A young woman smiles, her dark eyes shining with excitement as she holds in her hands a flag from Wellesley College in the United States – an emblem of the next chapter of the 19-year-old’s life. Last year, Shukri Ali graduated from Abaarso School of Science and Technology in Somaliland – a school in rural Somaliland founded to meet the needs of exceptional students who lack access to secondary education. In the fall, she will leave her home to accept her early admission as a MasterCard Foundation Scholar to Wellesley, where she’ll pursue her studies in neuroscience.

Or so she hopes.

Ms. Ali’s dream of an Ivy League education hinges on the outcomes of U.S. President Donald Trump’s revised executive order, which halts travelers from six Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, including some of the world’s brightest young students in pursuit of a quality education abroad.


“I feel lucky that I’ve been accepted to an elite college in the U.S.,” says Ms. Ali, whose MasterCard Foundation scholarship is supported through the partnership with the African Leadership Academy. “But I am also sad that I might not be able to start my college education this year.”

Ms. Ali is not alone. As one of nearly 21,000 MasterCard Foundation Scholars and as one of thousands of young people seeking a quality education in the United States, her aspirations are supported by a committed network of educators, alumni and advocates at the 28 institutions that form The MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program.

The executive order threatens the future of international education in the United States. The founding principles of the U.S. university – inquiry, humanity and discourse – are under threat. Just as a network of advocates and champions stand in support of Ms. Ali, a broader rallying cry has erupted among the international higher education community committed to a common core belief: All young people, no matter their starting point in life, should have an equal chance to obtain a quality education and pursue their aspirations.

Professional bodies such as the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Association of American Universities have led the way, and quickly, with careful condemnation of the ban. University presidents around the country have published statements, many expressing concern for and solidarity with students.

Within weeks of the order, a coalition of universities – including Foundation partners Carnegie Mellon University, Duke University and Stanford University, among others – filed a friend-of-the-court brief opposing the action, arguing that the immigration order threatens their ability to attract international students and academics to “meet their goals of educating tomorrow’s leaders from around the world.”

Behind the scenes, we’ve seen our partners come together to find creative solutions to ensure that scholars affected will begin their university studies in September, 2017, as planned. University presidents and Scholars Program staff at universities outside of the United States, such as the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, the African Leadership Academy, the University of British Columbia, McGill University, and the University of Toronto, have committed to welcoming incoming scholars who may not be able to take up their opportunities in the United States.

While the past few weeks have offered the international community little optimism on the current state of internationalized education in the United States, there is much reason to be hopeful for the future. Faced with the loss of diverse global perspectives from foreign faculty and students, U.S. universities have mobilized to cement their status as what Nature Magazine called “beacons of social justice.”

At the best of times, universities are not only economic drivers in their communities, but also powerful sources of inspiration, new thinking and intellectual influence. They interrogate societal trends around them, ground theories in evidence and enable crucial debate and respectful dialogue.

Consider the role of the University of California at Berkeley as the intellectual seat of power of the 1960s Free Speech Movement. Or student-led resistance to the Vietnam War. And above all, consider historically black colleges and universities such as Spelman College or Howard University and their role in educating next-generation community leaders from the Civil War era through Civil Rights to today’s social-justice movements.

In many ways, universities have come to learn at the feet of their students as the leaders of historical resistance energized by the knowledge and debates acquired with formal education.

Above all, by holding their own government to account, U.S. universities are living up to their obligations to the communities they serve. If American universities fail, so, too, do the prospects of their leadership role on the global stage and at home.

Nowhere is this more evident than on the individual level. For now, Shukri Ali’s plans remain unchanged: to attend Wellesley College and study neuroscience. “And then,” she says, “when I finish my education, I will come back to Somaliland and start a hospital.”


Special to The Globe and Mail

Peter Materu is the director of education and learning and youth livelihoods at The MasterCard Foundation.

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