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Universities must stand with international students

Credit: Paola Mathus/ Credit: Paola Mathus/

Students with non-western sounding Asian names were targeted last week at Columbia University as vandals ripped the name tags off their doors. This happened in the wake of the Lunar New Year, a celebration welcoming the new year for the East Asian community. While the act itself might seem small, it’s enough to send a message of exclusion to the students targeted —one that has been echoed by President Donald Trump not only in current legislation, but in his campaign rhetoric.

It’s no secret that since Trump became a prominent figure in the political arena, people have become more emboldened in their beliefs. He’s given people that are self proclaimed “not-racists” the comfort of knowing that they’re not alone in wanting the country to go back to a time of little diversity. While the idea of “I’m not racist, but” has always been a prominent one in this country, he put that idea back into the White House and introduced legislation that’s not “meant to be racist,” but conveniently only targets certain groups of people.

Even small acts of prejudice make a loud statement in a time where Trump has set a precedent for a president to exclude immigrants based on religion. In this case, while it may seem silly to target something as trivial as a door tag, it’s just loud enough to send a message of exclusion. Racism isn’t as prominent as calling someone a derogatory term to their face anymore. It’s silent, but the silent acts of racism are the ones that seem the loudest. These are the things that don’t necessarily give the racist act a name and a face, but create a presence of racism which is arguably more intimidating than having someone outright say insulting things. It creates an environment in which racism is something that a lot of people are thinking, but no one wants to admit to, which doesn’t make it any more acceptable. In fact, it’s almost more frightening to know that Americans still have these secret, racist thoughts that surface through acts like this.

Xenophobia is almost as deeply rooted in this country as immigration is. However, despite what Trump would want us to believe, it’s not okay to belittle and erase people because you don’t want them in “your country.” Whether the students targeted at Columbia were from America or not, that doesn’t change the fact that they are people and deserve to be respected as such. Acts like these also create a divide between Asian and Asian-American students by showing that as long as you appear western you’re safe from scrutiny.

The fact that these vandals targeted only non-western sounding names also brings up ideas of how it is acceptable to have a heritage outside of the “American culture” as long as you assimilate to “American culture.” The idea that it’s okay to not be from America as long as, once you get here, you walk, talk, and act “American” is deeply flawed. There is no right or wrong way to be an American. We’ve always been called a melting pot of different cultures and ethnicities. You shouldn’t have to erase your own culture to be considered an American. Just because someone holds onto the culture and heritage of another country does not make them disqualified from being granted the same liberties that are supposed to be granted to American citizens.

The main critique for allowing immigrants into the United States is the claim that they take away jobs from Americans, but often overlooked is what immigrants bring to America. Many of them come here for education and America is able to reap the benefits of their knowledge and success. These students at Columbia have something to offer that could enhance the world, so what does it say that one of their fellow students has made them feel unwanted?

Carnegie Mellon and Columbia have a lot in common. In addition to being top-tier universities, both have a substantial international population that defines the experience for students at these schools. Our international students have always been assets, whether it’s their presence as a teaching assistant in an introductory course or their presence in one of Carnegie Mellon’s many research labs. It’s up to not only us as students to stand up and assert their right to be here, but it’s also up to the school’s administration to do so as well. Administrations must be there to support, protect, and stand up for their students.

Columbia and Carnegie Mellon are both also members of the Association of American Universities (AAU). Following the travel ban, the AAU released a petition calling for the termination of the ban in defense of the the international students represented by the 62 research universities that are a part of the organization. The AAU has three main reasons for supporting an end to the travel ban. The first is that it is discriminatory for only targeting certain countries and only people of certain religions from those countries. The second is that it is “detrimental to the national interests of the United States” because it limits the applicant pool for all of the institutions of higher learning in the United States. The last is because it places an unfair burden on the international students at AAU schools. This collective group of institutions recognizes that people come from all over the world to share their talents with us here in the United States and we need to make sure that nothing infringes on their abilities to pursue their education.

When acts of prejudice as outright as this happen at the type of school that’s supposed to be open to international students, it could send the talent that prospective international students have to offer elsewhere. In addition to recognizing that these students bring an immeasurable amount of talent to the United States, the AAU also recognizes that these students are people and that even if they aren’t participating in groundbreaking research or projects, they still deserve to feel like they belong in their academic communities.

An immigrant doesn’t have to be the next Albert Einstein to feel like they belong or add value to this country. While we don’t doubt that the students at Columbia will go on to do extraordinary things, they shouldn’t have to prove that they belong here by adopting western sounding names and abandoning their culture. We can’t let the rhetoric Trump has been preaching allow us to be complacent to random acts of prejudice that occur. We must be more vigilant now than ever. Just because someone who looks the other way on this type of behavior is now our president doesn’t mean that we can also just ignore these things. Trump and many other Americans wanting to go back to a time when diversity was scarce and America was “great” doesn’t mean that we can’t still hold them to the current standards for xenophobia.

If the rest of the country won’t stand with international students, then we as a campus community, along with universities everywhere, must stand together and protect our international classmates. They did not come here to ruin this country as Trump would like us to believe. They come here to advance not only our academics as a university, but to pursue the American dream promised to everyone that travels here, no matter what country they come from.