New US executive order causes issues for higher education

By Walt Wiltschek

HARRISONBURG, Virginia (Mennonite Church USA / Mennonite Education Agency) — The recent executive order temporarily banning entry from seven Muslim-majority countries has been having widespread effects, including for institutions of higher education. Several Mennonite colleges and universities have already reported impacts from the federal action, though the long-term results of the ban are still unclear.

Dave Osborne, director of international admissions at Hesston (Kansas) College, says that Hesston does not currently have any students from the seven countries included in the order, but the ban could affect future plans.

“The impact will be felt in our recruitment of new students for fall 2017 and beyond,” Osborne said. “For example, we have one Sudanese citizen, a Muslim, who has been admitted for fall 2017. If the Suspension of Issuance of Visas is extended past 90 days, she will be unable to obtain a student visa.”

“The larger issue for our recruitment of new Muslim students from any country in the world is now one of perception,” he added. “Regardless of country of citizenship, the U.S. may now be perceived by prospective Muslim students as unfriendly, unwelcoming, even discriminatory.”

Skip Barnett, international student advisor at Goshen (Indiana) College, says Goshen currently has just two students from the affected countries, one of them now a US citizen. Barnett has reached out to both students, connecting them with international student services, counseling services and other resources on campus.

The largest immediate impacts, however, are being felt at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in Harrisonburg, Virginia, which has 18 students originating from the seven countries who are currently enrolled—including two who are directly affected by the new order—plus others who may have family in those countries. The extensive international connections of EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP), Center for Interfaith Engagement (which has a longstanding exchange program with Iran) and other programs are also feeling the effects.

“It could affect our program pretty seriously, considering we typically get several people from at least three to four of those countries each year,” said Bill Goldberg, director of the CJP Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI) at EMU. “We really have no clue yet how much effect this is going to have, but it definitely affects the diversity of people we get here as well as our overall numbers.”

Goldberg said five people from the banned countries had already applied fully for SPI this year, two of whom are already in the US for other CJP programs. Many students who apply through Mennonite Central Committee connections don’t do so until February, though, he said, including significant numbers from Syria and Iraq. In the past five years, Goldberg estimates that 40 people from the banned countries have attended SPI to learn peacebuilding techniques, many attending multiple sessions.

Citizens of the affected countries cannot even apply for a visa during the 90-day ban period, he said. The visa waiver interview program has been suspended as part of the order, too, meaning that people who are renewing a visa to visit the US have to go through the full interview process again. In the past, those who had received a visa previously could follow an easier, streamlined process for renewal.

Even if the ban ends as currently scheduled on April 27, that is less than two weeks before this year’s SPI programs are set to begin—making it impossible for anyone affected to complete the process in time.

“It has us all in a confused state,” Goldberg said. “We’re doing what we can at the moment.”

That includes creating a list of frequently asked questions for students and providing advice. EMU’s administration planned to reach out to Virginia’s senators and representatives and has also been connecting with colleagues at nearby James Madison University.

A statement issued Monday by EMU president Susan Huxman Schultz and provost Fred Kniss said: “This sweeping new order appears to collide with our mission ‘to prepare students to serve and lead in a global context.’” They noted that staff have reached out to each international student and would continue to monitor the situation.

“Each one of our four shared values at EMU—Christian discipleship, community, service and peacebuilding—is put to the test by this executive order,” the statement said. “So too is our collective work to ‘welcome the stranger’ as Jesus called us to do.”

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