International Students Creating an American Legacy - Higher Education
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International Students Creating an American Legacy

by Marjorie Zatz

Wednesday marks the third annual “I Stand with Immigrants College and University Day of Action.” This is especially profound as I reflect on the hallmark of American higher education: the unique combination of openness to all, promotion of new ideas and emphasis on critical thinking.

These values built the most robust and dynamic system of higher education in the world and made America a leader in an already-established international community. It’s important that we continue to recognize the countless contributions of immigrants and support and advocate for fairness in all of our dealings with those who would be part of the fabric of this country.

Instrumental to this academic achievement has been the inclusion of international students and scholars who come here to learn. These young people add to the collective fabric of our communities with their history, perspectives and dedication to achievement.

Unfortunately, recent anti-immigrant, anti-scientific rhetoric coming from the highest echelons of the U.S. government have caused prospective international students to doubt our commitment to opportunity for all — a key ideal in our nation’s founding.

Dr. Marjorie Zatz

These negative trends run counter to the truth that just as international students benefit from participating in our academic institutions, so to do our communities, campuses, industries and research institutions benefit from welcoming international students into our classrooms.

International students compose only 5 percent of U.S. college enrollment, yet they contribute nearly $37 billion annually to our economy and support more than 450,000 jobs. Breaking it down even further, the nearly 157,000 international students enrolled in California higher education institutions contribute $6 billion to the state’s economy and support more than 70,000 jobs for Californians.

At University of California at Merced (UC Merced), international students compose 37 percent of our graduate student body. Every day I see and interact with students from around the globe who are inventing, discovering and improving the world we all occupy together. Many of our recent Ph.D. graduates are proof of the contributions international students make to our country and society.

Chenji Gu traveled from his hometown near Shanghai to study with physics Professor Jay Sharping. Gu worked on a measurement system to characterize ultra-short optical pulses and earned his Ph.D. in 2012. As a senior engineer at Lumentum, he is now creating innovative optical and photonic products.

Silin Sa worked with Professor Kara McCloskey on cardiac stem cell differentiation from embryonic stem cells and earned her doctorate in Biological Engineering and Small-scale Technologies in 2013. Sa, who is also from China, performs cutting-edge research in a pulmonary vascular lab at Stanford University as a senior scientist for New Jersey-based BD Medical Devices.

Another shining example is Maryam Tabatabaeian, from Iran, who studied the dynamics of decision making as it projects into human actions while earning her doctorate in Cognitive & Information Sciences at UC Merced. Now a data scientist at Cisco Systems, she’s designed an experiment and algorithm to accurately predict human decision based merely on mouse-movement patterns.

There are numerous other examples of how our international students are contributing to California, the nation and the world.

Our nation’s history and our experience at UC Merced shows us that international students and immigrants help move America’s legacy of innovation forward. Nearly one-quarter of the leaders of startup companies valued at $1 billion or more first came to America as international students. In 2016, all six American winners of the Nobel Prize had been international students at U.S. colleges, and since 2000, nearly 40 percent of Nobel prizes in chemistry, medicine and physics have been won by American immigrants.

While these data points are an impressive demonstration of how international students directly benefit the United States, they by no means encompass the full scope of ways international students affect our nation for the better. Less tangible, but just as important, are the diverse perspectives these individuals share with their academic and social communities — enriching the lives of their fellow students and faculty and contributing to the strength of the institutions they attend.

Beyond their contributions to our knowledge-based innovation economy, international students put a human face on the world beyond our borders. Through daily interactions with their peers, they share a discipline and dedication to learning, and they develop the kind of mutual understanding that can only come from shared experiences.

International students learn about the best of America by studying side-by-side with our students from cities, towns and rural communities in the Central Valley and throughout California — inspiring global interconnectedness and making international education the perfect incubator for diplomacy. Furthermore, knowledge of American culture and our political and social structures serves a diplomatic as well as educational function.

By welcoming international students to our campuses, we are creating opportunities to tell the American story to the world — through the eyes and experiences of young people learning, living and growing together.

I urge you to stand in solidarity with immigrants in this country and call on our elected officials in Washington, D.C., and beyond to recognize the tremendous value of our international students, to encourage and support their studies in the U.S., and to enact just laws that afford a full place in our society, our economy and our democracy for everyone.

Dr. Marjorie Zatz is the vice provost and dean of Graduate Education and sociology professor at UC Merced. Her research and teaching interests address the ways in which race, ethnicity and gender affect juvenile and criminal court processing and sanctioning, immigration policy, Chicano/a gangs and comparative justice, particularly Latin American legal systems.

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