Revised, not Reversed: UMass students speak out on Iranian student policy


Photo taken by Alex Lindsay

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by Sarah Robertson

Zahra Khalkhali does not attend the University of Massachusetts Amherst anymore.

A graduate student studying mechanical engineering, she had gone home to Iran over winter break, only to find out upon returning to New York City  that she would no longer be allowed to study here. But it was not Khalkhali’s visa that was the problem. It was a different form called an I-20, also known as a “Certificate of Eligibility for Non-immigrant Status” that had been cancelled during her travels.

On Feb.18, the UMass Persian Student Association and the International Relations Club hosted a forum to talk about the recent decision and “reversal” of the UMass policy that barred Iranian students from science and engineering programs.

The Feb. 12 announcement of the policy was prompted by Khalkhali’s deportation, even though the federal law it complies with was enacted three years ago. After four days of media backlash, UMass reversed its decision, and will now provide “individualized study plans” for Iranian students admitted to the College of Natural Sciences and College of Engineering.

Khalkhali’s sister asked for a translator to tell her story to the students, reporters, and community members gathered in the Cape Cod Lounge. Mohsen Jalali, a graduate student studying political science offered to help.

“Her I-20 was valid before she came to New York City and as she wanted to enter United States, Homeland Security found that her I-20 was cancelled. And it was in fact UMass that cancelled that I-20,” he said, “The student was deported. She had studied here for two years.”

It is still unclear whether it was UMass, the State Department, or the Department of Homeland Security that cancelled Khalkhali’s I-20 Form. Despite an invitation, no UMass administrators attended the meeting.

“Their silence speaks volumes,” said Alisina Saee-Nazari, an undergraduate studying Social Thought in Political Economy and Middle Eastern Studies.

The UMass administration quietly released a statement about the new policy on Feb. 12 on its website. The story broke on Feb. 13 in a blog post by Cory Robin. He posted this statement originally found on the UMass Amherst graduate school website:

The University has determined that recent governmental sanctions pose a significant challenge to its ability to provide a full program of education and research for Iranian students in certain disciplines and programs. Because we must ensure compliance with applicable laws and regulations, the University has determined that it will no longer admit Iranian national students to specific programs in the College of Engineering (i.e., Chemical Engineering, Electrical & Computer Engineering, Mechanical & Industrial Engineering) and in the College of Natural Sciences (i.e., Physics, Chemistry, Microbiology, and Polymer Science & Engineering) effective February 1, 2015.

University officials removed this statement shortly after, but the internet had already taken off with it.

The law mentioned above is the 2012 Iran Threat Reduction and Syrian Human Rights Act, which gives the State Department the authority to screen and deny visas on a case-by-case basis to Iranian nationals based on their intended course of study. Section 501 “EXCLUSION OF CITIZENS OF IRAN SEEKING EDUCATION RELATING TO THE NUCLEAR AND ENERGY SECTORS OF IRAN” states:

“(a) IN GENERAL.—The Secretary of State shall deny a visa to, and the Secretary of Homeland Security shall exclude from the United States, any alien who is a citizen of Iran that the Secretary of State determines seeks to enter the United States to participate in coursework at an institution of higher education (as defined in section 101(a) of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (20 U.S.C. 1001(a))) to prepare the alien for a career in the energy sector of Iran or in nuclear science or nuclear engineering or a related field in Iran.”

The law does not, however, prevent universities from accepting Iranian students into science and engineering programs. As Zac Bears explained in his op-ed piece for the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, the law does not require universities to do anything.

“UMass took it upon themselves to enforce this policy even though it goes directly against their policy of non-discrimination policies,” said President of the Persian Student Association, Nasim Cheraghi. Cheraghi, along with the President of the International Relations Club, Jessica Berger, helped organize the event.

The problem with this law is that it functions independently from college admissions offices, leaving universities with an empty seat if they accept an Iranian student who may or may not be granted a visa. Anticipating this problem, UMass may have implemented the policy to avoid admitting students who would not be able to attend the university.

Of course, this is all speculation. UMass has yet to release the official “revised” policy and has only issued a statement saying the university will admit Iranian students, but with a catch. According to the statement released Wednesday, UMass will reserve the right to adjust a student’s course of study during their time at the university and provide “individualized study plans” to Iranian students studying the sciences and engineering.

UMass has yet to release any explanation as to what these study plans will entail, but their very essence is still discriminatory. The ambiguity of the statement leaves too much room for improvisation, and is the very reason the decision to admit Iranian students again is a revision, not reversal, of the prejudiced policy.

It is unclear whether this stipulation will impact Iranian students currently attending UMass, 60 of whom are members of the UMass Iranian Graduate Students Association. The original policy also states that Iranian students will have to sign a form stating their compliance with the new sanctions, but it is unknown if that rule will carry over into the new policies.

News outlets like CNN, Al Jazeera, BBC, NBC, and the Huffington Post have been covering the story; some of these news outlets attended the meeting last week.  UMass’s decision was the top trending story on Facebook all day Wednesday and the Facebook page, “No to the UMass Educational Ban on Iranian Students” had 3,788 likes as of Wednesday night. You can also follow the story on social media with the hashtag #WeAreUMass.

The attention could not have come at a worse time for the university. Amid a whirlwind of negative attention surrounding a lack of diversity on campus, the latest decision to discriminate against Iranian students directly contradicts promises in the campus Diversity Mission Statement. The statement says:

“The University of Massachusetts Amherst, as a public land grant institution, has a responsibility to provide access and opportunities for all people, while demonstrating our commitment to inclusion of historically underrepresented groups. We believe that a culturally diverse campus is integral to academic excellence and that our students, faculty and staff should reflect the diverse world in which we live.”

Saee-Nazari called for students to occupy the Whitmore Administration building to protest the policy. His demands were simple.

“One- to reverse the policy altogether. And two- to increase Middle Eastern diversity on campus and hold UMass administration accountable to the Diversity Strategic Plan that they created last semester,” he said.

The  forum  that Wednesday night provided clarity and catharsis to the UMass community, but the fight is hardly over. Speakers at the forum urged students to keep pressuring the university to completely reverse the policy.

A soft-spoken student from the back row offered a personal story as one of the closing comments of the evening.

“I came to this country when I was five years old because people of my faith are not allowed to pursue higher education. So to see this happening kind of hurts because people over there have to build an underground place so they can teach students. People are imprisoned for learning. And it is very sad to see this type of thing. I’m not usually the type of person who likes to talk. I’m kind of a shy guy, but I just had to make it known. This hits close to me.”

Sarah Robertson can be reached at [email protected] or follow her on twitter @srobertson

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