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Iranian STEM Students Face Uphill Battle in US

Iranian STEM Students Face Uphill Battle in US

On Feb. 6, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst announced that it would no longer be accepting Iranian graduate students in STEM fields. The university cited a 2012 law that imposed sanctions against Iran. After outcry from students and faculty, and clarification from the State Department, the university reversed its policy on Feb. 18. In a faculty senate meeting the following day, UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy apologized to the university community for the policy, which many have called unnecessary and discriminatory.

The 2012 law cited by the university called on the State Department not to issue student visas for Iranians who were studying for careers in the nuclear or energy sectors in Iran. The law does not require universities to bar Iranian students; in fact, it does not impose any requirements on universities. The determination of which Iranian students should be allowed to study in the US was placed in the hands of the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Also, the law only applies to Iranian students who intend to return to Iran to work in the nuclear or energy fields. As State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a Feb. 18 press briefing, "US law does not prohibit qualified Iranian nationals from coming to the United States for education in science and engineering." UMass would have barred Iranian students from nearly all STEM fields, including fields such as microbiology that have no obvious connection to the nuclear or energy sectors.

According to Subbaswamy, the university's decision was prompted when an Iranian UMass student, who had travelled to Iran during the school's winter break, was denied re-entry to the US by the Department of Homeland Security. It's not clear why the student was not allowed to return, but the university's response banning all future Iranian STEM students was almost certainly an overreaction.

Among other US universities, only Virginia Commonwealth University has a similar policy. Most other universities simply advise prospective Iranian students to be conscious of the law when choosing a program of study and applying for a visa.

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According to the Institute of International Education, in 2014 there were more than 10,000 students from Iran studying in the US. This figure does not include US citizens with dual Iranian citizenship (for example, US-born children of Iranian parents). According to a 2009 study by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science Education, 89% of Iranians who earn doctorates in the US stay in this country.

The majority of Iranian students in the US -- like the majority of Iranians in Iran -- have a positive view of this country and its people. Most were born after the 1979 revolution that overthrew the US-backed Shah, and don't tend to be aligned with their country's conservative leadership; some are simply apolitical, while many were supportive of the 2009 Iranian presidential election protests. Despite this, they are being made to face restrictions that students from other countries don't have to face, due to an international situation they had no role in creating.

The twists and turns of international diplomacy can be confusing enough, but when they are interpreted by bureaucrats and applied to individual cases, the results can be downright bizarre. An Iranian friend and former classmate recently told me about an Iranian graduate student who was working on a solar cell project funded by the Department of Energy. After approving the student's participation, the Department abruptly kicked the student off the project after just two weeks, leaving the student in limbo -- a graduate researcher with no research project. Some Iranian engineers working for NASA described a frustrating level of surveillance, with their home phone calls being monitored and the contents of their hard drives being checked at airports. On the other hand, another Iranian graduate student is apparently working on a project funded by the Department of Defense with no problems.

When my friend earned his doctorate a few years ago, he was concerned about whether his Iranian background would limit his job prospects. He wondered whether he should take his bachelor's and master's degrees from an Iranian university off his resume. He even considered changing his name to something less Iranian-sounding. (I told him that most Americans probably can't tell an Iranian-sounding name from any number of other foreign-sounding names, and almost certainly don't know what country Isfahan University of Technology is in -- and that those who do would be unlikely to hold it against him.) Fortunately, after an agonizingly long time, he found a great job with a US company, and is now working on earning a green card.

Despite the geopolitical differences between the US and Iranian governments, the vast majority of Iranian STEM students and technical professionals in the US simply want to study, work, and live in this country -- and contribute to its economy and technological advancement. Hopefully, they will continue to be able to do so.

Dave Palmer, P.E., is a licensed professional metallurgical engineer specializing in failure analysis and prevention. He earned his B.S. degree at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and his M.S. degree at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

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