Uncertain Times

An international student questions his access to a University of Oregon education in a perilous political climate.

Words by Kenzie White
Photos by Kaylee Domzalski

Like many University of Oregon students, Mohammad Almuaishi misses home, family and friends. The physics major said he can’t wait to see his eight siblings again. But a weekend trip to visit is out of the question. Almuaishi’s hometown is Al-Ahsa in Saudi Arabia, which makes traveling there especially complicated in an age of travel bans and international tensions.

Almuaishi isn’t the only international student facing difficult choices these days.

Nearly 13 percent of the UO student body comes from overseas, and as the Trump administration’s proposed travel ban winds its way through the courts, many are uncertain about their future—some are downright scared. And a decreasing international student population can have dire economic and cultural consequences for the university and our country at large.

Almuaishi edits the comedy YouTube videos he makes with friends in the University of Oregon’s Erb Memorial Union. He makes videos to educate and make fun of stereotypes surrounding Arab students and Muslims.

“People are worried that the U.S. is going down a dark and hateful path that could affect them directly,” said Robert Hardin, the UO senior assistant director for admissions for international recruitment. “I do occasionally have students and parents ask me if their children will be safe.”

Abe Schafermeyer, director of international student and scholars services in the UO’s office of international affairs, said he recently counseled a student who had to forgo attending a family member’s funeral in his home country, since it meant he might be unable to reenter the U.S. to finish the final year of his graduate degree.

That fear has already translated into what appears to be a decrease in international applications for the upcoming year, according to Jim Rawlins, the assistant vice president for student services and enrollment management and director of the office of admissions.

Applications aren’t just down from the nations targeted by the proposed ban: Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Iran. Rawlins said students from other countries are pulling back as well.

“We get the sense that it’s a far more general impact. It sends a broader signal,” said Rawlins.

A national survey published in February found that about one-in-three prospective international students was less interested in studying in the U.S. because of the political climate. The survey, conducted by Royall and Company, focused on more than 2,100 international students from 150 different countries who had expressed interest in getting their higher education in the U.S.

Mohammad Almuaishi practices his fencing footwork at the University of Oregon’s student recreation center after class. Almuaishi, who practiced fencing with the Saudi national team, took time off from the sport in 2016 after a back injury.

A diminishing international student population could mean a hit to UO finances, especially as the institution struggles with decreasing public funds. Yearly tuition for international students is more than $34,000 for 15 credits, compared to in-state students paying about $3,600 and $11,200 for non-residents.

But the consequences of having fewer international students aren’t just financial.

Schafermeyer said that international students bring valuable perspectives, cutting-edge academic research and crucial diversity to campus.

Almuaishi rests during his workout. He used to practice with the University of Oregon fencing team, but, because of his injury, he now practices solo.

“I have been an advocate for international student for a long time,” Schafermeyer said. “Day in and day out, I see the benefits of global exchange and engagement. It’s important to fight for it.”

To help placate fears, the university has facilitated two town hall meetings dedicated to answering questions and providing information about President Trump’s executive orders. The Office of International Affairs is working to bolster the Emergency Financial Scholarship Program, which will be gathering funds dedicated to international students who may experience unexpected instability in the coming years.

Rawlins said that university staff abroad are working closely with counselors at certain international schools to fortify relationships with prospective students in those countries.

“We love these students,” Rawlins said. “Our job, really, is to do everything in our power to keep them.”

One of those students the university is trying to keep is Almuaishi.

When Almuaishi found out that he received a scholarship to study in the United States, he faced a difficult choice of whether to stay home or move to the United States. After weighing the pros and cons, Almuaishi ultimately decided that the U.S. held valuable opportunities he simply couldn’t find at home. He said he’s been happy with the opportunity to meet people from different nationalities.

He said living in the U.S. hasn’t exactly been easy for him. He struggles under the weight of how ISIS and other terrorist groups have altered his life as a Muslim. One way he copse is by creating funny videos about the negative stereotypes he faces as an Arab man in the U.S.

Almuaishi also fences—a hobby he’s had since growing up in Saudi Arabia.

Almuaishi has been suffering from a painful back injury for the past several years that has worsened over time. He said he’s unable to receive the type of affordable medical care he needs to treat the painful condition, which is why he wants to take a break from school and return to Saudi Arabia to heal.

However, a temporary break has the potential to turn into a permanent move home.

Almuaishi rests after the end of a short fencing workout. After injuring his back in 2016, he’s had to slowly work up his stamina.

Saudi Arabia is not one of the nations covered under the latest proposed ban, but the topic is constantly evolving as new orders and regulations emerge.

Almuaishi clings to the hope that his country won’t be banned, since he wants to return to the U.S. to complete his degree. “If anyone asked me if I thought I would be in American three years ago, I would say they are crazy. I feel happy that I’ve had the opportunity to study in America and I want to graduate from here,” he said.

“Should the United States government put a ban on my country, the American people are not to blame,” he continued. “And no matter what happens, I will never lose my pride and dignity as an Arab man.”