How Safe do International Students view your Campus?

How Safe do International Students view your Campus?

Jason E. Lane
State University of New York, Albany

During 2009, a series of alleged hate crimes occurred in Australia against students studying abroad from India. The attacks attracted the attention of the Australian and Indian media, with stories increasingly suggesting that Australia was no longer a safe place for Indians to study abroad. The widely reported result was a precipitous decline in the number of Indian students pursuing their studies in Australia. In fact, one report found that the number of Indian students studying in Australia fell from 34,200 in 2007-2008 to 9,750 in 2011-2012.

For a nation where international students make up the largest proportion of collegiate enrollments in the world and for whom education is the leading service export, the result was significant. The shrinking number of students resulted in the closing of several foreign language institutes (heavily dependent on those enrollments); the shrinking of university budgets; and reduction in the overall export value of the sector. For example, in the state of Victoria where many of the incidents occurred, the export contribution of international students fell from more than $5 billion in 2009-2010 to $4.4 billion in 2011-2012.

The reality of the situation is far more complicated. An investigation by the Indian government concluded that only 23 of the 152 reported incidents involved “racial overtones.” Moreover, a report by the Australian Institute of Criminology concluded that between 2005 and 2009, international students in Australia were less likely to be assaulted than the average person in Australia. And, while the assault rate of Indian students in some jurisdictions was equivalent to that of the average of Australia, the overall assault rate of Indian students across the nation was also lower than average.

But, the damage had already been done.

In fact, there appears to have been a significant increase in the level of concern about the safety of international study According to research by the British Council, safety is now one of the top five concerns among international students influencing their choice of destination. Only six years ago, safety barely made the list of their concerns, ranking 17 out of 19.

For the most part, the United States retains a reputation as one of the safest destinations in the world.

Another report by the British Council, with the online student forum The Student Room, found mixed reviews about the safety of the United States among their 160,000 student respondents. The United States received the third most votes for being the safest destination. However, it also received the third most votes for being the least safe destination. The report indicated that the divided opinion “was based on concerns about relatively relaxed gun laws, offset by its multicultural society and high police presence.”

The heightened concern about safety means that the media, particularly overseas, more readily report on attacks on international students. In fact, the United States drew a lot of attention last spring over the Boston bombings. Not only was this a significant event of domestic terror, but one international student ended up dead and three others significantly hurt. Two of the students were from China, including the one who was killed. The other two were from Saudi Arabia and one was misidentified by the media as a suspect, leading the Saudi Arabian embassy to state : “We’re concerned about the backlash against students based on a false story.”

Safety concerns captured diplomatic attention on the other side of the country as well. In September of this year, the Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China in Los Angeles sponsored a series of lectures at the University of California, UC-Irvine, and UCLA. The topic: safety of Chinese students in the United States. More than 200 students attended the first engagement, held at USC.

A year and a half before the lecture, two graduate students from China were shot and killed while riding in a friend’s car near the USC campus. The cops believed itwas a botched robbery or carjacking attempt; regardless, it cut short the lives of two students, both of whom happened to be from China.

Like the situation in Australia, the issue in the United States is far more complicated than it appears on the surface. Even Secretary of State John Kerry joined the confusion last spring when he reported that Japanese officials told him that the decline in the number of students from Japan studying in the United States was a result of concern over gun violence. It was a timely political quip that did not paint a full picture, as a fact checker from the Washington Post quickly pointed out. Nonetheless, it also indicated that concern about international student safety has emerged as a diplomatic talking point with at least one of the nation’s allies.

Why bring this topic up with readers of Developments? The truth is that there is not much we can do to immediately change the broader beliefs held about the safety of international students in the United States. But, student affairs professionals should be aware of these concerns and be proactive in helping ensure that students have the tools necessary to take responsibility for their personal safety.

  • Recruitment: Recruiters should be prepared to answer questions about campus safety. Even though the United States is a large and geographically diverse country, many people from outside of the United States see the country as one large entity. Thus, whatever happens in Boston or LA or Chicago gets aggregated into one large perception about safety in the United States. Recruiters and recruiting materials may have to help prospective students understand the level of safety on their campus and how the campus is working to ensure that international students are safe while pursuing their studies.
  • Orientation: If not already, the topic of personal safety should be part of new student orientation. Student safety seminars should take into account that international students do not often have the same basic level of knowledge about the law enforcement, legal protections, and how to handle local situations that threaten personal safety. In fact, many come from countries where culture and regulations dictate different types of reactions to such situations than what is expected in the United States. As such, student affairs professionals may consider an extra level of outreach and education to international students.
  • Ongoing Educational Programming: Those who have traveled abroad have likely wondered if they are in a safe neighborhood; how diligent they have to be in protecting their purse; or what would they do if someone were to threaten their safety. International students often wonder the same thing. In some cases, they have an extra level of security, living in a residence hall and having the standard support provided by a college campus. On the other hand, that added protection could also lure them into a sense of false confidence about the safety of certain activities or surrounding neighborhoods. Student affairs professionals should be proactive in helping international students take responsibility for their personal safety.

One of the most important challenges for student affairs administrators will be to balance support for individual independence against the need to ensure that students remain safe. College is about advancing personal growth, awareness, and responsibility. Concerns about safety can prompt us toward wanting to protect students entirely from any risks that might exist; but this approach also fails to teach students about how to deal with such situations when they do eventually encounter them.

The goal of student affairs practitioners should be to remain educated about local safety concerns, to be able to provide an accurate picture of safety to students and family, and to help students take personal responsibility for ensuring their own safety during the studies and beyond.

Discussion Questions

  1. Are there any concerns, real or perceived, about international student safety on your campus?
  2. Has there been a discussion on your campus about international student safety? If not, should there be and who should be involved in such a convening?
  3. Do current personal safety courses provide opportunity for those from a different country and/or culture to be oriented to issues that could be taken from granted by domestic students?

About the Author

Jason E. Lane is Associate Vice Chancellor and Associate Provost for Academic Program and Planning for the State University of New York as well as Deputy Director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government, associate professor (on leave) of educational administration and policy studies, and a senior researcher with the Institute for Global Education Policy Studies at the State University of New York, Albany. He has been a member of the governing boards of the Comparative and International Education Society and the Council for International Higher Education and is an Associate of the International Association of Universities. His most recent books include “Multi-National Colleges and Universities: Leading, Governing, and Managing International Branch Campuses” (2010, Jossey-Bass); “Universities and Colleges as Economic Drivers” (2012, SUNY Press) and “Academic Governance and Leadership in Higher Education” (2013, Stylus Press).

Please e-mail inquiries to Jason E. Lane.

Follow Jason Lane on Twitter @ProfJasonLane.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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