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The need for powerful #loveInternational stories

6 March 2017
Professor Dominic Shellard

Professor Dominic Shellard

Vice-Chancellor
De Montfort University

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and the story this photograph tells is an eloquent and intensely moving one.

Each student comes from one of the seven nations affected by Donald Trump’s proposed immigration ban – Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Libya. 

As they stood in proud defiance bearing their nations’ flags, they told an audience of hundreds how they felt to be international students at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU).

It was a remarkable moment to witness, made even more poignant by the fact that it was the finale to DMU’s 24-hour #loveInternational vigil. Around the clock, and in sometimes sub-zero temperatures, students and staff shared stories, lectures, poetry and performances which demonstrated how they felt about intolerance and anti-immigration rhetoric.

But what would motivate hundreds of students and staff to spend 24 hours of their own time to do this? The answer is simple.

DMU’s #loveInternational campaign has become a movement, a call to action. We relish every opportunity to show how we live up to DMU and our sector’s core values of diversity, inclusiveness and internationalism. 

And #loveInternational has resonated with EU students. While the sector as a whole has seen a fall in EU student applications, those to DMU has increased significantly. 

How did that happen? While our message that international students and staff were vital to the lifeblood of any university may not have been original, our approach certainly was. 

Less than a month after the EU Referendum result, we launched a series of international events in five EU capitals – Nicosia, Warsaw, Stockholm, Vilnius and Berlin. 

Led by me or our Deputy Vice Chancellor, we brought current students from each country, contacted alumni, leveraged our existing overseas networks and met prospective students and higher education professionals in person.

Just being able to reassure people and address some of the rumours they had heard – that EU students were being stopped from coming into the country, for example – and discuss their fears and concerns openly made each visit worthwhile.  

The visits also attracted press attention, where we faced tough questions over the outcome of the EU vote. In Warsaw, we answered angry questions over hate crimes and even if all we could say in answer was a firm and unequivocal 'not in our name', at least we were there to say it.

I believe one of the reasons the Remain campaign lost was that it failed to convince people that staying in the EU would help them.  Put simply, the Leave camp told a better story.

So when planning these events, we made sure that we told plenty of stories: of life in diverse, welcoming Leicester; how graduates from Poland thrived at DMU and had gone on to enjoy superb careers; and how we cherish international research and scholarship. We gave potential applicants the chance to speak to current students. 

In Poland, we have seen applications rise 70% following our activities. 

Medical Science graduate Lukasz Lagoida told us: 'It is wonderful to see that kind of integration.

'I think DMU has responded very quickly after this referendum vote to come out and actually meet students in these countries. I think it’s very important that this message is given.'

Since then we have taken #loveInternational to Denmark, India and China, where we engaged with more potential applicants. We also took more than 1,000 students and staff from 46 countries to New York on our largest overseas visit to date. 

We are already planning to take up to 1,500 students to Berlin in June, where we will engage with universities and city leaders and I will attempt to deliver a speech in my (hopefully not so) rusty German about our sector’s desire for positive and enduring future relationships with Germany.

However, we are under no illusions. EU student numbers will fall in coming years as Article 50 is triggered and the doubtless messy negotiations begin.  

In such circumstances, there is no magic bullet which will ensure that international students will continue to want to study in Britain. However, our experience suggests the benefits and the power of immediate and targeted action.  

Yes, it has been several months of long hours and hard graft for many at DMU – queuing to check in at 4am in Ahmedabad airport is no fun – but I believe that #loveInternational has made DMU a stronger university.

Since the EU referendum and the election of Donald Trump, it is easy to feel powerless in the face of world events.

Hearteningly, #loveInternational has empowered all of us – staff, students, alumni and our global network of partners, to take action.

As the Gandhi Global Family’s representative to the United Nations, I am particularly influenced by Gandhi’s life and sayings. Gandhi made the following profound observation – and this inspired me to create #LoveInternational at 4am on the morning of 24 June 2016:

'It's the action, not the fruit of the action, that is important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there'll be any fruit. But that doesn't mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.'

This photograph of our students shows that at DMU, we are attempting to do something.

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