By Saki Yoshizawa
Northwest Asian Weekly
The University of Washington (UW) is seeing fewer applications from international students, especially from China, for the 2021 freshman class.
International students currently compose 15.6% of all enrolled students at the UW. Although there was a 16% decrease in international student enrollment for fall 2020 among higher education institutions in the United States, according to a report from the Institute of International Education, the UW saw only a 4% decrease in international student enrollment.
As of fall quarter 2020, there were 4,135 Chinese enrolled students—making up 53% of all enrolled international students at the UW. When comparing the number of enrolled Chinese students in fall 2019 and fall 2020, there are no significant differences.
“Right now, we are in the middle of looking at the application for this coming year’s 2021 freshman class and I know we have seen a decline in the number of applications that we have received from international students,” Kim Lovaas, director of international student services at the UW, said. “When I look at comparing countries from last year’s applicant pool to this year’s, China is the biggest area that we are seeing a decline.”
Still, the UW has been receiving so many applications from China compared to applications from other countries. Therefore, when it comes to recruitment and outreach, China has never been a focus for the international student admission office.
“Chinese students still make up over 50% of our international freshmen so we are not quite to the point where it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, we had better recruiting there again,’” Lovaas said.
“I think four years of being under the administration that really was trying to make things more difficult for international students and particularly China… there is a lot of negative rhetoric that has influenced Chinese students, particularly future students,” said Lovaas.
Under the Trump administration, Chinese students have faced multiple threats: plans to bar Chinese graduate students who have ties to China’s military schools; the increased suspicion of Chinese students for espionage; and a proposal to cancel visas of STEM major Chinese graduate students.
When the pandemic began, discrimination towards Chinese people exacerbated in the U.S. and anti-Asian racism became rampant.
“International students began to feel the effects of the COVID-19 before the COVID even got here in the U.S.,” Era Schrepfer, executive director of Foundation for International Understanding Through Students at the UW, said. “I was hearing from Asian students that their parents were telling them to wear a mask and it was before the U.S. began wearing a mask.
“People were calling them out in the streets like, ‘You shouldn’t wear a mask! You are scaring people!’ or yelling really mean things about where the virus is coming from,” Schrepfer said.
The questioning that comes from wearing masks also happened in classrooms at the UW.
“When I heard that Seattle had the first COVID-19 case, immediately I started buying masks and I started wearing one to school,” Shenlan Guan, an undergraduate Chinese student said. “Most of the people, including a professor and all of the classmates were like, ‘Why would I wear a mask?’ so I tried to convince them by saying, ‘Look at all the research that China did.’” “They were like ‘China?’ ‘If it’s China, it’s not reliable.’”
“I was like, ‘Oh my god!’ This is what I worked so hard and came here for? I was really, really disappointed. Now, my feelings are just like I just wanna finish this (degree) and go home,” Guan said.
“There had been some damage based on the previous administration and their stance on China, so I do think that the U.S. in general needs to improve our reputation around the globe a little bit,” Lovaas said.
“We can try, but we can’t do it all. So, it’s not going to be just the UW to attract Chinese students to come back.”
UW leadership is working with all of the faculty to increase their understanding of cultural differences and improve some compassion for students from different places.
When Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released a policy that would kick out international students in the U.S., who are not taking in-person classes, the UW proposed hybrid classes for fall 2020 so that they could remain in the country.
After the policy was rescinded, UW President Ana Mari Cauce showed her support to the international students while condemning the threat that ICE posed to them.
“Some students decided to do online classes and some universities didn’t allow them to stay in resident halls, but the UW did allow students to stay and kept the resident halls open,” Schrepher said. She thinks the UW’s different responses to the pandemic is one of the reasons that there was no significant decline in the number of enrolled international students for fall 2020.
Saki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.