International students forced to stay put for holidays
They can't risk unforgiving groups or governments at home or new U.S. security rules since Sept. 11 to leave to see families.
By MONIQUE FIELDS
Published December 27, 2004
Shukria Nizami would like to see her mother and father over the holidays. But the Eckerd College sophomore is from Afghanistan.
"I really don't dare go on vacation there," said Nizami, 23, who attends Eckerd on scholarship. "I don't want to lose my education."
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, many international students in the United States have been unable to return home. Some fear new security rules will prevent them from returning. Some are afraid they will face persecution for their sin of studying abroad.
Nizami said women like her are branded "liberal" in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where her family now lives. The Taliban is no longer in power, she said, but many are still in the region and are quite aggressive toward women.
Some female students have been attacked with acid, she said. Others have been raped.
Nizami, who is studying international relations in hopes of some day helping women in her country, said she won't risk everything for a trip home.
Experts say an increasing number of international students are now avoiding the U.S. - a trend with worrisome implications. Last year, international enrollment in the U.S. declined 2.4 percent, the first overall drop since 1972.
The decline in Florida was even steeper. About 26,000 international students were enrolled in a Florida college or university last year, a drop of 5.2 percent.
American universities need international students, said David Austell, director of international student and scholar services at the University of South Florida.
"It's very hard for a person to hate the United States when they know who we are as a people," he said.
And many science and engineering programs, he said, particularly at the doctorate level, depend on students from other countries.
"Americans don't tend to pursue those terminal degrees in as great a number as foreign nationals do," Austell said.
Both USF and the University of Florida have more than 1,000 international students, according to the Institute of International Education, which administers the Fulbright Scholars Program. They cluster in two majors: engineering and business. India, China and Colombia send the most international students to Florida.
Ying Zhang is one of them. She is pursuing a doctorate in chemical engineering at USF and has been in the United States for six years. She hasn't been home since 2000.
The problem: Zhang, 31, is a native of China who practices Falun Gong, a spiritual pursuit that focuses on improving the body, mind and spirit. It embraces three principles: truthfulness, compassion and tolerance.
Many who practice Falun Gong say Chinese police monitor their phone calls, harass their parents and sentence them to jail.
"Their experience causes me to have such a concern," Zhang said. "Persecution is still happening in China.
She is not sure when or whether she will return to China. Meanwhile, she lives in an apartment not far from campus and continues to practice Falun Gong.
"I believe here is a safe place," Zhang said.
Sometimes, safety isn't the issue.
In the 1990s, when many Asian economies went bust, students had to return home. To stem that loss, the Institute of International Education established no-interest loans to help students stay in the United States. Those students have since graduated and are paying back their loans. Their money is now being used to help those who are unable to go home to find summer internships.
Such programs are necessary, said Peggy Blumenthal, the institute's vice president for educational service.
"We lose out if they go home and can't come back," she said.
One of the more common problems involve visas. Some nations aren't as quick to issue them to students, and in the wake of Sept. 11, it has become more difficult to enter the United States. Professors and students say the new rules are keeping good students out of the country.
Cesar Guerrero, 34, is a Colombian native who has a Fulbright scholarship to pursue a doctorate in computer science and engineering. He decided to come to the United States because he wanted to learn English and have access "to the best universities of the world."
But he will not return home for winter break because he fears he won't get a visa in time to return to USF Tampa when classes start again in January.
"I prefer not to take the risk," he said.
He and his wife, Marcela Peralta, will spend the holidays in Boston with Guerrero's sister.
He realizes that everything has changed in the wake of Sept. 11, but he thinks the United States may want to extend better options to people who have undergone serious academic review.
"I am a safe person for the United States," he said. "There is a procedure that guarantees (Fulbright scholars) are good people.
[Last modified January 2, 2005, 09:04:23]
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