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MSU Int'l Student Numbers Down; U.S. Political Climate Part of the Reason

The number of international freshmen applicants at Michigan State University is down almost 40 percent from four years ago according to MSU’s admissions office. The political climate is one of the reasons cited.

One of the possible factors cited for the decline is a political climate that may cause some students – including those from predominately Muslim countries - to think twice about studying in the United States. WKAR talked to two international students studying at MSU about their experiences here.

It was a sunny August day when Fatima Alsaif took a break from her summer internship to meet for an outside interview on the campus of Michigan State University.  She is wearing a red blouse covered with a white blazer and a gray hijab.

The MSU media information and film production senior hopes to make a living telling the stories of others. On this day, she tells us hers.

“It’s sad. I’m disappointed because I always feel like East Lansing and Michigan is my second home, and is not ok to be scared and afraid all the time when you live at your home,” said Alsaif.

Alsaif, a practicing Muslim came to MSU in 2013 from Saudi Arabia. She says America wasn’t exactly what she expected.

“So, it’s a melting pot and everyone is hating everyone,” she said.

That divisiveness felt more intense for Alsaif during President Trump’s campaign and subsequent election due in part to comments like the one then-candidate Trump made in December of 2015.

“Donald J. T rump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure what the hell is going on,” President Trump said.

“It’s not that they are more racist more Islamophobic, just people having the courage to speak out that Trump is being the president now,” Alsaif said. “Just two days ago one of my friends was walking on Grand River and someone saw him and screamed out of the car and said ‘go back to Iraq’ or something even though he’s not from Iraq he has the Middle Eastern look,” Alsaif said.

In June, the United States Supreme Court upheld President Trump’s travel ban which restricts foreigners from several Muslim-majority countries. The president said the areas did not pass baseline security standards.

“This is a great victory for the American people and for our constitution. We have to be tough, we have to be safe and we have to be secure,” President Trump said on the day the ban was upheld.

James Cotter, the former Executive Director of Admissions and Recruitment at MSU spoke to WKAR  before he left the position in August. The admissions office says MSU’s drop in international applications is echoed throughout the United States.

“Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zeeland Australia have all experienced a significant growth in international applications in the last 12-24 months during the same period in which we’ve seen a decrease of international applications,” he said.

Dr. Mohammad Khalil is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Muslim Studies Program at Michigan State University. When the ban was first proposed, students were concerned about how far it may eventually reach, he said.

“There was concern that ok maybe now he (Trump) will ban the people from these countries but maybe that list will grow slowly but gradually,” said Dr. Khalil.

Current students also wondered what the ban meant for their futures in the United States.

“You have students that would say ‘well, my family is from Iran I’m here on a visa, can I finish my PhD? My father is dying in Iran can I visit him or will that mean the end of my PhD?’” said Dr. Khalil.  

Naina Rao is a journalism student from Indonesia - the country with the largest Muslim population in the world. Rao is also former WKAR intern.

“My mom is Muslim and her whole family is Muslim,” Rao said, “They are like the complete opposite of terrorists,“ Rao said laughing.

“I don’t think I’ll really truly ever be over that feeling because Donald Trump is president and there’s always going to be someone that’s not going to accept me and see me as an outsider without even talking to me or getting to know me,” Rao said.

Both Alsaif and Rao have thought about returning to their home countries.

“It definitely crossed my mind like seriously crossed my mind, that you know maybe let me just go home for a semester and see what happens,” Rao said.

“Is it really worth the struggle? Is it really worth the headache? These are all the questions I have in my head,” Alsaif said. "But, at the same time, do I really want to go home? Do I really want to stay in my comfort zone? I want to challenge myself and be out of my comfort zone.”

Through expanding her comfort zone which includes now serving as the president of the International Students Association at MSU, Alsaif has also found friendship and support in East Lansing.

“On the other side, I feel like some people are trying to educate themselves and learn about other cultures and learn about other religions and kind of being supportive and caring and loving so that’s also a good thing,” she said. “In my way I’m helping live my life normally just going to school, going to classes and getting myself involved in any way possible.

This is Alsaif’s way of bridging the cultures between the place where she grew up and the East Lansing Community she now calls home.

Besides the political climate, MSU’s admissions office says other factors have played a part in the decrease in international applications including a reduction in overseas scholarship programs and countries building up their universities to become more attractive to their citizens

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