One of our department’s graduate students showed up at my office door, dressed up and smiling from ear to ear. He handed me a paper, the document that attested he had met all departmental requirements to earn his Ph.D. degree. He had come right from his dissertation defense, the last step in a long march to academic success.
“Well, I guess you’re now Doctor Fang,” I said, standing up and extending my hand. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you so much,” he said, “for everything. So many times in the past five years I thought that I might not make it, or I had trouble with something and you were always here to talk to and help.” After more effusive thanks, he got a quick hug and I wished him great success before he headed off to his future.
This scene has played out several times. I am the secretary for the University at Buffalo’s graduate Chemical and Biological Engineering Department, and for the past five years have had the privilege to work with a dedicated, collegial faculty and cadre of students. Many are international and as I recently discovered, come from over a dozen nations around the world to participate in our program.
Being the “go-to” staff person for these older students means not just handling their administrative concerns, but trying to find time to chat, see how things are going and just in general help acclimate young adults thousands of miles from home find their way in a strange new world.
Our school ranks in the top 20 of universities with large international student populations. In the engineering school this is particularly evident, especially at the graduate level. Many of our students do their undergraduate work in their home countries and come to the U.S. seeking advanced training and scholarship. Many of our graduate students are domestic, but without an international student population the university loses a great deal of money and diversity.
Growing anti-immigrant sentiment has changed the climate recently. Some countries are hesitant to send their students here, and are choosing to send them elsewhere. Some students are unable to obtain visas once offered admission. This is a worrisome trend as the students I know come here seeking opportunity, and bring with them economic benefits in the form of tuition and living expenses. They rent, shop, dine out and contribute to the economic engine the university has become.
They work long hours in research labs and undergo years of training to obtain degrees that will help place them in the upper echelons of their professions. They become entrepreneurs, starting businesses that contribute to employment and enhance our standard of living through innovation and research to help solve medical, industrial and environmental problems.
Most internationals are industrious and dedicated to their studies. They are here legally with student visas and I dislike having to tell them a visit home might not be in their best interest at the present time. Working alongside our domestic students, one does not see foreigners and citizens, just a lab group conducting research.
Those who are worried we are letting people with bad intentions into the U.S. should consider the vetting undertaken before visas are issued. I wish people who don’t want to see “foreigners” in our schools would understand that many of them stay here, working toward citizenship and better lives for themselves. When I see my students going about their business, I don’t see Asians or Africans or Caucasians. I see people who came to America, as did our ancestors, seeking the opportunity to live and work in peace and freedom.