Utah State University student Mohammed Ali had never heard of the Beehive State before he applied to USU.
But what enticed him to leave his native Saudi Arabia and study in Logan was the area’s agricultural sector, the small-town feel and — believe it or not — the color blue.
“It’s my favorite,” said Ali, a senior, with a laugh during a picnic with food and games for international students last week at the Lundstrom Student Living Center.
But it’s not all fun and games. Ali’s comments come at a challenging time for many international students who are studying in the United States or considering doing so.
Some data suggests that the number of international students applying or being admitted to American higher education institutions is down significantly from a year ago.
Part of that could owe to President Donald Trump's executive order banning people from several Muslim-majority countries to travel to the United States.
Trump's order — which applies to Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — recently gained something of a victory when the U.S. Supreme Court’s partially upheld it in June.
"It is difficult"
Several international USU students The Herald Journal spoke with for this story said that while the Cache Valley community appears accepting of them, it is not easy to be an international student in America because of the nation's unfolding political events.
Amir Malakooti, a USU graduate student from Iran, said he came to study in America because it is “the leading country to do research” and he plans to pursue a Ph.D. in the U.S., too.
His friends, however, don’t seem so enticed to study here, opting to apply to universities in Canada and Europe because they believe “it is difficult” to be an international student in the U.S.
“Even me, myself. Before the travel ban happened, previously I didn’t want to apply to a Canadian university,” Malakooti said. “Then, it happened and I said OK.”
Ali credits the fact that he's been treated well here to Cache Valley's predominant Mormonism — but that hasn't been the case when he has visited other parts of the country.
"It is a little bit hard to be accepted by society, and I feel like an outsider," Ali said. "I do have some (friends) who are a little worried about coming here."
Students who are already studying at USU say it is hard for them to find summer work — including Kanak Bulbul, a USU graduate student from India, who was not able to find an internship outside of the university.
“Many of the other Indian students did not get (an internship), and one the reasons is that companies are apprehensive regarding these policies,” she said. “It’s a little apprehensive for my professional future.”
“Fearful of coming”
During the 2016-17 school year, USU had 676 international students enrolled, according to information provided by the school. This is the number of international students on F and J visas and does not include several non-immigrant visa types and Post-Completion Optional Practical Training following graduation from USU.
While there are hundreds of international students at USU, applications from potential undergrads have declined over the last year, according to Janis Boettinger, director of USU’s Office of Global Engagement.
At this time last year, USU had received 250 applications from prospective international undergraduates. As of this month, the school has only received 180 applications.
“I don’t think it’s the result of our recruiting efforts going down. If anything we have been increasing our efforts,” Boettinger said. “But I think people are fearful of coming to the United States.”
Trump’s initial travel ban decision in January prompted USU President Noelle Cockett to issue a statement to the campus community recommending foreign nationals from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen not travel outside of the United States.
Boettinger said she has heard from advisers in her office that it’s not just students from the few countries targeted in the president’s current travel ban who are hesitant to study at USU.
“The majority of the students — no matter where they’re from — they feel threatened,” she said. “We had inquiries from students from countries all over the world … worrying about, ‘Can I travel’? ‘Can I get back into the country’? We would say, ‘You’re not from one of the countries listed.’ But there was so much fear, they were reaching out to us.”
Bulbul echoed Boettinger's comments.
“Anything or everything that's happening here (in the United States), it has an impact all over the world," she said. "I have seen that it has impact on all the international students and not just the students from those six countries."
There has been a decline in international students submitting graduate applications, too.
For the 2015-16 school year, there were 969 applications submitted, compared to 751 for the 2016-17 school year, according to Richard Inouye, USU associate dean of graduate studies.
He attributed the decline in these applications to “substantial investments” in higher education some other countries, like China, are making.
“That has created new opportunities for their students to get graduate degrees in their home countries,” Inouye wrote in an email to The Herald Journal.
Inouye did not attribute the decline in graduate applications from international students to politics in the United States, noting the trend has been occurring several years before.
“However, I think the concerns that Janis and others have expressed about increased fear about coming to the U.S. are likely to make the situation even worse,” he wrote.
A time of uncertainty
Several national education organizations have examined the number of students applying to and enrolling in U.S. colleges and universities.
A report from American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers offers a mixed picture: 38 percent of responding institutions reported a decline in international applications, 35 percent reported an increase and 27 percent reported no change, the report stated.
The Institute of International Education, a New York-based nonprofit, examined the number of international students who had been admitted to U.S. higher education institutions. That report shows a 2 percent decline in the number of international undergraduate students admitted to American colleges and universities over the last year.
When it came to graduate students, the IIE cited a study from the Council of Graduate Schools, which found that 46 percent of graduate deans surveyed indicated that they are seeing “substantial downward changes” in admission yields for international students.
Rajika Bhandari, director of the IIE Center for Academic Mobility Research and Impact, said these declines “could be due to the political climate,” but that it's a trend that predates the Trump administration.
“Even prior to everything that’s played out this year, the U.S. was already beginning to see some flattening of numbers in the number of international students coming to the U.S.,” she said.
Bhandari pointed to the increasing number of international students who are choosing to study in their home country or region in recent years as one of the reasons for the decline.
Numerous organizations report different estimates of how many international students might enroll at America’s colleges and universities this coming school year, according to an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education.
“The simple fact is, we won’t know for certain about the true impact of the ban — and the ‘America first’ sentiments that birthed it — until students arrive on American campuses for the start of the fall semester,” Chronicle staff writer Karin Fischer wrote.
Regardless of how many international students might enroll at schools in America this coming year, Malakooti's concerned.
He believes if the number of international students coming to student at U.S. universities continues to decline, “It’s a loss for America.”
“Good publications, good research, good findings will not happen in the U.S.,” Malakooti said. “You will have a second Sillicon Valley not in San Fransisco — you will have it in Toronto.”