It’s never been easy being an international student here in the states.
Many can’t speak fluent English. Many are financially insecure or socially isolated. Most, if not all, are frustrated by a labyrinthine and seemingly arbitrary visa system. And yet, throughout it all, they’re somehow expected to excel at highly competitive academic institutions.
Things have only gotten worse since the 2016 election.
Fortunately, news out of Davidson, North Carolina finds a donor, reflecting on his own immigrant experience and entrepreneurial success, stepping up to help international students.
Davidson College announced that Carlos Alvarez, a craft brewing entrepreneur based in San Antonio, gave the school $8.4 million to further support international students and enhance their experiences at Davidson, creating a robust program and support system—dubbed the Alvarez Access Program—for all international students.
An immigrant from Mexico, Alvarez is a graduate of the Monterrey Institute of Technology in Monterrey, Mexico, with a degree in biochemical engineering. As export manager for Grupo Modelo, he led the launch of Corona in the United States.
Previous gifts include a $1 million gift to the brewing science program at UC Davis and another $1 million to build the brewery at Oregon State University (making him, I suspect, the most popular higher ed donor among male college students at UC Davis and Oregon State University).
As a Davidson trustee, Alvarez led the policy change allowing international students to take their financial aid with them on overseas semesters. He has also provided support for Davidson’s Alvarez Scholars program for international students.
Alvarez’s recent gift, earmarked for the Alvarez Access Program, is intriguing for two reasons. First, and most obviously, is its size—$8.4 million is a significant boost over previous gifts of $1 million.
Secondly is the fact that Alvarez’s gift speaks to the challenges facing international students and graduates trying to make sense of, among other things, a Kafka-esque immigration system in the Trump era. These challenges, according to Davidson, include "federal requirements, work permits, visa entanglements or a lack of living expenses for an internship or overseas project."
The policies of the current administration have clearly exacerbated these already daunting roadblocks.
As so the new Alvarez Access program will support international students by providing career development resources, networking opportunities, and internships; guide them through the federal permitting process; and fund training for advisors to guide students on academics, physical and emotional health, and activities beyond the classroom.
An immigrant himself, Alvarez understands the hurdles international students face. "I want all of the international students to have the experiences they dream of and to position them for greater opportunities in their career pursuits," he said.
Alvarez isn’t alone in translating his immigrant experience into philanthropic action.
The Global Chinese Philanthropy Initiative recently found that approximately 66 percent of the gifts from Chinese-American philanthropists between 2008 and 2014 went to higher education. And as more Chinese-American alumni make their way through the U.S. university system, giving will continue to grow over time.
As for the larger political dynamics at play here, Alvarez didn’t explicitly called attention to the recently upheld travel ban; rather, Davidson’s press release provided a link to an NPR piece and listed "federal requirements" as one of many "roadblocks beyond campus."
That said, federal immigration policy is clearly the elephant in the room here, and some higher donors have spoked out against the administration’s actions and the travel ban in particular.
One example is Fariborz Maseeh, an Iranian-born electronics pioneer and financier. Upon announcing $5 million gift to his alma mater, Portland State University, Maseeh described the ban as a policy that punishes people living under politically oppressive regimes in the Middle East. "Statistically, amongst those people, there are a lot of bright, innovative people," he said. "We should go and try to get those people, kind of save them from the oppression of their governments and the circumstances of their politics."
The exact opposite scenario has played out over the past two years. The U.S. issued visas to less than 400,000 international students in fiscal year 2017, a 17 percent decline from 2016, and a 40 percent drop from 2015.
Nonetheless, 1.1 international students currently matriculate at American universities. That’s still a big number, especially when one considers the long-term ripple effects. Remember: Today’s students are tomorrow’s donors. International students have also been a financial boon to universities, paying above and beyond what domestic student normally pay in tuition.
Alvarez’s gift suggests that it behooves universities to reduce the financial, emotional, and administrative obstacles facing international students in these uncertain times.
"The staff and resources supported by the new gift will help students seize and weave together those experiences, to stand out as candidates for a dream job or grad school," Alvarez said.
"It just takes a little more creativity and a little more work than the typical domestic student."