Losing our competitive edge is not just about international students — it's about us, too

Losing our competitive edge is not just about international students — it's about us, too
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You probably know the potential plight of international students by now — how the pandemic, and politics, puts student visas at risk. And even if they get a visa, can they gain entrance to the United States?   

Yes, it would be a loss for these students not to study here. Through matriculation at universities such as Emory, Harvard, Duke, MIT and UCLA, they gain a worldview and build vitae that will serve them well. Graduate students and postdocs get the opportunity to work in well-equipped university labs seeking solutions to the world’s thorniest problems.

But we aren’t going to plead the case of international students. We’re going to plead ours. 

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The U.S. has been the leading destination for international students, with about 1.1 million — about 5 percent of all students enrolled — studying here annually. In recent years, this number has fallen off, declining even before the pandemic. 

Having international students pays off for universities as we try to recruit top high school students from around the country. They look at many factors to decide which university to attend, including the diversity of the student body. To make friends with and work beside students from Munich, Mexico City, Beijing and Beirut confers a global advantage.  

International students benefit domestic students in other ways, as well. As top students they strengthen the reputation of universities through their academic excellence. And, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators, foreign students and their families contributed more than $40 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018-19 alone.

A personal stake

At Emory, several hundred incoming students this year are from other countries. Our student body has 1,095 scholars and 3,000 international students on Emory-sponsored visas. They study and support research in all areas, including the health sciences and medical fields. 

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Postdocs from overseas are the backbone of our laboratories, for training and support of faculty research. To limit training visas in academics and research, and to restrict the optional practical training program that allows them to work while here, would be grievous self-harm to academic research. Top research universities want to recruit the best people, wherever they can be found. 

Nearly 40 percent of U.S. Nobel Laureates in the basic sciences since 2000 are foreign-born American citizens. Many came here to study on the very types of visas now at risk. More than 60 world leaders have received higher education in the U.S. — more than in any other country. 

Let us share the stories of just a few Emory colleagues:

  • Virologist and immunologist Rafi Ahmed came to the U.S. from India on a student visa in 1970. He has received multiple honors and awards, including induction into the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine. Ahmed has transformed our understanding of how the immune system responds to long-term illness. He has authored hundreds of papers and his findings have informed a new class of cancer immunotherapy drugs, and resulted in better vaccine development and treatment of disease. He is the founding and current director of the Emory Vaccine Center.  
  • Epidemiologist and infectious diseases physician Carlos del Rio arrived here from Mexico for graduate training a few decades ago. A professor of global health, epidemiology and medicine, del Rio is known for his work on HIV and chairs the scientific committee of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. He is a member of the National Academy of Medicine and recently was elected as its next foreign secretary.  
  • Physician scientist Nadine Rouphael, from Lebanon, is co-leading a federally sponsored clinical trial for a COVID-19 vaccine with promising initial results. Rouphael is the interim director of the Hope Clinic, the clinical arm of the Emory Vaccine Center, and an infectious disease specialist at Emory. She is spearheading several research projects aimed at preventing and treating the coronavirus, and is at the forefront of a multi-site initiative to investigate immune response to the virus. 
  • A vice provost at Emory, historian Pamela Scully oversees the undergraduate experience. Scully, from South Africa, is a transnational scholar of gender history and an author, with research interests in slave emancipation, sexual violence, and truth and reconciliation in settler societies. A professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies, as well as African studies, Scully has held leadership positions in global bodies such as the International Federation for Research in Women’s History.   

A threat to our workforce

These foreign-born researchers — and others like them around the country — started out as bright international students with a dream and desire to study in the U.S. 

Many of our current graduate students and postdocs are here on student visas. Some will go on to win federal grants that enable them to continue their research and transition to a faculty track. We’ve attracted these researchers because they know they will receive important training and the ability to do interesting, meaningful work. 

These researchers are among the many who are essential in our fight against COVID-19 and in contributions to other federal research and medicine. Even a temporary halt to on-the-job training opportunities for international students will hurt workforce production for years to come, especially in critical STEM fields, and medical and scientific research.

We ask that the U.S. immediately adopt a streamlined process for student visas and ease travel, immigration and work policies. These students and trainees certainly will become brilliant, dedicated researchers, clinicians and educators, with long, distinguished careers that profoundly impact the world and improve lives. They will just be doing it elsewhere, diminishing our competitive edge and our global standing.

Deborah Watkins Bruner is senior vice president for research at Emory University in Atlanta, Robert W. Woodruff Chair in Nursing, and professor of radiation oncology. 

Philip Wainwright is Emory’s vice provost for global strategy and initiatives.