The number of international students enrolled at UNC Charlotte is down by 10 percent from two years ago. Changes to the student visa process and the Trump administration’s ban on travel from some Muslim countries account for much of that decline. UNC Charlotte officials hope the April campus shootings that left two students dead and four injured will not add to the falling numbers. One of those students was from Saudi Arabia.
At the student center, shortly after the shooting, Zuhoor Alshammasi of Saudi Arabia and her friend Taif Alshemmeri of Kuwait talk about the shootings. Both say leaving school was never on their minds but it was on their parents’ when they heard about the shooting.
“They were terrified of course and kept calling and asking how is everything going,” Alshemmeri said.
“My parents were very scared and my father was about to come but I told him no it’s safe,” Alshammasi said.
Both students are staying at UNC Charlotte. But even before the shooting, there were fewer foreign students coming to the university. Actual enrollment of international students at UNC Charlotte dropped from 2,700 in 2017 to about 1,800 students today, according to officials with the university’s International Student and Scholar Office. They don’t plan to change how they market the university to international students. They say the best marketing comes from current international students who share positive experiences with prospective students, making them feel more comfortable coming here.
Alshemmeri, a rising junior and finance major, says although the shooting frightened her, she still recommends UNC Charlotte to friends and family.
“Being an international student and not being in my own home with everything happening, it was scary but I wouldn’t tell my friends in Kuwait not to come to that school because it happens everywhere here. It doesn’t make sense not recommending my school because this happened just once,” Alshemmeri said.
Alshammasi, who came to Charlotte in 2014, feels the same way.
“I still feel safe here. I called yesterday my cousin to come and start studying in UNC Charlotte,” Alshammasi said. “I really love this school and I’m sad to see this happening here.”
That’s the message officials at the International Student and Scholar office at UNC Charlotte are giving prospective students. Executive Director Tarek Elshayab says they assist international students with things like enrollment, visa applications, housing needs, immigration questions, orientation and curriculum advisement.
Since the Trump Administration made the visa process stricter and issued a travel ban on some Muslim countries, nationally some schools have seen international applications drop by 30 percent. Elshayab says he hopes the shooting will not add to the decline that UNC Charlotte has experienced. He says following the shooting, his office received numerous overseas calls and emails from parents and prospective students concerned about safety on campus.
“They wanted to know how is the safety for our students?” Elshayab said. “Will they be safe in the few days coming back to classes and next semester? I’m planning to come in the fall and how safe will it be in the fall?”
Elshayab says he tells parents the shooting was an isolated incident and that in general, the campus is safe and security improvements are being developed. That’s the same message he says he gave the father of injured student Rami Al-Ramadhan, who was considering taking his son back to Saudi Arabia.
“He indicated he thought about that before coming here, but when he came here he found things to life as normal quickly on campus, so he does not entertain that thought anymore,” Elshayab said.
International students represent 7% of UNC Charlotte’s enrollment. School officials say last year their tuition and fees accounted for nearly 6% of the budget, about $38 million. The majority of the students come from India.
Prashand Desai, who just received a master's degree says his friends and family in India who are considering studying here are not deterred by the fatal shooting.
“It’s an accident and we can’t judge based on these events so I recommend them to come grab opportunities over here,” Desai said.
Last year, an Institute of International Education survey found that prospective international students in general are asking more questions about safety and gun violence in America. But Akshay Ayyanchra, also from India, says his friends will not hesitate to come to UNC Charlotte because of the shooting.
“They are aware that guns are legal here and we are used to it now,” Ayyanchra said. “This could have happened on any campus and it doesn’t mean UNCC is not safe. I have a junior who is coming to this campus and I didn’t feel him backing out of the decision after the news.”
Something Elshayab hopes to hear more of because he says international students are not just important to the university because of the tuition and fees they bring in.
"They contribute to our academia, classroom and to the diversity of our entire student body and provide a different perspective when it comes to academics."
University officials say it’s hard to predict if April’s shooting will affect UNC Charlotte’s international student enrollment. They won’t know for sure until they see who shows up when orientation for international students is held on August 14.