A decline in international students attending Kansas universities is a small but disconcerting trend.
At a time when Americans should be reaching out and learning more about other cultures around the world, fear and security measures are causing us to become more isolated.
The numbers aren't large. The decline in international student enrollment at Kansas University was just four students, less than half a percentage point; the combined decline at all the Kansas Board of Regents universities was 293 students, only about 6 percent. But it's a move in the wrong direction.
The decline is attributed to various factors connected to the 9-11 attacks. Tighter security and immigration policies have made it more difficult to obtain visas to study in the United States. Some foreign students have had difficulty returning to the United States after trips home. Some are even afraid to leave the country because they think they might not be able to re-enter.
At the same time, Americans are more hesitant to travel to foreign countries to visit or study. KU's totals for students studying abroad have remained steady, but they also are small. This fall, about 500 students enrolled in foreign study programs.
Susan Gronbeck-Tedesco, KU's study abroad director, noted in a story published in the Journal-World last summer that studying abroad was "one of the major ways to change the world and gain world peace. We have to understand other cultures to live together more equitably. It's easy to be isolated in the United States, and it's really easy to be isolated in Kansas."
That isolation does not serve us well. The best way to lessen fear and increase understanding is to learn more about the world and its people. In some ways, air travel and electronic communication have made the world seem very small, but large cultural differences still divide us. What we don't know about one another can hurt our ability to live peacefully together.
This year, about 500 students from KU will travel to other countries; another 1,600 students will come to KU. In a world of 6 billion people, that's not very many people, but it's a step in the right direction.