The PIE: How did you get into education?
Rich DeCapua: Before my time at GAISA, I had 20 very memorable and rewarding years working at institutions of higher ed in the United States. I was a first-generation college student myself and had a really transformative experience as an undergrad. So much so it made me switch from what I thought was going to be my career to actually working at colleges.
And then I got fixated on college costs, finances and why college costs so much. My doctorate focused on educational policy with a very specific slant on college finances. I’ve also worked in student affairs, with students on the front lines each and every day.
“There is a sense of xenophobia and racism in this country right now that international students feel”
A lot of those experiences had to do with working with international students, orientation, acculturation programs, transition programs, all of that kind of wonderful stuff. I was lucky enough to work at a number of academically selective institutions in the US that had robust international student populations.
When I decided to switch from higher education to more of the edtech side, I had the chance to go to China and was there for about three weeks visiting high schools in various cities. It was probably the first time that I got a solid sense of how difficult it is for these students to not only get accepted to institutions in the US, but then to be 17, 18, travel and do that entire thing. I mean, I was struggling, just visiting. I can’t believe these students and families just up and totally replant themselves in a new country.
The PIE: Why was GAISA formed?
RD: Students and family members in China were very anxious about what was happening as a result of the pandemic. Would they be able to come to the US? What would this look like? I did around 30 webinars for these families and I started reaching out to colleagues in the international education space.
The pandemic really impacted students’ ability to come to the US and then there was the political landscape.
The voice that makes GAISA different is it is a very diffused and diverse group. It is people who work directly with international education, but then folks that work ancillary to that – in student services, academic administration, faculty members, international students themselves, and we all agreed that there are many people that touch an international student experience when they’re on campus.
We can package that voice collectively, in a very different way from other associations and do our part for international student advocacy. So, the first thing we did was some research. We had our first international student report, which was a collaboration with the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Our hope is that we can bring a voice for international students and quickly and nimbly conduct research that is desperately needed in the field.
The PIE: What do you think international students make of the recent US election?
RD: The international students on our Advisory Council and those we talk to say that it’s great that Biden won, but that doesn’t make students feel more confident about going to the US. There are some bells you can’t unring.
There is a sense of xenophobia and racism in this country right now that international students feel. All that information from the Open Doors report really shows the decreases of enrolment numbers. There’s a hope that once this administration starts, there will be a rebound and that we will see an upswing again.
The PIE: What are your thoughts on how the US election will impact international education in the US?
RD: If Joe Biden and his administration simply reverse many of the executive orders and other threats to international student success, that will be a win. But that’s the bare minimum.
“Even in person teaching with really rich staffing systems, international students sometimes don’t get the type of services that they deserve”
We know that international student enrolment was already dropping even before the pandemic hit. So now is the time where higher education has to refocus and ask ‘how do we attract these students? How do we get them to come to our institutions? How do we continue to let them be successful, to be retained and graduate? What are visa policies and OPT policies that really help the students figure out their career path in this country?’
There are things that the federal government could also do in terms of relief funding for institutions of higher education that maybe should be more policy focused for international students.
If there is another stimulus package for higher education, how international students could benefit should at least a discussion item.
The PIE: Does the Trump administration still pose any threat to international students and how they view the country?
RD: I’m speaking now not as somebody from GAISA, but as somebody who lives in this country. I think that there’s definitely a divide in the US right now politically. And I think there is a sense of, as we get closer to Trump’s administration ending, are there other executive orders or other threats that he will direct that may impact international students? My hope certainly is that’s so outside of where he usually operates that hopefully that won’t occur.
I think in this country, we lump too many issues together. Immigration, international students, all of these things get wrapped together as people entering the country, and are they stealing American jobs? It gets all lumped together, when in fact these are different and specific political issues to be argued.
My hope is once Biden takes charge, they are able to refocus issues affecting international students in higher education and really impress upon colleges and universities, but also the American public, that international students on college campuses is a value add for the country and not something that is taking away from people.
The PIE: Tell me a bit about GAISA’s plans for the future.
RD: We’re going to be researching issues around international students and mental health. Everything has had to be scaled online for many students, but even in person teaching with really rich staffing systems, international students sometimes don’t get the type of services that they deserve on college campuses. Some of that is caused by staffing issues, some of it is cultural understanding around mental health.
We want to be able to use data collection and current student voices to really carve out some framework that an institution can use to get those systems on their campuses up and running or revisit what those systems look like. We know that anxiety and depression has been exacerbated by the pandemic, for all students, but especially for international students. That is an issue of paramount concern.
The PIE: What are some of the other areas you will be looking at?
RD: We’re going to be looking at the career readiness process for international students. What is a really good career plan mapping project? Once the student is on campus, how are you helping them really create resumes, get internships? We want to come out with best practices that institutions can use.
We also want to look at issues of transfer policies for international students. Transfer policies for credit in the US is kind of the wild, wild west. There isn’t one way to do it. We feel a lot of international students actually get cheated on their ability to transfer credit from some institutions because of arcane policies or processes, and the usual higher ed red tape.
“Transfer policies for credit in the US is kind of the wild, wild west”
Lastly, with a fractured US and the way that it approaches some social issues, how do you educate international students about US issues around race, white supremacy, racism, xenophobia? What we’re hearing from our international students is, ‘I’m happy that Biden won but that doesn’t solve the issue for me. I’m still worried about what this is going to be like’.
If institutions don’t find ways to have that conversation, they’re going to miss out on opportunities to create dialogue and support international students.