By Juliana Fidler
Six American students arrived at the Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores in Granada, Spain at 8:00 a.m. on an autumn day, only to find themselves at the back of a line a block long. This wasn’t the first time they had waited on line to be fingerprinted and questioned, and it wasn’t the last. One of them was Annie Amitrani, then a student at The College of New Jersey. When she spent the entire 2010-2011 school year abroad in Granada, the process to secure her student visa and temporary resident status began in the U.S. in April 2010, a semester before she set sail to Europe, and lasted until November of that same year.
“I can only imagine how frustrating it is for someone trying to get naturalized in the U.S. if the process is like that here, too. I feel like it’s probably worse,” Amitrani says. Though her experience may have been somewhat exceptional—those who study abroad for just one semester rarely have to undergo such an involved process for a student visa—Amitrani is not the only one to start to see the situation in reverse, and paperwork is just a small part of it.
Among the changes in perspective that almost anyone who has studied abroad will profess is the ability to understand and empathize with foreigners in the home country to which he or she returns. In the midst of heated debates about the many issues surrounding immigration, these altered perceptions in young adults could have important implications for the future. Organizations and individuals alike are making the connection between international education and understanding the complexities of immigration—in practice and in policy. It is a symbiotic one; studying abroad can have a significant impact on students’ views on immigrants and immigration, and reform in immigration law could affect international students (to and from the U.S.).
The Association of International Educators (NAFSA), a Washington, D.C.-based organization, advocates for international education, and immigration reform is included in its goals. The acronym, retained for recognition of its 1948 founding, comes from its original name, National Association of Foreign Student Advisers. The organization’s website includes a list of Immigration Reform Priorities for the 113th Congress and an explanation of why they matter: “Now a dysfunctional immigration regime impedes our ability to foster a robust system of educational and scholarly exchange,” it claims.
The priorities listed are varied and divided into categories: “Green Card Reforms,” “Non-immigrant Reforms,” for students and short-term visitors, “Protect Current Law” and “Improving the Management of the Student and Exchange Visitor Program.” Because of NAFSA’s focus, these objectives would, ideally, make opportunities for international education more accessible to a wider range of students. The organization’s larger goal, however, is more broad: “We believe international education leads to a more peaceful world,” the NAFSA website states.
According to the most recent data collected by NAFSA from the 2010-2011 school year, 1.3% of students enrolled in degree-granting institutions study abroad. NAFSA would like to see those numbers increase—and, according to the results of a Public Opinion Survey the organization conducted during the 2012 election posted on its website, most Americans agree. Responding to the first question on the survey, 43% stated that they believed that “studying abroad, learning foreign languages, and learning about other cultures” were “very essential” to the educational experience.
Kari Lantos, the manager of Grassroots Outreach at NAFSA, expresses her own opinions that align with those of the organization and, apparently, those of the population. “I would love to see more people have the opportunity to study abroad. I believe it changes people’s view of how the world interacts,” she says.
This global awareness changes both individual students and society at large. “Students who study abroad have the ability to communicate with people in other countries. They learn cultural nuances, and they have a better understanding of other cultures,” Lantos explains. “The more people that are interacting from other cultures, the better our world will be. It would foster a more peaceful relationship.”
Lantos has a personal connection to international education and its benefits. Starting at the age of four or five years old, her parents hosted students from Brazil, Spain, and elsewhere.
“We lived in upstate New York and didn’t have the means to travel outside the country, but my parents wanted my brothers and me to have the opportunity to ‘see the world’ the only way they could, by hosting students from other countries,” she explains.
Living with them allowed her to learn other languages and experience parts of their cultures. Sometimes, their families would visit, allowing Lantos’ family to observe their interactions.
“I could see the dynamic of how we’re so different, yet we’re so the same,” she says. “The things we value as human beings, the relationships—we come from completely different places, but we have the same values.”
She also knows the realities of the naturalization process in the U.S. “I also have a personal connection to this issue as my husband is a former international student [from Hungary] who went through a very lengthy process to become an American citizen,” she explains. Reforming immigration legislation to extend the accessibility of international education and promote global, intercultural understanding would seem to have a circular effect. American students who study abroad often see foreigners and visitors to their home country in a different light, sometimes even including new permanent residents.
Joe Firnhaber, a New Jersey student currently living and studying in Scotland for the Spring 2013 semester, exemplifies this perspective.
“I assumed that living in another country is difficult, especially without one’s family, full knowledge of the language, a definite source of income, and other familiar things. I didn’t have the income or language problem, but even the lack of my routine, familiar faces, knowledge of what to do and how the infrastructure works, has presented significant emotional challenges,” he says of his experience.
While this has only added to much of what he already knew or believed, he states, “I think that immigration reform is crucial to the health of the millions of immigrants in the U.S. I feel they should be supported and given citizenship, so they can feel as though they ‘belong’ and can practically take part in taxes, education, etc.” He continues, “In sum, studying abroad has solidified my view that peoples from abroad (to visit or stay) are an essential part of the demographic of any country.”
Shari Strom, an Idaho native and college senior who spent a semester in Spain expresses a similar newfound empathy due to her time abroad.
“I would say that I have become much more accepting of immigrants, and while I’m still opposed to illegal immigration, I understand why it happens and I do believe we, as a country, could make it a heck of a lot easier for people to immigrate legally,” she explains. “We boast about how we’re the best nation on the planet, so why should we take it out on people who are just trying to share in the ‘American Dream’?”
Strom says that she would support legal efforts to facilitate entry to the United States because of this.
Amitrani points out that previous attempts at reform have aimed to address both opportunity and refuge.
“I thought the DREAM Act was a great idea,” she states, referencing the initiative that would provide a pathway for students who had been brought into the country illegally as children to become citizens, under specific conditions. “It’s a shame to me that some of these people have been denied the opportunity of an education because they had to flee from violence in their country. If they go to college, they’ll contribute more to our society as well. I would support legislation like that,” she says.
The experiences that these students describe are, most likely, just what NAFSA hopes for in its efforts to send and receive more international students. So far, Lantos says, the other organizations making the connection between international education and a necessity for immigration reform have been businesses: “A lot of students that come here, specifically in STEM degrees”—science, technology, engineering and math—“are people that would like to come here and stay and start businesses, contribute,” she says. “The Microsofts, the Yahoos, things like that, see the value.”
But as Amitrani, Strom, Firnhaber and Lantos herself point out, the value of intercultural interaction can go beyond creating good business practice or establishing a more global market, to understanding “outside” cultures, which are becoming less outside in our ever-more-connected world, and being exposed to human issues and struggles.
“Living in another country is eye-opening, scary and wonderful,” says Strom, summarizing the experiences of so many international students. “Once you’ve been an outsider yourself, you know how difficult it can be and that everyone is only trying to do their best.”