Is Gun Violence Scaring Off International Students?
When Zhenyang Xu, a second-year international Ph.D. student at Michigan State University, first received the alert that there was an active shooter on campus, he barely thought twice about it.
“I looked at my phone and I just thought,‘Oh, OK. Another one,’” he said.“It’s so normalized here and we get so much news about shootings that I didn’t notice it was something entirely different and scarier until more alerts started coming.”
Three students were killed and another five were injured in the Feb. 13 shooting at Michigan State, including two international students from Xu’s native China—one of whom, 20-year-old John Hao, was paralyzed from the neck down. Xu said the tragedy was a wake-up call, an all-too-visceral reminder that the plague of gun violence he’d read about in the news was a frightening reality in the country where he’d chosen to study.
The fear of being caught in a mass shooting has become a major factor in international students’ decisions about whether to study in the U.S. According to a fall 2018 survey by the Institute of International Education, the issue with the biggest year-over-year increase in concern among international applicants in 2017–18—a year in which U.S. institutions saw a decline in international enrollment—was their “physical safety in the U.S.”
It’s also a daily concern for many international students already studying in America: according to a 2019 survey by the World Education Services, a quarter of international students in the U.S. expressed worry about gun violence at their institution.
Rajika Bhandari, an independent consultant on international education research and strategy, said that in recent years fears about gun violence and personal safety have eclipsed other perceived drawbacks of studying in the U.S.
“In broad global surveys, when students have been asked about the downsides of going to the U.S., we’ve seen the lack of personal safety rise to the top,” she said. “Before it was primarily about cost and visa hurdles, which of course are still there; it’s just that personal safety has really become quite magnified.”
The gun violence driving these fears has not abated; in the past few months alone, campus shootings have dominated headlines. In October, a University of Arizona professor was murdered by a former student; the next month, three University of Virginia football players were shot and killed on their team bus, allegedly by a classmate. The February mass shooting at Michigan State exacerbated the concerns of international families since the gunman injured two of their own.
It’s not just campus shootings driving safety fears. In November 2021, Shaoxiong Zheng, a Chinese international student at the University of Chicago—a dream destination for many international students—was shot and killed in a street robbery. A week later, hundreds of students, many of them international, marched across campus to call for stricter gun legislation, holding signs reading, “We’re here to learn, not to die” and “Who’s next?”
The 2019 WES survey found not only that international students in the U.S. were concerned about gun violence but also that some were more concerned than others. Only 25 percent of students from Latin America and 32 percent from Europe said they were worried about gun violence, compared to upward of 40 percent from South Asia and East Asia.
Jenny Lee, a professor of educational policy studies at the University of Arizona, chalks this up to the rarity of guns in China and other Asian countries.
“In Asia in particular, it’s not just hard to obtain a gun; you don’t really ever see them.,” she said. “So that general sense of unease around guns is heightened.”