President Trump’s January 27th executive order to ban travelers from seven conflict-ridden nations left a lot of university administrators concerned about the fate of international students. Hundreds issued statements affirming their school’s commitment to global studies.
Wheaton College in Massachusetts went a step further by dedicating a full scholarship to help a refugee student from one of those countries.
Wheaton’s social action stirred up social media: The story has generated more than 850 million media impressions to date, reflecting the deluge of discussions across higher education about the challenges and importance of aligning the values of schools and the students they serve, both domestic and international.
Royall & Company Strategic Leader Erica Knight talked with Wheaton College’s Grant Gosselin, Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Student Aid, shortly after the announcement of the scholarship to elaborate on its origins, intentions, and effects.
Erica Knight: Some believe that Wheaton’s Refugee Scholarship is a knee-jerk reaction to the recent immigration ban. What is the origin of the refugee scholarship?
Grant Gosselin: We have been considering a refugee scholarship for a while. In fact, I am proud to say that the idea stemmed from conversations with our students earlier in the year. We have a group of international students that work with our president, known as the President’s Global Leadership Development Group. Last year, the students chose immigration and refugees as their intensive study topic. The issue is foremost on their minds. This compelled administrators to start thinking about the possibility of a refugee scholarship even before the immigration ban was announced. The ban encouraged us to take action and dedicate the scholarship.
EK: The scholarship has created quite a stir. What reactions have you had?
GG: It’s been really amazing. The announcement has allowed us to make a clear, far-reaching statement about our values, and that has triggered a LOT of feedback. Overall, most of it has been favorable. We have had a surge in international student interest and our campus community is unified. At a recent faculty meeting, the announcement generated an enormous amount of pride that our entire faculty rallied around. Our social media analysis has shown an 83% to 17% split in positive to negative responses to our decision.
EK: What’s the nature of the negative responses?
GG: Some people have asked why we are “choosing sides” and believe this to be a political statement. It is not. It’s an affirmation of our mission, and a response to the very real enrollment threat colleges and universities face as some international students have begun to reconsider their plans to study in the United States. Nevertheless, there have been a few people whose reactions have been pretty horrible, some even sending threatening messages to members of our administration. Thankfully, these have been few and far between, and none have come from people affiliated with Wheaton.
EK: What are the naysayers concerned about?
GG: The two major criticisms that we have received are ill-informed. The first is that we are awarding this scholarship to undocumented students or “illegal aliens," as they often reference. It is astounding how many people don’t understand the difference between a refugee who enters the U.S. through the legal immigration process versus those that have entered through other means. Dispelling that myth has been important for us.
The second is that people are asking, “How could you take this money away from a deserving American student?” They have a sense of nationalism following the election that has rallied them to be critical of offering aid to students from outside the United States. We have been very clear that this is an incremental investment that supports our mission.
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EK: So you have a history of providing scholarships to international students?
GG: Yes. This year, we awarded $41 million in financial aid and scholarships. Ninety-two percent is earmarked for U.S. citizens and just eight percent for international students. Our international funds are spread across a wide range of students, and we also already offer a number of full scholarships to international students through our longstanding partnership with the Davis United World College Scholars program (Diana Davis Spencer, philanthropist and daughter of Davis UWC Scholars founder, Shelby Davis, is a Wheaton alumna). We provide full scholarships to a handful of UWC Scholars each year, so international scholarship funding is not new to us. What is distinctive now is our focus on a student’s refugee status.
EK: Why recruit these students?
International students—and refugee students, in particular—have made a lasting impact at Wheaton. They have compelling stories that are important to hear and add to the educational environment for all of our community members. Our mission includes cultivating a diverse and inclusive community of students from a wide range of backgrounds and talents. We enable our students to engage in meaningful conversations with their peers that will help them to prepare for life after Wheaton in a global community.
EK: How did Wheaton reach out to current and admitted international students during this uncertain time?
GG: Our president personally wrote to each of our current students affected by the ban, and Wheaton sent special communications to students who had already applied and also those who had been admitted through our early action program. Royall assisted us in contacting prospective international students who had not yet applied, but may have been eligible for this opportunity. Some of our admitted students asked to send in an additional statement to be considered for the scholarship. And, throughout February, we received hundreds of inquiries from students who had not yet applied regarding the scholarship.
EK: So Wheaton has seen increased student interest despite some criticisms?
GG: Overall, yes. The reaction has been extraordinary and has attracted hundreds of applications for the scholarship. It has also generated positive reactions from non-refugees students and parents in our applicant pool who share our values. Throughout the entire process, only one parent wrote to withdraw his son’s application, explaining that he would never send his son to a school like ours. I wrote back and said, “I fully understand. This process is about finding the best fit for each student, and you need to find an institution that aligns with your values.” I copied the student because, in order to withdraw an application, I needed to hear from him. The student wrote back with just three words: “Withdraw my application.”
But that was the only one. And it’s okay that that student will be attending a different college. His values contrasted with ours, and that simply would not bode well for either the student or the school. Remarkably, no one else has withdrawn their application or unsubscribed from our lists.
I’d say we have weathered this volatile time quite well so far and are glad our story has been part of a larger discussion throughout higher education about the importance of institutional missions and values—and that it helped send the message to all international students that they are valued at Wheaton College, Massachusetts.