On brink of immigration reform, engineering students in focus

Fiona Zhou’s mother would take her on a 30-minute bike ride to an English language school in the suburbs of Shanghai when she was a child. By second grade, she was studying with eight graders at a pricey private school.

After graduating from high school, Zhou crammed for the SAT and an English proficiency test for a year, studying all day and getting about three hours of sleep each night.

Zhou, one of the first students from her high school to spend their undergraduate years in the U.S., transferred to GW after a year at St. Johns University in New York.

The 23 year old is one year away from a degree in systems engineering and said she feels “at home” here.

After graduating, she said she wants to stay in the U.S. and eventually start her own technology business if she can find a way to extend her student visa.

“I have such an American dream, and when I have the opportunity, I don’t want to miss it,” Zhou said.

Her story was highlighted by House Majority Leader and alumnus Eric Cantor, R-Va., in a speech Feb. 5 that laid out his next two years of policy initiatives, including tackling immigration reform.

“We want to continue to have America be the destination for the world’s best and brightest,” Cantor said in a phone interview with The Hatchet. “People like Fiona can pursue their dreams and actually benefit us in America too, because her talents and hard work can produce more jobs and opportunity for us here at home.”

The Virginia lawmaker helped pass a bill last November that would have created 55,000 additional working visas for graduates of American universities who received advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and math fields. The bill died in the Democrat-controlled Senate, where policymakers are pushing for comprehensive immigration reform laws. As President Barack Obama takes up immigration reform, Republicans have renewed their fight for international student incentives.

Cantor said the House will likely pass the bill again this year, and added that he is “hopeful” the Senate will be more receptive.

While Cantor said bringing in foreign students would help fill “a lot of vacancy in jobs here,” in the STEM fields, he stressed that the U.S. also must reform grade school education to better prepare future workers in the fields.

“Our system of higher education is not doing the job of preparing students for today’s job market,” Cantor said. “We want the jobs to be here. We want them to be filled here. We don’t want them to be filled abroad.”

James Brown, an alumnus and executive director of a lobbying group called STEM Education Coalition, said the thousands of vacant science and technology jobs has created a job market in which “companies can’t find the workers that they need. There are simply not enough graduates.”

Tweaking the U.S. immigration policies for science and technology graduates is important, but it’s a “short-term solution,” Brown said.

He said middle and high school curriculum reform is long overdue, and called on the federal government to take STEM education more seriously by adding science, technology, engineering and mathematics sections to standardized testing and investing in research to pinpoint best teaching methods.

Jodi Peterson, assistant executive director for legislative and public affairs for the National Science Teacher’s Association, said the federal government must better fund public schools in the wake of a recession that prompted severe budget cuts across the nation.

“A lot of kids know if they’re going to go into science or not by 10th grade,” Peterson said. “If they haven’t had the exposure to science or all the fun things you can do in science, businesses will keep looking abroad to fill jobs.”

She said an immigration bill would help fill jobs now, although education reform has to be done. She said robotics clubs and after-school programs are good ways to “pique interest” but should be adopted on a wider scale. She also said schools should add engineering classes to curriculum.

At GW, a STEM-focused visa bill would likely increase selectivity and popularity for the School of Engineering and Applied Science, engineering professor Charles Garris said in December. Nearly 30 percent of all graduate students in SEAS were foreign last year, the most international students in any of the University’s 10 schools.

And the University has set its sights higher, with plans to open a $275 million science and engineering hub in 2015 – the centerpiece of its broad mission to revitalize research and jump-start the School of Engineering and Applied Science, ranked No. 102 nationally.

The school’s location in D.C., which Forbes Magazine ranked as No. 2 in the nation for job growth in STEM fields last May, will also help. Jobs in D.C. science and engineering industries have increased more than 20 percent since 2001, the magazine showed.

Down the road, as the U.S. looks to bolster science and engineering education, it will be competing with countries such as China that have created very different expectations for students’ success.

“You’re only thought of as a good student if you’re good at math and science,” Zhou said of the Chinese culture stressing STEM fields. “Without it, I wouldn’t have been so successful here.”

The Hatchet interviewed House Majority Leader and alumnus Eric Cantor, R-Va., after a speech on Feb. 5 that highlighted Republican goals for the next year, including education and immigration reform.

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