Dodging the Trump decree

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UdeM offers grants for international students affected by the U.S. travel ban so they can attend conferences in Europe and elsewhere

Negar Rostamazadeh had to decline the offer she got to intern with Facebook in California. Sina Honari won't risk his personal privacy to return to the U.S., where he has already interned and gone to conferences.

They're just two of the nearly 200 international students at Université de Montréal affected by U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order barring entry to the States of  citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries.

And to help as many of them as possible, UdeM is now announcing a special travel fund that will cover grants of up $1,000 each to students affected by Trump's order and who decide to present their work at international conferences outside the U.S.

Students will be able to apply to the FAÉCUM, the university's federation of student associations, for the grants throughout the year. The new program is provided through UdeM's Student Life Improvement Fund (FAVE), financed through student fees.

Application deadlines extended

As well, in February the university extended its admissions application deadlines for the fall 2017 semester, in some cases to March 1, depending on the area of study, to ease the pressure on international students and encourage them to come here.

"Canada and Montreal in particular are popular destinations for international students," said UdeM rector Guy Breton. "UdeM wants to attract talent from all over the world and ensure that these people feel supported during their training. These new grants and deadline extensions are all initiatives that demonstrate our openness to international students. "

"For us, it is essential that all students, regardless of their country of origin, have access to the same quality training," added Chantal Pharand, the university's assistant vice-rector of student life and success.

"The experience gained when students participate in international congresses to present their research is invaluable and essential to their training," Pharand said. "We hope that these awards will contribute to the students' success and allow them to complete their research journey in a way that minimizes the stresses associated with the administrative actions that a trip to the United States could generate.

Iranian students among those affected

The countries targeted by the U.S. ban include Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. Signed Jan. 27, Trump's executive order met with widespread public opposition, caused chaos at airports and wound up in the courts.

After two states, Washington and Minnesota, challenged the ban, on Feb. 9 a federal appeals court blocked the decree, saying the American public "has an interest in free flow of travel" that trumps the new Republican administration's security concerns. Trump has since vowed to issue a new order that his Homeland Security Secretary, John Kelly, said would be "tighter" and "more streamlined."

That's little comfort to UdeM researchers from some of the countries targeted, especially Iran.

Honari, 31, a PhD student in deep learning and computer vision, is originally from Shiraz, in southern Iran. After interning at UdeM's AI ab here in 2013. In 2016, he did a four-month internship at Nvidia, the gaming GPU company in Santa Clara, California; he has also attended conferences in New York and Las Vegas.

"If you want to go the U.S. now, you face a two-hour interrogation at the airport, and they can also check your cell phone and go through your laptop," Honari said. "So it's not really worth it right now to go to a conference there. If they don't capture your information, then I suppose your rights aren't being violated. But for me, it's just a question of personal privacy and respect, and preserving those things."

For her part, besides Teheran, Rostamazadeh has studied in London and Trento, Italy, and has interned at Google in Seattle. But the 28-year-old PhD student won't be returning to the U.S. anytime soon. This month, because of the travel restrictions, she had to decline a four-month internship at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California. She found something better – a full-time job – here in Montreal instead.

Admissions of foreign students on the rise

The metropolis is a global centre of excellence in artificial intelligence, with UdeM at the forefront of this rapidly expanding field. MILA, the Montreal Learning Algorithm Institute, is the best in the world, home to dozens of international students. And IVADO, the Institute for Data Enhancement, brings together researchers from UdeM, the HEC and the Polytechnique, working on technology transfer with companies.

Uncertainty over Trump's travel ban has had another effect: UdeM and other Canadian universities have seen an uptick recently in applications from prospective students who might otherwise have chosen institutions in the U.S.

Of UdeM's 67,000 students, 9,300 – about 15 per cent – are international students. Half are permanent residents of Canada; the other half are here temporarily on student visas. Students from France make up the largest group by far: about 3,300 students, followed by about 500 each from Algeria, Morocco and Haiti. Iranians are eighth down the list (about 250), after Chinese, Tunisians and students from Cameroon.

Since Trump's election last November, UdeM has seen notable increases in applications for admission from abroad, especially at the master's and PhD levels. Graduate applications from Iran have risen by over 25 per cent compared to the same period (November to February) in 2015-16, while graduate applications from the  U.S. rose by close to 40 per cent. Traffic on UdeM's admissions website is also up.

About Université de Montréal

Deeply rooted in Montreal and dedicated to its international mission, Université de Montréal ranks among the top 1% of the world’s best universities and is considered the top comprehensive university in the Francophonie. Founded in 1878, UdeM today has 15 faculties and schools, and together with its two affiliated schools, HEC Montréal and Polytechnique Montréal, constitutes the largest centre of higher education and research in Quebec and one of the most important in North America. It has 2,800 professors and researchers and more than 66,000 students.    

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