Episode 11 | Are International Students Really a Good Thing? October 17, 2021


GUEST: Dr. Rajika Bhandari, Author, America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility

Should U.S. colleges and universities be encouraging more international students to fill their seats? Or, should U.S. residents be prioritized? Dr. Rajika Bhandari joins us to talk about the shifting political and public sentiments that have influenced the way we think about international students – and immigrants – and the value they bring to America’s overall success. A former international student, Bhandari’s latest book, “America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility,” is a story about her experiences, as well as an insightful analysis about why international students are so important to America’s future.


An author, a first-generation immigrant, and Indian American, Dr. Rajika Bhandari is an international higher education expert and a scholar-practitioner with more than 25 years of executive and management experience. She came to the United States in 1992 as an international student in pursuit of a doctorate in psychology. She has since become a mentor to young professionals and is a leader in the study of access and equity to education. She founded Rajika Bhandari Advisors to offer strategic consulting to higher education institutions, nonprofits, multilateral organizations, and governmental agencies.


Rajika Bhandari Advisors

America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility

The Karma of Brown Folk

Rajika Bhandari and Brad Phillips screenshot

Full Transcript


Rajika Bhandari boarded a flight from Delhi, India to Raleigh, North Carolina in 1992, where she would pursue a Ph.D. in psychology. From the moment she landed in the United States, she experienced a disorienting culture shock. While riding from the airport to her new apartment, she was so confused by the relative quiet of Raleigh’s downtown area that she concluded she must have arrived on a national holiday. The lecture halls, where she was to serve as a teaching assistant, didn’t have an authoritarian-like professor in front of the room, like those she was used to in India, but rather profs who encouraged discussion and collaboration. And then there was that time she received looks of horror from her dining companions when she asked a waitress for some ketchup to put on her pizza.

Rajika’s story is, of course, her own – but the more than one million international students attending America’s colleges and universities this year almost certainly have their own fish-out-of-water stories. Sometimes, those stories are benign, like putting the wrong condiment on a food. Other times, they’re more consequential, such as when international students become confronted by harmful stereotypes, ignorance, or even straight-out racism.

There’s no doubt that international students, like Rajika, bring tremendous value to the United States. As one example, NAFSA, Association of International Educators, released data late last year showing that the more than one million international students at U.S. colleges and universities during the 2019-2020 academic year contributed, listen to this, $38.7 billion to the U.S. economy.

But, like everything in life, questions related to international students can quickly become complicated.

Toni Atkins, a Democrat who today serves as Leader of the California Senate, had this to say to the Wall Street Journal in 2016 when she was an assemblywoman from San Diego:


“The biggest feedback that I get is from regular California families who are saying, ‘my kids can’t get in. My grandkids can’t get in.’ I hear it every single day in my district in San Diego. If a student from China has better access to the UC system than someone from Chinatown, you know, that’s a little disturbing.”


She’s far from alone in raising that question of how many seats going to international students are too many. And that question is complicated, too, as colleges and universities often receive full tuition from international students, which helps their financial bottom lines and frees up resources to subsidize tuitions for American students.

And then, there’s a different question: Should we prioritize students from certain countries over others? Should we emphasize certain fields of study, ones that are of quote-unquote higher value than others? And should we consider the possibility, as some have suggested, that some students may be national security threats, Trojan horses sent to the United States to steal valuable information for their governments? Here’s Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, on Fox News last year.


“It’s a scandal to me that we have trained so many of the Chinese Communist Party’s brightest minds to go back to China to compete for our jobs, to take our business, and ultimately, to steal our property and design weapons and other devices that can be used against the American people. So, I think we need to take a very hard look at the visas we give to Chinese nationals to come to the United States to study, especially at the post-graduate level in advanced scientific and technological fields. You know, if Chinese students want to come here and study Shakespeare and The Federalist Papers, that’s what they need to learn from America.”


That kind of tough – and some might say offensive talk – has many supporters. But it also comes at a steep price. International student enrollment has declined for four straight years – costing the U.S. an estimated 42,000 jobs and $1.8 billion as students decided to take their studies to more welcoming nations. As NAFSA Executive Director and CEO Dr. Esther D. Brimmer, said: “For the past four years international students and scholars have had to endure travel bans, executive orders, detrimental regulatory actions and xenophobic rhetoric from the highest levels of U.S. government.”

So, what are the costs of failing to embrace international students? Are we driving away tomorrow’s top talent, business leaders, innovators, and scientists, many of whom would have remained in the United States upon graduation? And, even if we are driving them away, how much should we really care?

Dr. Rajika Bhandari is my guest today. But, she’s not just here to talk about her experience as an international student, because today, she’s known as one of the world’s top experts on international student exchange. Among other roles, she was responsible for the Institute of International Education’s flagship Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange – the most definitive resource on international students and scholars at U.S. colleges and universities and Americans studying abroad. Plus, she’s the author of a truly wonderful new book that’s as much personal memoir as it is a policy prescription, “America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility.



Rajika I am so happy to have you here. As I told you, when I asked you to appear on the podcast, your book is such a lovely balance between the personal and the policy. And in many ways, the personal story gave such additional relevance to the policy. I thought you balanced that beautifully. And I thought we would have a conversation about both of those things, maybe half on your personal story, and then half on the policy part of the story, which kind of matches the sequence of your book. I thought the place to start was with your family, because it seemed in reading your book that both of your parents and other members of your family really emphasize the importance of education. Your father, these are my words, not yours, almost seemed to have a lack of sentimentality about sending his daughter overseas. It was kind of like, this is the thing that you have to do in order to achieve your potential. So go do it. And your mother had a really interesting story, too. I’ll let you tell it. But, she was 27 years old and did something that very few Indian women at that time in the 1970s did. So maybe you could just start there with your background and your parents and how all of that contributed to your love of learning and your ultimate career in the education field.


That’s a good beginning point. I’ll say that, as you summarized it earlier, growing up for me, it was very clear that there was this huge premium placed on an education. And even though we didn’t, by any means, come from a wealthy family, the idea was that there was real social capital to be gained in obtaining a good education. And, that a good education could really be your ticket to a successful future, no matter what. So, that was a message that was very clear to me. I would say it was very clear to many in my generation growing up in India and I would argue even, since then, and, I’m going to generalize here, but I think it’s a fair generalization that it’s almost a cultural value that we see in many Asian cultures, certainly back in Asian countries, but also amongst Asian American immigrants.

I certainly grew up with that ethos, but at the same time, it was never that a quality education came easily for my family. There were certainly some opportunities that were easier, but, for example, in my mother’s case, as I shared in the book, she came from very much of a working-class family, yet one which had the aspiration for a better future for their children through education. So, my grandfather took, and this the story is sort of a legend in our family, how he took my mother and her brother – and they were very close in age – along to an entrance exam for one of India’s most elite boarding schools and both children cleared the exam. This was an entrance exam to obtain a scholarship. And this was the school’s way of trying to diversify its student body, most of which was extremely wealthy. And so, my grandfather was faced with the choice, and we’re talking about post-independence India in the fifties and most people would have imagined, of course, he’s going to pick the boy and send him to this very elite fabulous school, but he instead chose to send my mother. She says still today that that really altered the trajectory of her life, because it was not just about getting a degree and being educated in this very elite school, but it really gave her this sense of independence and opening her mind to possibilities, which she then had to act upon when she was actually quite young. And I think what you allude to when she was 27 is that this is again, India of the seventies, not very progressive, a fairly conservative society. And she found herself in a very unhappy marriage and chose to leave that marriage.

And the reason that this is noteworthy is that in those days, first off divorce was almost unheard of in modern Indian society and what was even quite rare, was for a woman to be the one to sort of initiate that and actually decide that she was going to leave a bad situation. And my mother often attributes her education, the idea of sort of being away from home and finding herself and that sense of independence that really led her to being able to make some of those choices. So, that tradition of education is very strong. It’s been very clear to me from the beginning that you aspire to the best education that your money can buy or that you can achieve in other ways.


Yeah. I thought it was quite funny in your book, how you told the story that other people would assume that your father left your mother, which would make her bristle. And she kind of wanted the world to know that she was the one who made that choice. I thought that was a kind of telling aside. I’m also curious if in your own family, you know anything about your grandfather and what led him to make that choice to send the girl instead of the boy,


I will be honest and say that I don’t know. To be quite honest, I don’t think that it was this idea of being highly progressive and supporting the idea of female empowerment and wanting to give her that opportunity and what that would mean for a girl. But the honest truth is that she was one of his favorite children.




So, he wanted to do present her with that opportunity. But I think that also sheds light on the fact that very often in life, we make these choices and it’s not until much later in life when you look back on those choices, you realize that the impact that they had, not just for that one individual who had that opportunity, but for the impact that it went on to have on subsequent generations as well. Because coincidentally enough, and I talk about this in the book, I ended up going to the same school that my mother went to, and that’s not something that would have happened had she not been there and realized the importance of a really high-quality education. And, actually, one of the points I wanted to make with the earlier question, which ties in with this, is the idea of sacrifice. So that’s the other idea that I grew up with. That not only is there a premium on education, but that families make the sacrifices they need to, to make sure that their child has that education. So, in my case, when it was my turn to get an education, my mother was living in a small town in India, which did not have very good schools. And she wanted something better for me. So, she sent me to the same school that she went to, and the reason I say it was a big sacrifice is that she was by herself. I’m an only child. And she had to make that sacrifice as a parent, that emotional sacrifice of sending me so far away from her.


Yes. Let’s talk about that being sent so far away or traveling. I believe 1992 when you leave Delhi to go to Raleigh, North Carolina. So, who were you in 1992? And what possessed you to get on that plane to North Carolina, which I imagine is very different from the environment you were used to up to that point in your life.


I will confess that the first thought that comes to my mind, and first and foremost, I will say I was a very naive 21-year-old. What I mean by that is even though I had been going to college in a very large city like Delhi, I was coming to the U.S. And, this is sort of an interesting, almost twist in my book that while in the largest sense, I talk about this aspiration that many students around the world have to come to the U S to study, one of the angles I also explore is the idea of the accidental, what I call the accidental international student. And that was actually my story. That I was, in fact, resisting the lure of America. As you said in the opening comments, that my father always wanted me to study in the U.S. It’s something I certainly knew of because many of my uncles had left to go do exactly that, but it’s not something I had initially wanted for myself, because there was this sense that, and sort of the phrase I use in the book is you become a fly trapped in American honey. That here is this land of incredible opportunity, and, from what I was observing, everybody who leaves never returns. And I did not want to be one of those people.

I resisted that idea for a long time, until I got involved in a relationship where my then-fiance was like many, many Indians before him and after having aspired to come to the U.S. to study, particularly in the science and technology fields. So, at that time, and as I say in the book, when my heart got involved, it actually became a very easy decision. I was like, okay, he’s going, I’m going. Check, check, check, do all the things I need to do. I need to take my admission tests. I need to get my visa and I’m getting on a plane and going. The naivete came from the fact that I was not, at that time, really thinking about the fact that what does this really mean in a larger sense. Yes, I’m going, but I was not dwelling a whole lot on how dramatically different the cultures are going to be, how different that classroom experience is going to be, that I’m landing in the American south, which to be quite honest, I did not quite know anything about not.

And I do think that even today, international students, for all that they are – the savvy consumers that they are – and with the internet, etcetera, I don’t know that they truly understand the shades of America and the diversity of the U.S. So, here I am in ’92. I’ve landed in Raleigh, North Carolina, and I still remember that feeling of driving from the airport, from RDU (Raleigh-Durham International Airport) to Raleigh and seeing what seemed like completely deserted streets to me and wondering has everyone got on a coordinated vacation?


Was there an alien invasion of some sort that snatched everybody?


(LAUGHS) Exactly. So that was me, sort of fairly naive and not realizing what a big shift this would be for me.


You use that phrase naivete, and I almost think that people benefit from that naivete, because if you knew how different, and in some ways difficult, it would have been, it probably would have prevented you from doing it at all. So, sometimes going in not knowing too much, I think actually helps to motivate the move and make it possible in the first place. In terms of landing in the American south, you told this story about you and your boyfriend at the time, Vikram, who became your fiance, is that right? And you went to rent an apartment in Raleigh. Could you just walk through that story of what happened when you walked in the door and met Pam?


So, we had just arrived. Or, rather I had just arrived and Vikram had already been living in the U.S. for a year prior to that. And we had to look for housing. And, again, I had never lived as an adult by myself before. Of course, I’d been in boarding school. I’d been away from home. I lived in the dorm at college, but I didn’t know what it meant to really rent your own place and what that entailed, etcetera. And we had a very well-meaning  American friend who took us along in his truck to this rental office. And it’s a very typical suburban apartment complex, like, you know, the thousands that dot the U.S., particularly around American campuses. And in my book, I use the phrase that they’re almost veritable ghettos of international students.

And what I mean by that is – of course, all this I observed later – that they tend to cluster in these places and live together. So, we get to the rental office, and we walk in. There’s this woman who I would, you know, these are all realizations that come later, sort of characterize with a very Southern persona, smiling and extremely charming. But at the same time, it was a very awkward interaction, because she kept speaking in a very loud voice and sort of really slowing down her speech.


Right. You have an accent and therefore you may not understand her. So, the fix for that, of course, is just talk louder.


Yes. Exactly. Much louder and very, very slowly. And, in that moment, I felt this overwhelming sense of, I would characterize it as this combination of shame, of really being the other, of being very foreign, because it suddenly hit me that this person knows nothing about me other than what she sees presented in front of her. I am a very clear visible foreign presence to her, brown skin with an accent and the same is also true. She was equally foreign to me with her Southern accent, which I was struggling with a great deal. So, it was a very interesting interaction where, in those moments, some of the thoughts rushing through my mind were how foreign I am, how alone I am, because we all have families behind us. Our families have a certain kind of support systems, social capital leverage, etcetera, some more than others, but that I had none of that because I had just left my family 10,000 miles away. They couldn’t be there to support me, even if they wanted to. And it was a feeling of being very alone.

And at the same time, our friend, or American friend who was with us, I could sense him shifting very uncomfortably in this chair because he can sense how this woman is talking down to us. And he knows better than to do that because he’s interacted with a lot of international students. So, it was an interesting dynamic and then sort of what I’ll end that with this is also this realization of how expensive everything is going to be. And so, we agree on the apartment and say, we’re going to rent it. And she’s like, okay, now, you know, you write your check for the deposit. And I write out the check and when I hold that check, and I look at the amount it, I gasp internally, because it’s the sense of signing away my life (LAUGHS), or suddenly realizing how much that one deposit can buy back in India. And in that moment, realizing really how expensive this idea of an American education is going to be.


Yes. There was something in your description of that moment with your interaction with Pam that I want to read, you wrote: ‘She did not know that Vikram came from an influential family in India, where everyone was either a lawyer, a doctor, or a senior civil servant, or that my mother was a professor of English literature and could probably teach Pam a thing or two about English or that both Vikram and I had been the two of India’s best private schools and two undergraduate colleges. But she did not, or would not know any of this, all she could see was our brown skin. And all she could hear were our strange accents.” I found that really moving. It contributes to that sense of loneliness you just described.
And I also, along similar lines, was really struck … not so much anymore, but for many years, wouldn’t miss an episode of the Simpsons … and Apu is one of the most well-known characters on that show in an Indian convenience store. I don’t know if he’s a clerk or the owner of that convenience store, but it’s a stereotypical, I guess you said East Indian accent. It became so controversial that Hank Azaria, the actor, the voice actor who plays Apu, recently said he would not do that character anymore and apologized for it. And I want to ask you about that because I think so much of the time when people hear stories like that, we’re not going to do the character of Apu anymore, a lot of people dismiss that as just politically correct or woke. Isn’t it harmless fun to do an exaggerated, hyperbolic accent? I was struck that at three different places in your book, you brought up the character of Apu. And I thought that says something that it had so much impact that you came back to him so many times. How come?


I was not familiar with the Simpsons before coming to the U.S., and then I see this character on the show and was quite horrified by how Indians were being represented in this very monolithic way. And, the fact that all Americans were thinking that this is what all Indians were like. So, there was that immediate sense of horror. And then beyond that, I think it puts this immense pressure on me. And I think that this actually happens to people from different countries for quite a long time, when you’re in a new culture, where you place this pressure on yourself of having become the self-appointed emissary, an ambassador for that culture.


Of course.


So, you’re constantly in this strange place of being defensive, of wanting to present your culture and yourself in the best light possible. Because all you’re thinking is that person thinks that their stereotype of me and my people is Apu.

I think that was more of the long-lasting impact. There was this constant sense of needing to dispel that stereotype all the time. That that is not what all Indians are like. That being said, I mean to your earlier point, I think you make a good point about is there not, or rather I would put it this way: Is there not room for some of that caricature or can there be an element of harmless fun to it? Right? So, I think the biggest issue for me is, again, as I said, the monolithic aspect of it, where we see that one kind of extreme caricature. And it’s not just been Apu, it’s been in subsequent shows, and I don’t watch a whole lot of TV. I’m probably not going to be able to mention all of them, but that characterization or that stereotype of the Indian has persisted over time in many different shows and films and forms of media. So, I don’t have a problem with it, if we are seeing different shades and we’re seeing a different variety, which I think we’ve only now begun to get to that. And, of course, I mean, there could be a whole other episode of this and representation of different minority groups in popular media and film in the U.S. But,  I think it’s begun to change slowly, but certainly for many years, it was that very singular representation. And that’s what I really, yeah.


You raise, and it’s such an interesting point, because I recently heard an interview with Padma Lakshmi, who is also an Indian woman, and she was talking about how much she hated one of the Indiana Jones sequels. I forget which one, maybe it was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but the point was they were eating snakes. And she said, for so long, people just started assuming that, oh, Indians eat snakes for their meals. And I think it gets your, and I don’t claim to have these answers about when it is appropriate or if it’s appropriate to have a caricature-ish character, but I think it’s an interesting point that you raise: If that’s the only thing people are seeing, that’s especially problematic. And if people have a baseline understanding of what a culture is, and then, on top of that, there’s something a little bit exaggerated, maybe it’s less harmful. So that’s kind of, I guess, a negative stereotype of APU, this over-the-top character. On the flip side is people looking at you as an Indian woman and saying, oh, she’s the model minority. Indians perform very well in the United States. They have academic success. They have lower rates of living in poverty. You’re a model minority, but that label is problematic, too. And you referred to that in your book.


It’s very problematic. It’s problematic in a couple of different ways. I think the ways in which it’s most troubling is for the next generation. And what I mean by that is that it is very difficult. It has been very difficult for children of Asian American immigrants growing up in the U.S. to grow up within that culture, to have that label imposed or conferred on them of being a model minority, and then having to live up to that or having the pressure of having to live up to that image that their society and probably their family has of them. And I have personally seen that struggle firsthand with many of my friends over the years, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from India and raised their children here. And, there was very much of that stereotypical expectation of, well, you’re going to become an engineer or a doctor, or go into one of these elite professions. Whereas all these people wanted to do was their heart’s desire — to be a musician, to go do public policy, to go be an artist, and to really experiment in ways that we really think of as so fundamental within American culture, that you sort of pursue your dream and whatever your calling is. I think it’s most troubling for the next generation to sort of be living under that label. But I also think that this whole model minority idea of Asians has actually created deep divides between Asian Americans in the U.S. as sort of being seen as this very white-collar, white picket fences, Ivy league degreed community, who then almost feels the need to separate itself from other minority communities in the U.S. So, that might be Latinos, Hispanics, African Americans, or other groups.

There’s actually a scholar by the name of Vijay Prashad, who’s written extensively about this. One of his books was titled The Karma of Brown Folk. He really sort of deconstructs this issue and takes this issue apart. But I think that has been very, very troubling to me. And it’s only recently where I think the Black Lives Matter movement and the resurgence of arguments around social justice, that we’ve seen some of those divides being bridged. And Asians and, of course, all the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans, where there’s been this realization that, oh, we think we’re a model minority armed with our degrees and our wonderful jobs. But, guess what? That’s not how mainstream America is seeing us.


That’s right.


And we need to be in solidarity with other minority groups. And then the last piece I want to say about the model minority issue is it really only captures Asian flows and Asian immigration to the U.S post 1960s, after the Civil Rights Movement, and when there was immigration reform, which opened up the doors of the U.S. once again to the world’s, quote, unquote, best and brightest to come study at U.S. colleges and universities, and then eventually immigrate. What the model minority label hides and conceals is all the earlier waves of immigration that have occurred even amongst Indians, where they’ve been coming to the U.S. since the 1800s, to build America’s railroads, to be part of working-class communities, coming from the state of Punjab to California, to work on the farms there. And that piece gets very hidden when all we focus on this idea of super brainy, overeducated Indians coming to the U.S.


I’m really glad you gave such a comprehensive answer to that because you’re so right that the flip side of the model minority stereotype is that, in addition to what you said, is there’s an implication there that other minorities are not the model. It ignores, perhaps, the systemic reasons why that is the case. So that nuanced explanation is really helpful. I’d like to move on to the policy side of the house, because that ultimately is where you and I met each other, in your role with the Institute of international Education. You were responsible there for what’s known as the Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. So, you really were one of the policy researchers who knew about the migrations: Who’s coming? Why are they coming? How long are they staying? What are they studying? What are the benefits? What are the policy arguments for, or against their presence in the United States? And so, I want to get into all of that, including some of the stereotypes and myths that a lot of people have about who the students are who are coming to the United States. Before we do that in broad terms, I know it’s an impossible question to answer specifically, but there’s something on the order of 1.1 million students coming to the U.S. each year, who are they and why are they coming?


So, it’s 1.1 million, but we have to take account of the pandemic, which last year was very, very difficult for U.S. universities, for the country, for international students themselves, because as one would expect, there was an actual decline. But, even so, one could say that there are about a million students who are in the U.S. studying. And I would say thousands before them who have been coming to American universities since the 1800s, because if you look at the arc of history, that’s been one of the main ways, one of the most fundamental ways in which the U.S. has developed relationships with the rest of the world. It’s been through its universities, where scholars have  traveled on foot to the U.S. They have sailed to the U.S. to come and study in our universities.

Who are these million students? They come from over 200 countries around the world. One would think that they are clustered in big cities, but that’s not true. They actually study all over the U.S., so they are a pretty large presence in small college towns and big cities on both coast and really everywhere in the U.S. In recent years, when we think about international students, and just in terms of the large numbers, very often that face of an international student is an Asian student. Because again, when we think just sheer numbers, most students over half of them are from Asia and primarily from China and India and the country I originally came from. But the reality is that who has come to the U.S. over time and who has not come, has been also a reflection of geopolitics of national policies.

So, for example, soon after 9/11, we saw a large influx of students from Saudi Arabia coming to the U.S. because of a large scholarship program, the [inaudible] the last scholarship program that was launched between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. to try and send more students to the U.S. from Saudi Arabia as a way to build a mutual understanding. We’ve seen a lot of Brazilian students come to the U.S. in recent years, again, because their country launched a large scholarship program. And now the most recent discourses that we are likely going to see a big drop in Chinese students, again, because of geopolitics and what’s going on politically between the two countries and also due to the pandemic and other factors.


And you know as well as I do that a lot of Americans, including some motivated by racism or fear of the other, and some who may not be motivated by that, who might be operating in good faith, but ask the question, should we really be giving so many seats in our colleges and universities to people from other countries, many of whom returned back home, instead of filling the seats with people domestically who can then thrive and benefit both themselves and their country economically better here. How do you respond to that?


There are many arguments to be made for this, and I will save the economic argument as the last one, because that actually commodifies the value of international students. So, I want to start with the other arguments. The first thing that I would say to most Americans is that if you are a parent, or even if you’re not a parent, and you yourself have been to college in the U.S., your universities are not going to be what you think they are, if it were not for this international flavor and the fact that the U.S. has consistently attracted international students and scholars from around the world. It’s what gives … when we think of the quality of an American higher education … U.S. campuses that quality, that international flavor, their global rankings. All of our top universities that are in the top global rankings that we all want to send our kids to really would not be what they are. Because, again, it’s widely understood globally now that for a university or a college to offer a top-notch education to its students, regardless of where they come from, they have to offer the opportunity for students to be global thinkers. And they can’t be global thinkers if they can’t interact with people from other countries,


Right. Because even if they ended running in the C-suite, running a U..S-based company that is multinational, they better have an understanding of other cultures and what better way to do it than interacting with some of those students during their college years?


Absolutely. And the other statistic I will share is which sort of sums up this argument is if we look at the reverse side of the coin of how many American students actually get to be international students themselves and go abroad, it’s quite shocking to learn that only 10 out of every 100 U.S. undergraduates will ever venture abroad. We have to ask the question that, what about those remaining 90 percent and how are they going to be global thinkers, global executives, the leaders in what they’re doing. So, I think that is the most compelling argument of all. The second is … so there’s two groups of students. There are the ones who will come to the U.S. who will study, who will stay on, and who will immigrate and really become part of that fabric of immigrant America, which was my story. Statistically, if we look at it, that’s actually the larger proportion of international students. But then there are the ones who go back. And to your earlier question, what’s the value on educating those, because they’re going to go back? The value is, and we’ve learned this so much over the past four or five years, that we risk becoming an insular country. We cannot be an island unto ourselves. We need to remain connected to the rest of the world. And what better way to remain connected than for people who’ve been educated in the U.S. to carry American ideas and values and influence back to their home countries, where they are becoming leaders of universities, which will then host American students and scholars who go there, who are launching companies that are engaging in business ties and relationships with the U.S.

It’s that circularity of exchange of information, knowledge and goodwill that we honestly cannot survive without today. And then the last argument, and then I won’t say more on this topic, but the last argument is, of course, the financial one. I lay this out in my book that if you ask the average American, they don’t realize that, the phrase I use in the book is that international students are the invisible and unacknowledged drivers of higher education in the U.S., because each year they’re bringing in anywhere from 38 to $45 billion to the U.S. economy. And it’s the sixth largest export for the U.S. So, the U.S. is selling its higher education degrees without its universities ever having to leave American soil. I think that’s the last and most compelling argument


I had never, until I read your book, I’d never thought about the importance of international education or education exchange as a diplomatic tool, a soft power tool. And you laid out that case, I think, very nicely. And in terms of the economic impact, I was really struck, I’ll go into the weeds for a moment here just to make this point, which really surprised me. You mentioned an obscure program known as OPT, optional practical training. Forgive me as I take off my glasses so I can see for a moment. Optional practical training allows foreign STEM students to remain in the U.S. for up to three years after graduation, you cited research that suggested that reducing OPT would cost 255,000 jobs held by native born U.S. workers over the next decade. And I thought that really surprised me, how inextricably linked.
Why should we let that student from China or India come here? Well, if you don’t buy any other argument, it’s because a quarter million jobs of U.S. born people depend on it. And it almost struck me as we have had these insular debates about America first in recent years, that policies favoring foreign students almost contribute more to that position. That if you care about American jobs, you have to care about international education. And it’s hard to tease those two things apart.

I want to get into one last piece of what you were referring to in terms of seeing international students as a commodity, because obviously there are other countries around the world, some with less stringent immigration policies, U.K. and Canada is a couple of examples, that are also competing for some of these international students, because they recognize the economic and diplomatic and other contributions they can make. Based on what you’re seeing right now, in terms of U.S. policy, how much at risk are we here in the United States of losing that competitive race against other country for talented international students?


I think the risk is significant because we are at a point where even though things have taken the turn for the better since last November. There is some sense of optimism that things are going in the right direction. Just this morning, there was some very good news announced about the H1B program and the judge overruling one of the rules that the Trump administration had put in place. Just to sum it up quickly, it had made it even more difficult for international students to obtain H1B visas. For your listeners,  H1B visa are the work visas that either students or people from other countries can apply for, to remain on and work in the U.S. So, we’re moving in the right direction. However, so much damage has been done over the past four or five years, so much cumulative damage.

And we can see that in the numbers, as the numbers of students have dropped over the past four years. Last year was sort of the perfect storm because of the pandemic that added to this already growing sentiment on the part of the world that are we really welcomed in the U S any longer. I think with all of that, we’ve already been in a pretty precarious situation, and we already have been losing that talent over time. So, in my book, I interviewed several individuals for the book and not just ones who had come to the U.S., found the opportunities, and stayed. But I also talk about groups of researchers who went through that pathway of education, or that skilled immigration pipeline, wanted to stay, had offers of employment – and we’re talking about people who are top-notch scientists doing work in areas of physics and other fields that have received the Nobel Prize – but were forced out of the country. They pretty much said: You know what? Australia wants me. I’m going.

And so that has already been happening; it’s continuing to happen. There is a very clear, clear risk here. And, certainly, you mentioned other countries. And I think the one that comes to everyone’s mind these days is Canada, because right around the time when things were becoming, from an immigration perspective, more difficult in the U.S. – about four or five years ago. Canada, coincidentally, and perhaps opportunistically really reformed its immigration system to recognize that there is this indelible link, it’s a pathway between educational opportunity and professional opportunities. Let’s recognize that and not make it more difficult for people to stay if they want to, and if they’re contributing so much to the country,


We started this conversation on the personal, and I’d like to end it on the personal, as well, by asking you about the tug that you described in your book. I think you called it the immigrant’s burden, where you feel an obligation to the country where your parents and grandparents are from, where you spent your, I think, first 21 years, something on that order, and really struggled with the guilt of ‘Aren’t, I supposed to be giving something back, taking what I’ve learned in the United States and making India better.’ And you grappled with that, and obviously you’ve made your life here in the United States now. Have you fully reconciled that? Do you still have pangs of guilt? I’ll just ask, how do you think about that issue of the immigrant’s burden today?


The honest answer is that I still do feel that guilt. It’s perhaps a very emotional response, not necessarily a rational one. And I say this in the book, that it’s perhaps misplaced, and I truly believe that maybe it’s something that’ll never go away and it’s something that immigrants live with. Because for me, immigrating was always a choice. For others, it’s not. And I do want to acknowledge that. Immigrant America looks different. There are many shades to it. There’s forced migration. We’re dealing with, you know, an inflow influx of refugees, which is a very different situation. I wanted to be clear about that, that I had choices. I was lucky to have choices, and that’s the choice I’ve made. But it’s never an easy choice. And so, I still feel that sense of guilt. Again, perhaps misplaced, like many immigrants.

I’ve tried to give back in many ways over the years. And I talk about this in the book, as well. That one way in which immigrants often give back is by contributing financially to their home country, through philanthropy or in other ways, but there’s also sharing of knowledge. And so that’s something I’ve tried to do, where actually one of the areas professionally where I’ve been very involved over the past several years is focusing on educational exchanges between the U.S. and India. I do quite a bit of work around internationalizing Indian higher education. So that’s my way of also sharing the professional expertise that I was able to acquire through my foundation in India, and then what the U.S. gave me in terms of my education. But the guilt remains. And I will just close in saying, again, coming back to the emotion of it, that the moment when I really felt it this year was earlier in the spring, when India went through its second wave of the pandemic. It was horrifying and it was not just horrifying for me personally, but it was deeply distressing for many of my American colleagues as well, who have colleagues in India who have friends in India.

And it was a very difficult moment as an Indian American to sit here thousands of miles away, to have made all the donations and sent in all the money and everything I could do financially, and yet knowing that there was such a strong need where I had to just sit back and beyond a point, there was nothing that I could do. I think those moments are there and those are, yes, I think part of the continuing immigrant’s burden that we all live with.


I want to close by saying you brought up that theme earlier of sacrifice. And I think so much of the time when we have these conversations about who should be coming in, who should the doors be open to, how many people should be studying here, shouldn’t we fill the classrooms with domestic students or American students instead of international ones, we forget the personal. We forget the sacrifices made on the opposite side of that equation. In addition to the contributions that you make, that you so eloquently described during this. I would just say to people who are listening, who are interested in the immigration part of our conversation, the education part, but, and I hope you don’t mind me saying this,  I also thought you wrote a really beautiful love story with your relationship with Vikram. That ended up being a relationship that ended. And I thought just your description and the progression of that relationship was also just beautifully written. It’s kind of a third part of the book we didn’t talk about, but there’s a lot of different things going on in your book that just makes it a lovely read. The book is  “America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility.” Rajika Bhandari, thank you very much for joining me.


Thank you so much, Brad. I loved this conversation and thank you very, very much for inviting me.

Back to All Episodes

Public Speaking Skills Training

Since 2004, we have helped speakers prepare for the world’s biggest stages, including TED, the World Economic Forum, and a presidential announcement speech. We’re committed to your long-term growth, and we’ll be with you every step of the way.

Learn More