Sumra: International students are valuable to America

Eish Sumra, Columnist

Walking back from a friend’s house last week, I was struck by a group of who I can only assume were freshmen. A tall guy surrounded by a group of women was clearly on his way to a party, and their conversation epitomised the stereotype of American masculinity. “All my friends are chicks because guys are afraid of me, seriously,” said the guy. That walking shot of testosterone combined with the stench of PBR from which I had just emerged — where the infamous stylings of “Closer” by The Chainsmokers were blaring — naturally got me thinking about this wonderfully weird country us internationals dare to step foot on for college.

It’s a confusing place to have come to in fall 2014. Even using the word “fall” feels wrong. As an international student, you understand that you’re walking into a world you probably only saw in episodes of “Friends.” You have to adjust to random things like not asking for a rubber when you want an eraser, or else you risk embarrassment in your lecture hall (that happened in my first Medill class), and having sales tax shock you every time you receive the check. Oh, also using the word “check.” But when you ignore the surface-level differences you may face in this country, you understand that, most poignantly, you’re thrust into the vortex of identity politics that has become one of the most significant narratives of modern America. Adjusting to that is the biggest test of all.

Therefore, as an outsider, understanding your place in this country is a minefield. Now that travel bans, H-1B visa restrictions and discriminatory dialogue have become more prominent, it’s easy to feel out of place. However, when looking at some of America’s most important positions (including the office of the First Lady), immigrants are peppered across the upper echelons of society. From Google’s Sundar Pichai to Vogue’s Anna Wintour, it’s clear how vital outsiders are to the workings of this nation. Many of these successful individuals have maintained their diverse backgrounds while also embracing America’s ambitious rat race for “The American Dream,” using their outsider status as motivation to move up the ranks.

The same motivation is also evident in foreign students. The stereotype is that Northwestern’s international population is made up of wealthy, internationally educated, privileged kids who spend a lot and travel constantly. While this is true for some, it ignores the serious sacrifice that all international students make when choosing to study here. Many take out big loans and uproot their lives, sometimes spending years without going home. They invest heavily — both economically and emotionally — in this country and in the path to freedom and opportunity offered to them. When America chooses to invest in us, it too can reap the rewards of a society that is more culturally inclusive and more representative of the world. Companies, schools, hospitals and other institutions can thrive with this kind of inclusivity, because as the rest of the world moves closer together, America must follow suit to stay competitive. The U.S. must also respect a struggle that many make; it is one not fueled by greed but by a willingness and a drive to be part of America’s pursuit for prosperity.

So while the Trump administration may restrict visas and implement travel bans, America is stronger when it keeps its arms open to foreigners who make the world stronger when they try to break down the geographical barriers to success. America really can be the land of the free. Not necessarily because of the laws or the government, but largely because of the opportunity it presents to everyone willing to work hard and embrace democratic values. We respect that and, make no mistake, are incredibly grateful for it. I have scores of friends terrified at the thought of having to leave, and I share their anxiety. However, to them and other internationals who feel uneasy at the trajectory of this nation, it’s clear that now more than ever before, those who are foreign must not be put off by the anti-globalist rhetoric being thrown about. If anything, it amplifies our mission to be successful and to be heard.

Eish Sumra is a Medill senior and the co-president of the International Student Association. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.