Leaders take steps to keep international students at Idaho State

ISU President Arthur Vailas said recent incidents don’t reflect the university and Pocatello as a whole, and threaten to keep both U.S. and foreign students from enrolling.
ISU President Arthur Vailas said recent incidents don’t reflect the university and Pocatello as a whole, and threaten to keep both U.S. and foreign students from enrolling.

State and community leaders moved this week to assure students, overseas parents and community residents that Middle Eastern students are welcome and safe at Idaho State University.

The assurances came in response to stories of tension in the community that has resulted in harassment, discrimination, distribution of anti-Muslim DVDs, vandalism and threats. ISU President Arthur Vailas said about 50 Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian students had their off-campus homes’ burglarized over a period of several weeks.

“As a result of these crimes, some of our students are seriously considering leaving ISU and Pocatello,” Vailas wrote. “This would be a devastating loss for our community and would earn us an undeserved reputation for discrimination, bias and racism.”

U.S. Attorney for Idaho Wendy Olson was in Pocatello on Thursday to hold a news conference and meet with international students to discuss hate crimes and civil rights.

Pocatello’s mayor urged families in the Middle East to continue sending their children to Idaho, and Vailas issued a campus letter on ISU’s website addressing the incidents.

“As you know, the safety and security and well-being, both physical and mental, of our students are our pre-eminent focus,” Vailas wrote. “Any harm to our students impacts all of us negatively by diminishing the quality of our life because how can any one of us feel safe if others are in jeopardy? Our ability to attract and retain students who seek a college degree will be impacted because any crimes against students will discourage students from Idaho, the U.S. and the world from enrolling here.”

In a story by Gulf News, an English language newspaper published in the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait’s higher education minister, Badr Al Eisa, said the ministry would no longer provide scholarships for Kuwaiti students to attend ISU. The ministry would transfer ISU Kuwaiti students to other universities, the newspaper reported.

The Saudi Cultural Attaché in Washington, D.C., Mohammed Al-Eisa, said the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission also would suspend scholarships for Saudi students to attend ISU. Officials from both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia cited the reports of harassment and discrimination at ISU and in Pocatello, the Gulf News reported.

Mayor Brian Blad said he is trying to keep Idaho State University’s Saudi and Kuwaiti students from leaving and told the State Journal on Wednesday that he spoke to a Saudi official who said he would encourage the Saudi government to keep students at ISU.

Blad said foreign students — who pay nearly three times more in tuition than in-state ISU students — contribute an estimated $150 million annually to Pocatello’s economy.

He said he would meet with officials from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia on Monday to discuss the countries’ relationships with ISU and try to ensure that students remain at the university.

A spokesman told the State Journal that ISU has 535 Kuwaiti and 481 Saudi students enrolled. International students make up about 9 percent of the student body.

U.S. Attorney Olson’s visit was part of a national effort that includes 14 events around the country in the next week to address backlash against Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian Americans following the terrorist attacks in Brussels, Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., The Spokesman-Review reported.

“These acts of retaliation eat away at our social fabric by calling into question our commitment to our own Constitution, laws and values,” Olson said in a statement.