Political groups at USC have a substantial impact on student awareness and participation in the political process. For some international students who have never experienced the political freedoms that American students sometimes take for granted, that impact is much more personal and profound.
USC enrolls more international students, who collectively represent over 130 countries, than any other university in the country. International students do not have permanent residence or citizenship in the United States and instead study in the United States with a student visa. Because of citizenship and permanent residency requirements, international students can’t vote, which might lead one to expect little involvement of international students in political groups like the College Democrats, the College Republicans or the Political Student Assembly.
But time and time again, USC has demonstrated a trend of exceeding expectations — and one international student making a difference in California elections is living proof of that.
Mina Moussa was born in Egypt and goes to school full time in Spain. He is studying business, finance and entrepreneurship at USC as an exchange student for the semester and is considering staying for the entire year.
“I was quite interested that in the United States, you can actually have a say in politics and fight for your future,” Moussa said. “This never existed back home in Egypt, but maybe after this revolution, which is mainly the younger generation, it will.”
Coming from a country that discourages political involvement, Moussa said he wants to experience the privilege many American students enjoy to have a say in their government, something that is often taken for granted. He began working for Republican Greg Conlon’s campaign for California State Treasurer because he wanted to make a difference.
“I got involved in his campaign because I agreed with what he was fighting for and it mattered most to me,” Moussa said.
Jennifer Massey is another student for whom politics matters. Massey, who has served as the president of the USC College Republicans for two years, spoke of the involvement of students from places like India, China, the Czech Republic, Russia and Israel.
Seventeen percent of the student body is made up of international students, but Massey said the College Republicans’ percentage of international students is likely below that.
“A lot of students are apathetic to politics in general,” Massey said. “Some that are Republican or Democrat don’t come and join a group at all, so anytime an international student who can’t vote takes an interest, it’s surprising to me. But, sometimes they are more active than our students who are voters.”
Her counterpart in the USC College Democrats, President Alec White, agreed. White indicated that involvement of international students in the USC College Democrats is minimal, and “definitely below” the 17 percent mark.
“Part of it might be that we do a lot of stuff focused on domestic policy, as opposed to international relations,” White said. “Right now we’re really focused on electing Democrats to the state assembly, and after that, we’ll be focusing on the city council elections coming up in March.”
For the College Democrats and other student political groups, the focus on elections comes at the expense of recruiting specific demographics such as international students. White indicated that next semester could be an ideal time to recruit international students like Moussa but said nothing has been planned yet.
“Maybe our club has too much focus on domestic policy,” White said. “We could bring in some speakers to talk about international politics, or speakers who could talk about issues going on in the home countries of international students.”
Clubs like the College Democrats and College Republicans only tell part of the story; the Undergraduate Student Government’s International Students Assembly, which is responsible for programming for all of the international students on campus, is headed by executive director Rachel Zou, a junior majoring in business who was born in China before moving to the United States, where she has lived for most of her life.
According to Zou, ISA has prioritized social and professional programming at the expense of encouraging political involvement.
“We have not done any programming for international students to get involved in political life,” said Zou, who is also the former director of professional and political affairs for ISA. “International students mostly come here to get an education and to get a job, and we saw the need for ISA to provide those resources.”
Luke Phillips, the outgoing director of the Political Students Assembly, also said international students aren’t getting as involved as their domestic counterparts.
According to Phillips, “[International Students] are not very well represented within PSA and USG in general.”
USG Vice President Rini Sampath agreed with Zou’s sentiments about the emphasis on social and educational integration rather than political involvement.
“Especially for international students, the focus is on the education and social climate, a lot of things that we who have grown up here don’t think about,” Sampath said. “When you have that to worry about, it’s hard to get involved on these other things on campus.”
Some international students can certainly do both, particularly when it comes to issues that are physically and emotionally close to home for them. For example, USC’s Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation has high international student participation which leaders believe is due to the group’s international focus on issues like labor exploitation in Bangladesh.
“We have a good amount of international students that participate, particularly because we focus a lot on international work,” said Sarah Newell, a senior studying business administration and a member of SCALE’s leadership team. “Over the past year, we’ve met a lot of students from Bangladesh that have a lot of interest, and a lot of international students that come here are experts in the domestic issues of their country”
In line with White’s advice and the example set by SCALE, Sampath suggested a partnership between the USG and the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics to bring more international-focused speakers to campus and involve more international students in the discussion.
“The Unruh Institute has been so wonderful at bringing speakers for events, like the Students Talk Back series,” Sampath said. “This might be the perfect gateway for us to target international students to attend events and engage in the political dialogue on campus.”
Dan Schnur, executive director of the Unruh Institute, emphasized the bond that international students share with their domestic counterparts, despite their inability to vote.
“Even if an international student can’t vote in this country, he or she is almost certain to share some common policy interests with U.S. interests,” Schnur said. “You don’t have to be able to vote in California to care about better schools, clean air, water, immigration or trade policy.”
Schnur, who also teaches a campaign strategy class at the University of California, Berkeley, discussed the heavy involvement of international students at UC Berkeley who leave his class and take the lessons back to their home countries.
“I get emails from former students working on campaigns in countries all over the world,” Schnur said. “One of USC’s greatest strengths is the international composition of its student body, and there is no question that we can do a better job of integrating those students not just academically and socially, but politically as well.”
Moussa believes the education and job opportunities that international students pursue is all the more reason for them to get politically involved.
“With globalization, it tends to affect all of us,” Moussa said. “Many international students that come to USC tend to land jobs in the U.S. It does affect you.”