Last fall, Nusrat Chowdhury started getting nervous messages from back home in Bangladesh.
She was in her first semester at the University of Minnesota. Her family had been following the U.S. presidential race — and the talk about Muslim bans — with alarm.
“When the election happened, they were all telling me to come back,” said Chowdhury, 23, an economics major.
She stayed in Minnesota, and even encouraged another young Bangladeshi woman to come to the U this fall.
Nationally, the number of new foreign college students dropped by 7 percent this fall, according to a November report by the Institute of International Education. Critics say it’s evidence that the Trump administration’s travel bans and anti-immigrant rhetoric are scaring away potential students.
So far, Minnesota appears to be bucking the trend. This fall, the U welcomed 6,060 foreign students from more than 100 countries to the Twin Cities campus — almost the same as last year — while the number of new international freshmen crept up by 1 percent.
The story was much the same at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, another magnet for international students. It reported a fall enrollment of 574 students from other countries, a five-year high.
Ali Baydoun, a 19-year-old U student from Dubai, thinks he knows why the numbers are holding up. “Minnesota is a liberal state,” said Baydoun, one of the leaders of the Minnesota International Student Association. “I feel like there is more fear than last year, but there’s also a sense of … at least we’re not in Tennessee or Georgia.”
At many schools, the flow of international students has been a financial boon. Nationally, more than a million foreign students attended U.S. colleges and universities last year, injecting about $39 billion into the U.S. economy, according to the November report.
At the University of Minnesota, foreign students pay $28,910 a year in tuition and fees, twice as much as state residents (and about $2,200 more than Americans from out-of-state).
In all, the U says it took in about $150 million from foreign students last year.
But beyond the money, college officials say the influx of students from other countries is a boon for domestic students as well, exposing them to a far richer educational experience.
“The revenue is part of it, but it’s definitely not the whole thing,” said Ethan Olson, assistant director of international admissions at St. Thomas, where about 6 percent of the student body is from abroad.
The university made a strategic decision, he said, to create “a more globalized campus because we feel it benefits everybody. It gives the students more of a worldly perspective, and it helps prepare students for working in a worldly setting.”
But since the 2016 election, American college recruiters have sensed a new wariness abroad, especially from parents in the Middle East.
The U, which has two international recruiters, typically sees packed houses at American college fairs in countries like Dubai and Kuwait, said Barbara Kappler, assistant dean of international student and scholar services. But last spring, she said, the turnout was anemic.
Those who did show up asked tougher questions. “They’re asking many questions about safety,” she said, as well as “about religious tolerance, specifically toward Muslim students.”
Calming family fears
At the U, many international students have found themselves trying to allay their families’ fears from afar.
“My parents were constantly telling me, ‘Don’t tell anyone you’re a Muslim,’ ” said Chowdhury, who serves on the U’s international student advisory board. “I’m like, no, mom, it’s a very liberal place here. I can tell you it’s completely safe to wear a hijab at the U. It’s really welcoming.”
Alhasan Alajmi, a freshman from Oman who came to the U to study chemical engineering, agrees. “My family were worried a little bit,” he admits.
But he says he’s seen nothing to justify their fears.
“Maybe you’ve heard about some states where you have some problems,” he said, “but here in Minnesota, it’s something different. I like it.”
But Mai Hashad, a junior from Egypt, says she’s extra cautious these days because she wears a hijab, or Muslim headscarf.
“I try to avoid being in any crowded place,” she said. “I don’t even go to the mosque anymore because my parents are scared.”
Baydoun, of the international student association, said his father in Dubai told him to “book the first flight home” if any trouble arises.
But in a sense, he said, little has changed since he arrived at the U three years ago.
“When I first came here, my mom was concerned. She said, ‘Don’t tell people you’re an Arab,’ ” Baydoun said. “People are starting to see the issues we’ve faced for so long. We’ve always been stereotyped.”
Normally, he added, international students tend to dwell on more practical concerns, such as academics and housing. But this fall, he said, a university survey found that their priorities had changed.
“Right now, the main concern seems to have shifted to a sense of belonging,” he said.
Baydoun attributes that to a “new era of blatant racism,” which, he said, has emboldened open acts of hostility, such as anti-Muslim graffiti on the Washington Avenue bridge.
“The views were always there, but now they’re more confident voicing them,” he said.
Extra recruiting efforts
The U, meanwhile, has launched a counteroffensive to ensure that foreign students feel welcome. At the same time, it has stepped up its recruiting efforts in what Kappler calls “emerging markets” in Africa and Southeast Asia, and redoubled its efforts in the Middle East.
St. Thomas, too, launched a recruiting blitz and added scholarship money as an extra incentive, said Olson. Those efforts “may have counteracted any negative impact from politics or anything else,” he said. “We actually had more applications this year than we’ve ever had in the past.”
It’s too soon to know how many international students will show up next year. But Kappler remains optimistic. “In the U.S. and the University of Minnesota, we have a great reputation for high-quality education, so that hasn’t changed,” she said.
On that, Baydoun agrees. “No doubt about it, in terms of higher education, the United States of America is the best you can get,” he said.
Asked what advice he would give other Middle Eastern students, he didn’t hesitate. “I’d say come here anyway, regardless of the issues,” he said. “I think the education is worth it.”