CARBONDALE — The stroke of President Donald Trump’s pen changed Asia Abobaker’s world overnight.
When the Southern Illinois University Carbondale student heard the news that the executive order on immigration and travel that Trump signed Friday would suspend travel to the U.S. from seven countries, including her home country of Sudan, her thoughts turned to May, when she will walk across the stage to accept her master’s degree in engineering.
“My family planned to come and they started, actually, their visa application,” Abobaker said. “I was really devastated knowing that they won’t be able to come.”
Trump’s executive order has been widely criticized as too broad and poorly executed, leading to chaos at international U.S. airports during the weekend. Chaos also reverberated across US colleges and universities that annually welcome thousands of international students. The action also been praised by some Republicans including Southern Illinois Reps. Mike Bost and John Shimkus, who both called it a step in the right direction to improving the vetting process for people traveling to the U.S. from countries of concern in relation to terrorism.
On Monday, Trump tweeted, “There is nothing nice about searching for terrorists before they can enter our country. This was a big part of my campaign. Study the world!”
But Abobaker said she is in the dark as to why her country was on the list, and this makes coping even harder. “Sometimes, if you know why, even if you don’t accept it, you will understand it. But, I can’t accept it because I don’t know the reason,” she said.
There are currently 88 international students enrolled at SIU Carbondale from the seven countries listed in the president’s executive order on immigration and travel, according to Rae Goldsmith, the university’s chief marketing and communications officer.
The order, signed on Friday by Trump, indefinitely bans Syrian refugees from entering the United States and for 90 days bans travel to the U.S. from the following Muslim-majority countries: Libya, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Iran, Yemen and Somalia.
In a statement, Goldsmith said that the university “is not aware of any of these students currently traveling outside of the United States or any students studying abroad in any of the seven countries.”
In a letter to the campus community, Interim Chancellor Brad Colwell said that he and other administrators have heard concerns from students, faculty and staff about the executive order. “I share this concern, and I know that many of you across campus are concerned as well,” Colwell wrote.
“While the president’s executive order is temporary and under legal review, it creates great uncertainty — not only about the order itself, but about possible future federal policy changes that could negatively impact our international students, faculty and staff,” the letter continued. “Until new policies are proposed or implemented, we cannot predict what effect they will have.
"However, in the face of uncertainty, we can continue to assure all of our international students and employees that they are welcome and supported on our campus."
SIU is entering its 70th year of enrolling international students. Since 1947, students from other countries have traveled to Carbondale to study. The first international student to earn a bachelor’s degree from the university was from Iraq. There are 1,263 international students enrolled at SIU Carbondale from more than 100 countries. Nearly all are graduate students studying legally in the U.S. on student visas.
“SIU has a long and proud history serving international students from around the world,” Colwell wrote. “Our commitment to our international students and scholars remains strong to this day."
Abobaker has been in the U.S. for the past two years and said she has loved most of her time in the country and at SIU Carbondale.
“I felt, actually, pretty welcome when I came,” Abobaker she said. But Abokaker said she began to feel a shift in attitudes around June. “I’ve never felt people are hostile to me … but I felt that people sometimes are not comfortable with me,” she said.
She said the change was so noticeable she even considered making a significant change in her daily practice. “I thought a lot about taking off my scarf,” Abobaker said of her religious headcover.
Ultimately, she decided to keep it. Abobaker said she welcomes new relationships, as that is how people grow and learn to understand one another.
“If people get to know me, they will change their idea. I know that,” Abobaker said.
In his letter, Colwell wrote that the university’s support of its international student population includes protection of student privacy. Additionally, the Center for International Education and the Center for English as a Second Language are reaching out to all international students on campus to invite them to a series of meetings to hear their concerns, provide support and respond to questions, his letter stated.
Colwell additionally noted that SIU is part of The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, which has issued a statement on the current executive order describing its impact and asking that it be reconsidered.
In early January, SIU President Randy Dunn announced that the university would not adopt the “sanctuary campus” label, which it had been asked to do by the Undergraduate Student Government and the Graduate and Professional Student Council. In declining the label that some universities have adopted, Dunn cited the legal ambiguity of such a designation and concerns that it could put SIU and all of its students at risk, including a potential loss of federal financial aid.
In explaining SIU’s position, Dunn reiterated SIU’s commitment to its international student and faculty population, as Colwell did on Monday.
“I encourage all students, faculty and staff to support and respect our international students in these uncertain times,” Colwell’s letter concluded. “They need to know that we value them and that we are here for them, just as we value all students, faculty and staff. Please join me in this commitment.”