Column: Understanding through education

Among many things I have enjoyed while at college, high on the list is meeting people from all over the world. But this cherished aspect of attending school in the District may be changing.

According to a report by the Institute of International Education, enrollment by international students in the past year increased by less than 1 percent. This breaks a trend of steady increase in enrollment over the past decade or so. The report also said that in future years, enrollment might decline. This is a trend universities and the government should work to reverse.

One reason for the slowdown is the state of the world economy. A more significant reason is the increased difficulty of entering the country due to new screening requirements.

In an effort to prevent foreign terrorists from entering the country, the process for obtaining a visa has become more arduous. There is a backlog of students who want to enter the country, and the long wait discourages more students from studying in the United States.

It is estimated that foreign students contribute $12 billion to the U.S. economy each year through what they pay in tuition and spend while in the country. International students, though, provide much more than economic benefits. The students who come to study here are the best and brightest their country has to offer. American academia benefits because of them. A statement released by the heads of the National Academy of Science, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine stated, “Approximately half of the graduate students currently enrolled in the physical sciences and engineering at U.S. universities come from other nations.” The work of international students has enriched these and other fields of study in the United States.

Unsurprisingly, the nations with the sharpest decrease of students studying in the United States are Middle Eastern. If America wants to be safer in the future, this is a trend we have to reverse.

Preventing terrorists from entering the country through more restrictive entrance policies should be considered a last line of defense. Once they have become so radicalized that they are willing to commit violence, it is too late. The first line of defense is increasing understanding about America in places where perceptions are overwhelmingly negative.

It is in our interests to let people from the Middle East, along with the rest of the world, learn about this nation firsthand.

Imagine a conversation in a caf? in Amman, Jordan. One man is denouncing Americans as evil; two other men are sitting, listening to him. Suppose that one of those two men had studied in an American university. He spent time getting to know the country and its people. This man would be a better advocate in defense of America than any American could be. Closing our doors to Arab students encourages the anti-American sentiment the government is trying to curtail.

John Waterbury, president of the American University in Beirut, put it best in the January issue of Foreign Affairs. “Perhaps no single institutional feature of American dominance is more admired than its system of higher education,” he wrote. “This extensive admiration of American institutions therefore presents an underexploited opportunity for dealing with the current crisis.”

The writer is a freshman majoring in political science.

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