Bloomberg Opinion — This is one of a series of interviews by Bloomberg Opinion columnists on how to solve the world’s most pressing policy challenges. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Virginia Postrel: You came to the U.S. as a graduate student in psychology in 1992 and worked for many years at the Institute of International Education, as well as other jobs in international education. Your new book, “America Calling,” is a memoir of your own experiences and a report on the general state of foreign students in the U.S. How is the experience of current students different today from when you came?
Rajika Bhandari, author, “America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility”: Students are quite different in how they’re approaching the idea of a foreign credential. They’re seeing it from the perspective of a very savvy consumer. Should I go to the U.S.? Is that the best return on investment for my family’s money? Or am I going to go to the U.K. or some other country? Students are armed with information in a way that they never were before.
However, there’s a lot that hasn’t changed. First and foremost are the enduring challenges around immigration, which rule the existence of an international student’s life in the U.S. in a way that most people who don’t have to experience it will never fully understand.
The other piece that remains the same is that international students, particularly those coming from societies and cultures dramatically different from the U.S., are still not fully prepared for the vastly different academic culture: the idea of a college classroom as a very open, democratic environment; the idea of really being independent in your learning; the idea that you can and should question your professor because you will actually be assessed on how well you’re able to articulate your ideas and to think critically. That can really be a shock for many students coming from highly traditional Asian cultures, where there are strict hierarchies in the classroom — and God forbid you ever question the professor.
VP: What is the current breakdown between graduate and undergraduate international students?
RB: Until about a decade ago, international students in the U.S. were dominated by those coming to the U.S. to pursue a master’s or Ph.D. Then, with the huge growth in the Chinese middle class, there was this big influx of young Chinese students at the undergraduate level. Over the past few years, we’ve seen more undergraduates coming to the U.S. However, according to some of the statistics for this year, it seems like that gap may be narrowing once again.
One reason is that foreign undergraduates, for the most part, have been full-fee paying students. They’re the ones who really fund the bottom line of U.S. institutions. Yet those are also the ones whose families have really been economically impacted by the pandemic. In many countries, the middle class itself has shrunk. Many families are now rethinking whether they have the resources to pay for their children’s education abroad.
VP: What is it that Americans don’t understand about the experiences of international students?
RB: People don’t often appreciate how important international students have been to the post-1960s history of success of the U.S., from technology to academia to medicine. One of the co-founders of Moderna was an international student. The new CEO of Twitter was an international student. Many Americans know that these individuals are immigrants, but what that journey has been — and why education has been a really critical aspect to that journey — is not well understood.
VP: There’s a kind of pantomime, enacted by everyone involved, which holds that students come to the U.S. to study and then go back to their home countries. That’s what the student visas are based on. When you came, that was your intention as well. In what ways is that model not realistic?
RB: That question really gets at the heart of why I wrote this book. I felt a growing sense of frustration that in the U.S., we do not want to have a candid conversation about the pathway from higher education to skilled talent and how countries grow their talent pool.
In almost every developed country—look at the U.K. Australia, New Zealand, Germany, many others—the pathway from education to immigration has been omnipresent for a very long time. In the U.S., that’s not the case. If we look at the statistics, 70 to 80 percent of international students continue to stay on in the U.S. after their studies. Yet the flow of international students is still viewed within this framework of “exchange,” this pantomime, as you said earlier, of bilateral exchange. But it’s not an exchange. Many more students are coming than going. The number who come on exchange programs, like the flagship Fulbright Program, is very, very small. Most students who are coming here are individually motivated students funding their way.
One of the biggest challenges is that the F-1 international student visa continues to remain what’s called a “single intent visa,” which means that an undergraduate student at the age of 17 has to stand before a consular affairs officer in their home country and say, “Yes, I’m fairly certain that after four years, I’m coming back.” How can you know? We don’t ask 17-year-olds in the U.S. to know exactly what they’re going to decide four years down the line. I think most students are being honest, stating what they think is the right thing for them. It was true for me. But you evolve and change.
VP: So what reforms to the system what would you propose?
RB: First, remove that single-intent requirement of the student visa. Another issue is that currently, the applied work opportunities that international students have after their studies, through the Optional Practical Training Program, are incredibly fraught. The program was not created by legislation. So it’s like a sword hanging over every international student: Will I be able to pursue this one year of work after studies or not? What’s going to happen?
More generally, we need to smooth that pathway from being a student to joining the workforce. The restrictions and backlogs right now are really significant. It’s an issue of looking at the talent that the U.S. is losing — talent that’s been trained in the U.S.
VP: How does the U.S. immigration system shape the experience of international students while they’re here? How do they have a different experience from a similarly situated American student who might be in the same program with them?
RB: There’s this crippling sense of uncertainty that governs your entire time in the U.S. There are so many immigration rules to abide by, for example, in how much coursework you need to take each semester. Most American students are free to take the semester off, particularly graduate students: “I’ll continue to enroll, but I’m going to go work for two years at the World Bank.” None of that freedom exists for international students. When you’re an international student, everything you do in your program of study is governed by immigration rules.
I say sarcastically in the book that many people have the stereotype that “Oh, international students are brilliant, they finish their doctoral degrees in just five or six years, they’re so smart.” It’s not that they’re smart. They don’t have a choice. There is no option but to keep marching along and to meet those requirements, or you immediately fall out of status and have to head back to your country.
This sense of uncertainty hovers over you as you go through that pathway. It’s an endless process of waiting and not knowing. You’re applying for your Optional Practical Training work permit, and then you’re waiting and waiting, because you don’t know when it’ll come through. Then you might apply for an H1-B work permit. And that comes with its own uncertainties. It’s really something that governs an international student’s entire existence in the way that American students don’t even have to ever think about.
VP: How does that compare to say, the experience in Canada?
RB: The policies in Canada are much friendlier to international students because of that clear understanding that education is a pathway to careers and the workforce.
VP: Many people who want to restrict but not eliminate immigration want to skew it toward highly educated individuals who bring lots of human capital. But I worry about some of the potential side effects of that model. Part of the implicit American social contract—which is not always honored—is that we respect each other as individuals, and especially in the context of work. We respect the person who’s doing a job. We don’t look down on them because it’s a lower-paid job or requires less education. The work itself is worthy of respect. Does taking in lots of privileged people from hierarchical societies like India’s risk eroding the egalitarian relationships of everyday American life? Do people who come from the elite of highly hierarchical societies bring that elite view with them and inject it into daily American life?
RB: That is a fabulous question. And I do not put myself above that. I do think that there’s something special about entering a new society as a student, because you’re like a sponge, and you’re at an age where your values and ideas and beliefs are still being shaped. And so the experience can have a profound and transformative impact on a person. And it definitely did on me.
I realize that I came in with a lot of those ideas that you just laid out, from a society that was very rigidly structured across class lines. I had my own biases and beliefs, whether it was about race and skin color, or the dignity of labor. Being in the U.S. really forced me to confront my own biases, and to evolve and change into being more open in my thinking, and hopefully being a better human being.
And so that’s one thing that I’m imparting to students these days, when they ask me, I want to come to the U.S. and study, how can I succeed? One of my challenges to them is really think about making yourself open to how a society can actually transform you.
VP: How did studying and living in the U.S. help you understand India better?
RB: When you leave your home, and you’re away for sufficient enough period of time, it really gives you that sense of objectivity and the feeling of being an outsider looking in — knowing that society really well, but still being one step removed. For me, those learnings were largely around sexism and my place in the world as a young woman: seeing my homeland and my society for what it is and realizing that that’s not what I wanted for myself, that I wanted something different.
VP: Even though there are certainly negative experiences in the book, it did make me feel good about the country. It was a positive view of America—not a beautiful fairy tale, but if you want to come here and then you end up staying, there must be something good about the country.
RB: I’m really happy to hear you say that. What draws people to the U.S.? I say in the book that it’s the country that gave the world Indiana Jones. I wasn’t trying to be flippant — but just to say that there’s this idea of freedom embodied in different ways: freedom of thought, the freedom to pursue one’s aspirations, freedom to reinvent yourself.
VP: You have a great example of your surprise at seeing somebody in the U.S. who had braces as an adult. You see it as a sign of reinventing yourself.
RB: It’s that freedom, manifested in many different ways, that students also encounter as soon as they arrive here. They are pushed to think in ways they had not experienced before. And I think it’s what really draws people here. It’s still present, despite all of the challenges that the country has had over the past four or five years.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a visiting fellow at the Smith Institute for Political Economy and Philosophy at Chapman University and the author, most recently, of “The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World.”