“Nothing, absolutely nothing, can replace the kind of learning that happens when individuals are able to have direct contact, for a considerable period of time, with people from different cultures and backgrounds.”
The words with which Harvard University president Neil L. Rudenstine addressed the graduating class of 1997 hold an even more profound effect today when grasped by a nation struggling to rebuild after September 11.
In light of recent world issues, the Unites States has raced to employ a new weapon in the War on Terrorism: education.
“Enlightenment and understanding are our most powerful weapons in combating ignorance, prejudice and terrorism,” said Babish Soni of the International Student Network, a Philadelphia based firm whose mission is to promote and increase the accessibility of American education across the globe.
“The values of an American education will stay with those who embrace it, strengthening their ability to think clearly, maintain an open mind, respect other cultures, and promote the ideals of freedom, diversity and liberty,” he said.
But foreigners and Americans alike remain wary at the prospect of international exchange, as foreign students fear for their personal safety in the U.S. and Americans are hesitant to admit aliens to the nation.
“After Sept. 11, 2001, the general feeling across the nation was to stop foreigners from entering the United States,” said Soni. “The issue of terrorists entering the U.S. with student visas resulted not only in a general reluctance among universities to recruit students from this region, but the American embassies actually stopped issuing visas in many nations,” he said.
Additionally, Britain, Australia, Canada, and even Japan have played upon these fears, capitalizing upon our national tragedy as an iniquitous opportunity to sequestrate our share of the Gulf student market.
The foreign student market may seem to some a risky gamble, but as the education and training sector ranked fifth last year in terms of services export revenue, the stakes are high at over $10 billion dollars.
The many diplomatic, economic, and academic benefits foreign students impart have both immediate and long-term effects across the globe, and the value of this critical export remains the driving force behind businesses such as ISN.
Determined to increase the accessibility of American education to international students, Soni, once an international student himself, notes that he started the firm with “a vision of spreading the ideals of diversity, democracy, and liberty through higher learning.”
“As someone who personally benefited from the opportunity to obtain an American education, it was very clear to me that foreign students impart both immediate and long-term diplomatic, economic, and academic effects across the globe,” said Soni.
Working closely with the U.S. Department of Commerce, ISN’s chief endeavor is the organization of large-scale education trade shows that allow American colleges and universities to directly and effectively recruit foreign students.
“Before ISN initiated the idea of an exclusively American education expo, joining a British trade show was the sole opportunity available to U.S. universities interested in recruiting students in the Gulf nations,” noted Soni.
The Gulf student market alone provides a substantial amount of revenue as more than four thousand young people from the United Arab Emirates enroll in U.S. universities each year for their post-secondary education.
“In addition to offering tremendous social and diplomatic benefits, these students impart an important economic advantage, representing a private citizen and government commitment of over $80 million dollars,” Soni said. “Before ISN was founded, a great deal of this market was lost to international competitors.”
Temple has utilized ISN for several years in their endeavor to increase the international student population on the campus, sending representatives to education expos in the Gulf as well as in Latin America and Asia. However, like the majority of U.S. universities, the affect of the events of September 11 continues to make international student recruitment difficult.
“Temple highly values international students because they bring a kind of cultural diversity that is essential to the campus, and we have been dismayed by the post 9/11 changes that have made it difficult for international students to obtain American education,” said Timm Reinheart, director of Admissions at Temple.
“While Temple still wants to attract and enroll students from the Gulf region, we realize it is more difficult to get visas, and that makes our job much harder,” he said.
Despite the difficult political and economic situation, Soni remains determined to continue with his efforts to encourage Gulf student enrollment. Although the effects of the World Trade attacks have far from dissipated, Soni notes that things are beginning to look up.
“We are planning an expo in Dubai for February, and we have already registered 11 universities,” said Soni. While the number is certainly down from the 30 or more institutions that have registered for similar shows in the past, Soni is hopeful that the spring expo will make the statement that the United States will not be intimidated by terrorism.
“It’s very hard… every single day is a struggle to keep afloat, but we aren’t giving up on our mission,” said Soni. “The values of an American education stay with those who embrace it, strengthening their ability to think clearly, maintain an open mind and respect other cultures,” he said. “That’s an ideal that’s just too important to give up on.”
Kristine Povilitis can be reached at email@example.com