April 10, 2023
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 like the one at MSU 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; that number jumped to 37 percent when they looked at their college’s broader host community.
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.