U.S. Colleges, and Their Russian and Ukrainian Students, Are Caught Up In a Crisis

It’s a conflict happening thousands of miles away, but colleges in the U.S. are grappling with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as some cut ties with Russian universities and companies, and as students from both nations find themselves caught in the middle of the crisis.

“Some of these students and scholars may be close to the end of their program of study, research, or training, and may not be able to immediately return to their home country during a war,” Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, said in a letter to the Department of State and Department of Homeland Security on Feb. 28, asking it to support Ukrainian students living in the U.S. and those trying to leave Ukraine.
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“In addition, some students and scholars may have seen their financial situation suddenly change, and we ask for accommodations for those who must work while they undertake their studies in the United States,” Mitchell said.

Over 175 religious and humanitarian organizations signed a petition requesting that the Biden Administration grant Temporary Protected status to approximately 30,000 Ukrainians in the U.S., and grant special student relief to those students.

According to the Institute of International Education, there were approximately 1,700 Ukrainian and 4,800 Russian students who enrolled in U.S. college and university programs during the 2020-21 academic year. These are relatively small numbers compared with other countries that have students in the U.S. in the 2020-21 school year. There were roughly 914,000. Of the approximately 914,000 international students who attended U.S. college and university in 2020-21, 317,000. were from China. 167,000 came from India and 12,800 from Nigeria.

However, that didn’t stop Eric Swalwell (California Rep.) from proposing that one of the sanctions against Russia should be to kick Russian students out the U.S.

“Frankly, I think closing their embassy in the United States, kicking every Russian student out of the United States — those should all be on the table,” Swalwell, a Democrat who serves on the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview with CNN last week. “And Vladimir Putin needs to know every day that he is in Ukraine, there are more severe options that could come.”

Bipartisan opposition was voiced to the proposal, which many felt would unfairly penalize innocent students because of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions. Swalwell spokesperson Jessica Gail stated Thursday that Congressman believes that Russian oligarchs’ children should lose their student visas, but that not all Russian students should leave the U.S.

But it wouldn’t be the first time college students have been caught up in global conflict. Japanese American college students were held in West Coast prisons during World War II. Many students had their education interrupted by the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council, which was established to aid them in moving to college elsewhere. University of Southern California made a public apology for discriminating against these students last year and refused to release transcripts that would allow them to transfer.

As Russian attacks on Ukrainian cities began, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ended its partnership with the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow on Feb. 25, citing “unacceptable military actions against Ukraine by the Russian government.”

“This step is a rejection of the actions of the Russian government in Ukraine,” MIT said in a statement, noting that it would affect some student research projects. “We take it with deep regret because of our great respect for the Russian people and our profound appreciation for the contributions of the many extraordinary Russian colleagues we have worked with.”

Similarly, the University of Colorado announced it would end its investments in Russian companies “to show our support for the people of Ukraine.”

This move is similar to the 1988 decision of 155 universities in South Africa to withdraw from South Africa.

“Like so many others, we have watched in horror as this invasion has brought senseless violence and aggression to the region,” University of Colorado President Todd Saliman said in a statement. “We are looking for ways to show our support for the people of Ukraine and believe that cutting our investments is the right thing to do.”


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