Maria Navas-Moreno: Fewer foreign students in our classrooms and labs is bad for business

Maria Navas-Moreno

When I came to the University of Utah from Bogota, Colombia, as an eager graduate student 13 years ago, I was hungry for opportunity. American universities had a reputation for encouraging groundbreaking research, and the lack of red tape made the United States the best place in the world to start a business. After a decade researching nanotechnologies in Utah and California, I recently co-launched a company that’s creating consumer applications of sophisticated laser technologies.

Yet I’m deeply worried that a new generation of international students won’t get the chance to make their mark — at a time when Utah needs them more than ever. The White House’s crackdown on legal immigration is having significant and troubling consequences for higher education, preventing international students from studying in our classrooms and staffing our research labs and hurting the U.S. reputation as a global leader.

International student enrollment has declined under the Trump Administration, down 6.6 percent in 2017 and another 1.5 percent in 2018, according to the nonprofit Institute of International Education. School officials overwhelmingly cite visa delays and denials as the reason. That’s in addition to the backlog of visa approvals for a work training program known as Optional Practical Training.

Students have been stuck in agonizing limbo – or worse, forced to take their talents to other countries where the political climate is more welcoming. Foreign students account for 40 to 70 percent of all graduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and they’re poised to fill dire shortages. In fact, 17 STEM jobs were posted online for each unemployed worker in Utah in 2016, according to research by New American Economy (NAE).

There is simply no excuse why we are at risk of losing valuable brainpower and future entrepreneurs who drive economic growth and innovation because of misguided xenophobic immigration policies. Never mind the existence of even more hurdles that prevent these hard-working students from getting jobs after graduation. By April, U.S. companies had applied for 201,000 applications for just 85,000 spots for all of 2019.

Yet immigrants still thrive, despite these barriers that threaten to thwart their progress. In Utah alone, nearly 13,000 foreign-born entrepreneurs created nearly 40,000 jobs, and precent report by NAE found that nearly 45 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children across the nation, employing 13.5 million people and bringing in $6.1 trillion in annual revenues. You have to have an adventurous spirit and history of resilience to succeed in a foreign country, which is great preparation for overcoming the challenges you’ll encounter getting a business off the ground.

I was lucky to arrive here during a friendlier immigration climate, and the ability to stay and apply my education without enduring crazy visa hassles helped me find my true calling. At the University of Utah and later at the University of California Davis, I was fortunate to study the science behind rare diseases and the use of nano-particles to see how breast cancer cells divide and change. Frustrated with the fact that these new technologies weren’t getting to the doctors and researchers who could use them, I wanted to find a way to use physics to improve people’s lives by finding new ways of diagnosing diseases and using that information to design better treatments.

Last January, I joined hands with my Salt Lake City-based colleagues to launch Lever Photonics to develop new applications of Raman spectroscopy, a technology used to analyze chemical and mechanical properties of many materials — from graphene to Martian soil.

President Trump is threatening our economy and compromising our global reputation as desirable place to study. We need to put out the welcome mat again and let these smart and motivated people do their best work that benefits us all.

Maria Navas-Moreno, Ph.D., is the co-founder of Lever Photonics, Salt Lake City.