Travel Ban Presents Education Stand-Still

Samira Asgari had spent months planning her move from Switzerland to the United States. The 30-year-old Iranian had secured a postdoctoral fellowship at the Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. She had won a prestigious award for her research in genomics that would even pay her salary at her new American lab.

“I was really happy and it felt like everything was going right,” said Asgari. But Asgari’s plans changed when she flew from Geneva to Frankfurt, where she was supposed to board a second flight to Boston.

“A gentleman stopped me from boarding my plane,” said Asgari. “He told me that he was a consulate of the American government in Frankfurt and was not allowing anybody with several nationalities to board planes to the United States.”

Like Asgari, hundreds of Iranian students already accepted into U.S. graduate programs may not be able to come next fall due to the uncertainty surrounding President Donald Trump’s proposed travel ban. With admission season still in full swing, 25 of America’s largest research universities have already sent out more than 500 acceptance letters to students from the six affected countries, according to data provided by these universities.

The vast majority of those students are from Iran, where prospective undergraduates are known for their strength in engineering and computer sciences. The ban, which could suspend immigration from Iran, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, has been blocked by federal judges. According to legal experts, if the court ruling is overturned, or if Trump issues a new immigration ban, students will be excluded from entering for fall classes.

“For us to not have access to that talent pool is a major, major blow,” said Kazem Kazerounian, dean of the School of Engineering at the University of Connecticut, which has accepted 17 Iranian students so far.

The new uncertainty has steered some students to other nations that compete with the U.S. for top students, including Canada, Australia and Japan, officials at some schools say. Students from Iran have helped ll graduate programs at American colleges for years, especially in engineering schools.

Out of 12,000 Iranian students who attended U.S. universities last year, 77 percent were graduate students and more than half studied engineering, according to data from the State Department and the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit in Washington. At the University of Central Florida, a third of the 115 students who have been accepted to graduate programs in civil and electrical engineering for next fall are from Iran.

Iranian student Amir Soleimani, 26, has been accepted into two universities in the U.S., where he wants to pursue a doctorate in electrical engineering and continue his research on artificial intelligence. If he is kept out, he says, he will likely have to begin his two years of mandatory service in Iran’s military.

“My future is very dependent on this ban,” said Soleimani, who lives in the city of Mashhad and has a master’s in electrical engineering from the University of Tehran. “We have spent lots of our time and energy to apply to top universities, and now that we have been admitted to these universities, it is very disastrous to see we may be banned.”

Many U.S. universities rely on international students to work as research and teaching assistants, particularly in engineering. Americans who study engineering as undergraduates often opt for the job market instead of graduate school, experts say, leaving them to rely heavily on international students. Some schools also rely on tuition money from foreign students, who are typically charged full costs.

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