Jan 9, 2012

Diversity of foreign students decreasing in the United States

Being a foreign student, the subject of international students in the United States is close to my heart. Moreover, having attended educational institutions in the USA for the past 11 years as both an undergraduate and graduate student, has given me a unique perspective about how important a role, international students students like me play in the United States. Arrogance aside, I know first-hand how many opinions I altered, how many stereotypes I broke and how interesting it was for my American friends to gain exposure to me, my family and my culture. I admit, I am certainly far from being the most interesting man in the world, but I did take my role as a pseudo-representative of Pakistan seriously.

And it wasn't just a one way street of cultural learning. 

I remember first coming to the United States as a scared and nervous but impressionable teenager, fresh of the boat with my own laundry list of stereotypes about the world at large and Americans in particular. Of course, all, if not most of my opinions altered dramatically during college. I'm not going to list every opinion that changed, but needless to say, I really did find who I truly was in college. And in my opinion, it wasn't just the education that opened the world and shaped me, it was also the diversity of people around me. I used to partake in those oh-so-typical late night college chats with my American, Israeli, American, Spanish and Brazilian friends late into the night. I attended Jewish, Catholic, Buddhist and non-denominational services. I took part in mediated political debates with my Indian friends. And I cried and stood in solidarity with my friends and neighbors after September the 11th. And lastly and most importantly, I helped change how my family and friends from Pakistan viewed America, Israel, Spain, the West, Judaism, India, Hinduism etc etc.

College was truly eye opening for this foreigner and I truly believe that exposure to different cultures and creeds while studying in the US helped shaped others like me tremendously.

Now multiply my minuscule cultural contribution to the interactions of approximately 723,000 international students currently attending the colleges and universities across America and one can just imagine the benefits of building bridges through America's international student ambassadors. Right now in the United States, we have 723,000 young representatives from around the world, eager to impress, to learn and to report their experiences back to their home countries. There is no better foreign policy weapon that exists better than these 723,000 students. And trust me, these students are also changing the opinions of Americans across the nation. They are constantly helping shape and break the stereotypes that Americans may have about their country through friendship and collaboration.

Now financially, we already know that international students play an important role in higher education, because they contribute roughly $14 billion to the U.S. economy yearly. In fact, the U.S. Department of Commerce ranks international education as the 5th largest service sector export. In higher education, their contribution is even greater because a large number of international students conduct basic research and work as teaching assistants. For example, the number of international graduate students in my PhD program vastly outnumbers the Americans and I am sure this trend exists at many other universities.

Though financial contribution is important, it is the diversification of America's educational institutions that is the most important role of international students. And according to the latest data released by the Institute of International Education, this diversity is decreasing dramatically.

I downloaded the data for the top 27 countries of origin for international students from 1999 till 2010 and plotted entropy, which is a measure of diversity, as a function of time. Entropy basically measures how the students are distributed amongst the 27 countries. Entropy is highest if the students are distributed equally amongst the countries. It is lowest, when all most of the students belong to one country. The 27th country is "Other". 

The 27 countries included in this study are listed in decreasing order in terms of the number of international students that originate in these countries in 2010/2011. China, India, South Korea, Canada, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Vietnam, Mexico, Turkey, Nepal, Germany, United Kingdom, Brazil, Thailand, Hong Kong, France, Nigeria, Indonesia, Malaysia, Columbia, Iran, Venezuela, Pakistan, Kenya, Russia and "Other".

The plot shows that diversity amongst international students has been in slow decline since 1999 before it suffered a sharp drop after 2007. The reason for this decline is a sharp increase in the number and proportion of Indian and Chinese students. In 1995, only 15% of international students were from India and China. In 2010, this number more than doubled to 36%. In contrast, the proportion of students from other parts of the world has decreased. In the same period, the proportion of Taiwanese students went from 7% to 3%, Japanese students decreased from 10% to 3%, and Indonesian students decreased from 3% to less than 1%. Apart from the 26 countries, "Other", which represent the other 100 or so countries not included in the 26, went down from 60% in 1995 to 18%. in 2010.

Even though the number of international students is increasing every year, the diversity is steadily declining. Two countries account for a third of all international students and this proportion is increasing yearly.

I have absolutely nothing against Chinese and Indian students. The majority of my friends are Chinese and Indians and I have nothing but great things to say about them, their country and their culture. But I believe this overall trend is worrying and needs to be corrected immediately. It is to only America's advantage to have such great diversity in its colleges and universities. I am not sure why diversity is decreasing but it is entirely possible that more Indians and Chinese apply to American colleges than Germans. However the the numbers for other countries don't reflect this hypothesis. For example, why is the tiny nation of Nepal 11th on the list? Do more Nepalese students apply to American colleges than Indonesian students. Or are they encouraged to apply a lot more? To me, this process reeks of politics, and reflects America's foreign policy relations and the lack of visa's to certain nations. This is unfortunate because education and accepting students into colleges should ideally be policy free.

In order to get the balance back into the international student populace and to increase diversity, I believe quotas should be implemented to force the acceptance of pre-screened (for security) and highly qualified students from underrepresented countries. Only then can true diversity be achieved. These young foreign ambassadors will eventually return to their respective nations. If America's colleges and society shapes them into future leaders of their nations, it will only be to America's advantage.

Jan 3, 2012

Jesus was one of many holy figures "born" on the 25th of December

Just finished watching an independent documentary written and directed by Brian Flemming called "The God Who Wasn't There" which questions the existence of Jesus. The documentary itself was disappointing as I felt the writer was pushing his own agenda a bit too intensely. Rather than discussing the details, historical facts and proof outlining his arguments, he spends too much time being bitter about his religious upbringing. On the whole, the documentary felt childish and amateur to me.

However, like any other documentary, it wasn't totally a lost cause because its thesis was extremely interesting. For one thing, I actually had no idea that there is lot of controversy regarding the birthday of Jesus, let alone the fact that there is an intense ongoing debate regarding his very existence. And after researching the topic a little on the Internet, I felt a bit stupid as both these controversies so popular, that every theist needs to know about them. One website considers the birthday of Jesus as one of history's 20 greatest historical myths:
Christmas is meant to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but there is no evidence whatsoever, biblical or otherwise, that He was actually born on that day. Nor is there anything to suggest that He was born in a manger, or that there were three wise men (although, as any nativity play will remind you, three gifts were mentioned). There are differing views as to why December 25 was chosen as Christmas day, but one of the most interesting is that the day was already celebrated by followers of Mithras, the central god of a Hellenistic cult that developed in the Eastern Mediterranean around 100 BC. The followers of this faith believed that Mithras was born of a virgin on 25 December, and that his birth was attended by shepherds...
In fact, it seems that there are several other historical pagan deities besides Mithras "born" on December 25. According to research done by this website, they are: 
Dionysus the son of Zeus
Sol Invictus - (The "Unconquered Sun")
That's quite a few pagan Gods. So apparently around the 4th century AD, the Catholic church just adopted this traditional pagan holiday of December 25th as the birthday of Jesus. Fair enough!

Dec 24, 2011

Do aliens exist? If so, does that refute the existance of God?

Just watched Part 1 of the documentary, "Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking" which talks about Aliens and found it to be fascinating. There were some new ideas I learned and other ideas that were confirmed to me. For instance, I knew that Hawking strongly believes that alien life has to exist, just based on the sheer size of the universe. In fact, he believes it would be unlikely for alien life NOT to exist. What I didn't know was that alien life could exist within our own solar system, for example on Mars or more interestingly, on the moon Europa circling Jupiter. With regards to Eurupa, this moon is covered by a layer of ice 15 miles thick. However, because of its egg-shaped orbit around Jupiter, it expands and contracts, releasing lots energy, leading scientists to hypothesize that liquid water may exist underneath the ice surface. A quick look at Wikipedia reveals that though space missions to this moon have been suggested, it would be extremely expensive to put something together. I think it would be remarkable if we could send an unmanned device to this moon. Just the mission itself would inspire a generation.

Second thing I learned was that water isn't essential to life. Life could exist in other a soup of others chemicals too, such as liquid nitrogen or even mixtures of gases. Life could even exist without light, which it certainly does in the deepest parts of Earths oceans. Some planets are only gaseous, while others are too cold to support liquid water, but might be able to support liquid nitrogen. The point is, the possibilities are endless, and almost every shape and form of life must exist somewhere.

Hawking is also skeptical of supposed "encounters" with aliens that are occasionally reported on earth. To him, it makes no sense for aliens to take the time to travel across the galaxy only to arrive on earth unannounced and secretly find lonely and abduct them. Hawking fears that if aliens do come to earth, it won't be for peaceful purposes.

It was an interesting documentary and certainly fun to watch. After it was over, I was wondering if the existence of aliens would refute or confirm the existence of God to believers on Earth.

This question has almost certainly has been posed to religious scholars. Do any of my readers know the answer? If you do end up reading my query, and can point me in the right direction, please do so in the comments!

Dec 22, 2011

Pakistan's New Year's Resolution: A secular pipe dream

If Pakistan could speak, this is what I feel she would wish for in 2012.
  • Religion: Begin the process of separating state and religion once and for all. Extremism, feudalism and nepotism have shaken my foundations. Though secularism isn't perfect, it is the best solution given the toxic state of the country. Adding more theocratic nonsense to feudalism and masochism is beyond dangerous.
  • Name: Remove "Islamic" from my official name. Wasn't even my original name.
  • Defense: The armed forces take up a big chunk of my budget. Even though I am officially considered a failed state, the military spending is ranked 35th in the world. That is too exorbitant. I want to reduce the size and strength of my armed forces, redirecting those funds towards education, technology, energy and infrastructure.Sounds naive but I need to shift my priorities and focus on internal strife rather than external threats.
  • Education: I will make bold strides to education my people, especially the women, who form the strength and backbone of families.The feudal, masochistic traditions coupled with Islam, have suppressed women for generations. That clock needs to be rewound.
  • Minorities: Minorities have long been persecuted in this country. So much for Jinnah's dream about protecting them. Perhaps shift some defense forces from the Indian border to the entrance of churches?
I know that wishes don't necessarily come true. But a secularist can hope.