”. USF System Vice-President Roger Brindley followed it up with a letter for international students posted on the USF website: “…the USF community fundamentally rejects intolerance and prejudice and will actively respond to those who seek to divide us. USF welcomes all our students from all 145 countries represented on this campus. You are our students... You deserve to feel safe, secure, welcomed and respected at USF and we are dedicated to that goal.”
Furthermore, Dr. Brindley reached out to all “Prospective Indian Students and Scholars” reiterating that USF “values” its Indian students and links with India (citing the founding of USF’s ongoing Abdul Kalam Fellowship, as an example). “Please remain assured,” the letter said, “that your academic dreams and goals also remain our goals for you. You are warmly encouraged to join our vibrant, energetic, and very successful Indian community as a vital part of this very global campus at USF and as part of our amazing Indian diaspora here in Tampa Bay.”
As an international student in the U.S. during the tenures of both Republican and Democratic Presidents, I have experienced how greatly the country values its international students and their enriching impact on US campuses and in the community. American academia has also laid tremendous emphasis on encouraging binational academic relations. The very fabric of an American University is tailored to mould global students with comprehensive competence.
I believe there is no reason to fear the “Trump effect”. No one can predict what will happen after he is sworn in. But the good news is that, given his more guarded comments recently, the position has become rather “unclear” from the earlier certainty that he would change visa-related policies drastically. Notably, he and his team have been stressing that they will go after illegal immigrants and people who misuse the visa process. So, any bona fide student seeking a legal entry into an accredited institution is not the target.
It is also a fact that with radically changing laws and regulations, it is not easy in the U.S. (or any democracy). Apart from the many steps involved, there is always the possibility of legal challenges. Several American businesses and universities are lobbying hard to convince Trump and his team how cutting OPT rules or H-1B visas will adversely affect their and the American bottom line. And Trump is an astute businessman.
(Ojas Rawal graduated from USF with an Honors degree in Bio-Medical Sciences in 2005. Following his creative passions, he is now a writer, actor and director for films, theater and television, besides doing stand-up comedy. Recipient of USF’s 'Distinguished Outstanding Senior award', he was also USF's 'Global Ambassador to India' in 2005 and 2006. Mumbai-based Rawal has been guiding Indian students, parents and teachers on Higher Education in the U.S. through various events, workshops and seminars under the aegis of 'EducationUSA' since 2005)