Shortly after arriving in the US in late May for a month of business and personal visits, after two-and-a-half years of limited international travel, I noticed an unusual message on my Facebook feed. A US international recruitment colleague questioned his professional raison d’être.
He posted: “It is days like today in the USA when I have an internal ethical struggle with my job … the job I’ve had for 20+ years … the job I love and find so rewarding … the job that has shown me the world and taught me so much about life – outreaching to and recruiting international students to come to this country for a powerful educational experience and a valuable higher education degree.
“I feel guilty sometimes, working with students and families in their pursuit to come to America to experience our culture. Why would anyone want to come here right now? We have some major issues to work out as a society and as a country that the entire world is watching closely.”
I instinctively entered ‘shooting’ in Google and quickly discovered what my colleague was agonising over: the Texas elementary school shooting that snuffed out the lives of 19 children and two teachers and wounded 17 others. I admired his willingness to share this soul-searching angst with the world and post what many international educators in the US have been thinking and discussing behind closed doors.
Along with expressions of empathy, solidarity and a broken heart emoji, some well-intentioned comments embodied the usual moral equivalence arguments trotted out after these tragedies along the lines of “every country has its problems”, as if mass murder with assault rifles is a regular occurrence throughout the world. The “internal ethical struggle” refers to what many of us in the profession are selling, ie, study in the US.
As of early July, the US has the distinction of having recorded 314 mass shootings, with at least four injuries or deaths since the beginning of the year, according to the non-profit Gun Violence Archive. The US is number one among its peer countries in this unenviable category.
There are more than 400 million guns in a population of 332 million. This includes 20 million AR-15 rifles, the weapon of choice for many mass shooters, an increase of 11.5 million since a federal assault weapons ban was lifted in 2004.
A cult of death
In a press conference after the April 2022 subway shooting in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, New York City, mayor Eric Adams referred to the epidemic of violence as an American problem, noting that “it is going to take the entire nation to speak out and push back against a cult of death that has taken hold in this nation. A cult that allows innocence to be sacrificed on a daily basis.”
In his anguish and sadness, our colleague asked a literally existential question that many parents and, increasingly, students, are asking themselves, in some countries more than others. What kind of society and situation are we sending students to? What if, God forbid, they were to become victims of the US’s never-ending orgy of gun violence?
Here’s a powerful example from LinkedIn: “As you know, we talk with students around the world daily. We saw COVID thru student conversations in Dec 2019. And we see students bypassing the US because of gun violence. It had been their parents and the Chinese Govt beating the drum but, after recent events, the students, themselves, are frightened.”
A tarnished but viable brand
The US has long been perceived by parents and students as an unsafe country, even in the days before the escalation in the number of mass shootings. In 2019, World Education Services surveyed international students and recent graduates. The result was that nearly 40% said they were anxious about gun violence, on campus or in the local community.
Yet, they continue to come. It is a reality that they factor into their overall cost-benefit analysis. In other words, the violence associated with the US doesn’t come as a surprise. The broader SWOT analysis is constantly changing, and gun violence is only one of many factors that influence the decision-making process of parents and students.
For Asian students, who comprise the majority of US-bound international students, anti-Asian violence in the US has most certainly been part of that analysis. Questions and concerns among Vietnamese parents and students about violence in the US have ebbed and flowed with the latest news cycle.
Yet, while gun violence and other societal problems have damaged the US ‘brand’, the reality is that many international students still want to study there. They are aware of the mass shooting du jour, which receives same-day coverage in the local media, but tend to view them as isolated incidents. They are also determined not to let these periodic tragedies stand in the way of their dream.
In a recent article entitled ‘Vietnamese students in US petrified by gun violence’, one student stated directly: “I can’t let [fear of gun violence] get in the way of my dream of studying abroad.”
Another student, who is in Texas, an open-carry state that ranks second in Vietnamese student enrollment in the US, said: “I pray for myself every day, but gun violence will not deter me from pursuing my dream.”
A Vietnamese father, who plans to send his two sons, 12 and 11, to study in Orange County, California, in the next two years, mentioned the quality of the US education and the fact that every country has its disadvantages.
Students adapt to unusual circumstances by not venturing out alone at night, being on high alert when in public places and letting loved ones know where they are, among other measures.
Is a tipping point on the horizon?
For the 17 years that I have worked in this field in Vietnam, I have closely followed trends related to overseas study, including study in the US, the world’s third-leading host country and leading English-speaking destination for Vietnamese students.
Increasingly, I have alluded to a tipping point, which has sparked the curiosity of some US colleagues, defined as “the point at which a series of small changes or incidents becomes significant enough to cause a larger, more important change”.
In this case, the “more important change” is a steady decrease in the number of international students who choose to study in the US.
“Small changes or incidents” are a series of actions, events and policies, the cumulative effect of which is to discourage international students from considering the US as an overseas study destination – to the benefit of competitor countries. This problem is compounded by the unprecedented competition the US faces in virtually every market and the absence of a comprehensive national strategy.
Time will tell whether the US is able to dodge the bullet on this issue, pardon the spot-on but nasty pun. The 4th of July mass shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, in which seven people were fatally shot, 46 others injured by gunfire, one toddler was orphaned and panic resulted, has upped the ante.
As with the recent Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v Wade, not all states are created equal. Some have a much higher firearm mortality rate than others, which could end up being an advantage for the latter. One harbinger of this was the preference of some international students for blue over red states during the Trump era.
On the bright side, there are about 250,000 young Vietnamese studying overseas, of whom 213,291, or 85% of the total, are in the top 10 host countries, in descending order, of South Korea, Japan, the US, Taiwan, Australia, Canada, China, Germany, France and Russia. As of May 2022, nearly 24,000 were in the US, mostly at colleges and universities, making Vietnam the sixth-largest sending country after Brazil, followed by Taiwan.
Plenty of positives
Gun violence in the US is not a problem that is going to disappear overnight. It is for that reason that US colleagues should formulate and provide well-thought-out answers to related questions that are both sensitive and informative.
There are still plenty of positives to talk about without minimising or glossing over the national nightmare that is mass shootings. It is neither money nor the opportunity to travel but rather the ‘powerful educational experience’ and ‘valuable higher education degree’ that our colleague highlighted.
I am helping young Vietnamese prepare for and take full advantage of a potentially life-changing experience, one that I first experienced decades ago, regardless of whether they choose to remain abroad or return to Vietnam.
The US is a vast country. In spite of its seemingly intractable problems, including gun violence, I know there are many safe communities with kind and caring colleagues who are welcoming and take good care of Vietnamese and other international students.
In fact, when speaking with prospective partners, I always inquire about issues related to personal safety, tolerance and openness on campus and in the local community.
This is what keeps me in the game. If I didn’t believe in the work and find it to be richly rewarding, I would walk away in a heartbeat.
This essay first appeared in University World News.