Shennel Douglas is a nursing student at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. She says she hesitated when deciding to study in the U.S. after watching U.S. police shootings of unarmed civilians on television at home in the Caribbean.
"Coming to UCA, my main concern was being, what should I say, marginalized? Because not only am I an international student, but also I’m a black international student."
There are now less international students on American college campuses than any time in the last decade.
The non-profit Institute of International Education reported a 7 percent decline in international student enrollment in U.S. universities last year, and Arkansas public schools have seen growing enrollment declines since 2016.
Hironao Okahana is a researcher for the Council of Graduate Schools, an advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., who believes the drop may be partly a result of safety concerns and the immigration policies of the Trump Administration.
"Any changes to the policies or any conversations about the policies might send a signal to international students thinking about coming to the United States," he said.
Karl Anderson is an assistant director of international student recruitment at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, and he says his staff works hard to calm prospective international students’ fears.
Their worries often center around being bullied or unsafe in the United States. He says school shootings are also a concern.
"A lot of times, it just takes that constant reassuring. I may travel, I may talk to students and families. I come home, [and] I talk with them again on the phone. I talk with them via e-mail. I may do a skype or Google chat with them,” he said.
Overall, Arkansas universities saw a 4 percent drop in international undergrads during the 2016-2017 school year and an 8 percent drop last school year. As for graduate students, the Arkansas Department of Higher Education says it has no statistics on international student enrollment in advanced degree programs.
Of all public universities in the state, the UA-Fort Smith saw the greatest percentage decline in international undergraduates between 2016 and 2018 of 33.78 percent, or a decrease from 74 to 49 students. The flagship campus in Fayetteville, meanwhile, saw a 5.19 decrease during the same period. In the fall of 2018, the UA’s student body includes 1,514 international undergraduate students, down from 1,597 in 2016.
That worries Anderson because he says international students improve the university.
“They bring an international and diverse perspective to our campus that is very important to the learning environment that we have here, to the higher education mission that the university has,” said Anderson.
And they are a financial asset to public schools. An international student pays an estimated $39,000 a year at UA, about four times the amount of an Arkansas resident.
But Douglas, the nursing student from Antigua and Barbuda, says those higher costs are a deterrent for many students from her country.
“Everyone is looking for basically affordability,” said Douglas. “A lot of individuals seeking to study medicine, they go to Cuba.”
But she believes the United States was the best choice for her career, and none of her fears about racism have proven true.
Don't believe the hype — that's the message that Anderson gives prospective international students who consider the realities of a southern school.
“What they see on TV, what they hear about on TV, what they read about in the news is not a true reflection of what they will experience here,” he said.
The institute reports that student numbers in the U.S. grew 85 percent over a decade before the decline in 2016.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media. APM is a nonprofit journalism project for all of Arkansas and a collaboration among public media in the state. We're funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK. And, we hope, from you! You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media's reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.