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As president of one of the first colleges in the U.S. to announce a remote fall semester, I’ve been asked by many — students, parents, faculty, alumni, media: How did we come to that difficult decision, and why?

My answer is simple: Ours was a values-based decision to protect the health and safety of our campus and surrounding communities. Those who know Dickinson College on a deeper level also know that one of our steadfast values is global education at home and abroad.

And so I’m asked frequently how COVID-19, coupled with resounding anti-international policies in the U.S., affects a small college like Dickinson.

My answer again is a simple one: Let me read you this heartbreaking email I received a few days ago from a Vietnamese student who changed his mind about coming to the United States.

“It’s very hard for me to write this letter … my family and I have reconsidered an education in the U.S. My family believes that the U.S. is no longer a good destination for higher ed, given how both its people and government have responded to COVID-19, exaggerated by other challenges of race, politics and anti-international student sentiments,” the letter said.

It went on to add: “I still believe that American values are unique, with American liberal arts education being among the most notable. But given the U.S. as a whole, I no longer consider going to the U.S. for the foreseeable future as a wise option.”

As someone who has dedicated much of her career to global education, I know this email is a blaring alarm, signaling a drastic and unwanted turn in how the world perceives America and its status as the most sought-after educational destination. 

Related: Losing international students because of the pandemic will damage colleges financially

College and university leaders across the U.S. are receiving similar letters, with international students notifying them that the one-two punch of systemic racism and a feckless response to the COVID-19 pandemic has shaken their confidence in this nation and its institutions.

America, the world leader in higher education, stands at the precipice of losing the economic, intellectual and cultural contributions international students bring to our society and its college and university communities. This trend is also a harbinger of this country’s loss of soft power around the world.

International students bring to our campuses diverse perspectives shaped by the different opportunities and challenges of their countries. They enrich our understanding of their cultures and share their talents with us. They can build greater understanding of America when they return home, sharing the stories of their experiences in the U.S. Our campuses — and our country — cannot be as vibrant without them.

“International students add $41 billion to the American economy, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators. Their tuition dollars support our institutions, but more importantly, like their American college student counterparts, they pay rent, shop in our stores and eat in our restaurants.”

Dickinson is located in Pennsylvania, which ranks sixth among the 50 states for the number of international students studying there, with nearly 52,000. Those students support nearly 28,000 jobs and spend an estimated $2 billion annually in the state.

International students add $41 billion to the American economy, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators. Their tuition dollars support our institutions, but more importantly, like their American college student counterparts, they pay rent, shop in our stores and eat in our restaurants.

Many international students go on to earn advanced degrees in the United States and share their talents working at universities, research institutes, hospitals and businesses. Losing them would deal another crippling blow to an economy already reeling from the pandemic.

American higher education needs to speak with one voice, as it did in July, opposing the Trump administration’s ill-conceived proposal to deny international students visas if their college courses were offered wholly online.

We must let the world know we will resist any effort to shut down or hamper international student enrollment in our institutions. We must demonstrate that American colleges and universities are leading the charge for inclusivity, while simultaneously supporting the scientists who are leading the charge for understanding and containment of the pandemic.

These young men and women provide our students and the communities in which they live with a greater understanding of the world and its mosaic of cultures. They learn about American society and allow us to become better informed about global perspectives.

These perspectives are critical for the United States to be a global player, and their erosion is a real threat to our national security.

America’s colleges and universities remain ready to welcome international students with open arms. Institutions must partner to let students across the globe know that America is open for education. Our national security and our position as a global leader demand it.

Margee M. Ensign is president of Dickinson College. Previously, she served as president of the American University of Nigeria in Yola.

This story about international students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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