Like most politically-aware students, Fuat Savas ’06 is concerned about the upcoming presidential election. But unlike most of his peers, Savas will not be able to vote on Nov. 2 because he is not a U.S. citizen.
While the majority of undergraduates will be able to vote in this year’s election, most of Yale’s approximately 450 international students will have no such opportunity. Yet for students who deal frequently with national issues like student visas and travel restrictions, the election process could have direct repercussions on their lives.
Samar Abbas ’06, vice president of the Yale International Students Organization, said many international undergraduates at Yale, despite diverse backgrounds, share a passion for American politics. Abbas even suggested that some international students may know more about U.S. policies than the presidential candidates themselves.
International students like Abbas said this particular election is of global importance and cannot be ignored. Through undergraduate organizations, political forums and independent projects, they are able to voice their opinions.
Sadiq Abdulla ’05, the president of the Yale International Relations Association, said although he and other students from outside the United States are unable to directly influence the outcome of the presidential election or other U.S. political processes, they still feel obligated to formulate and present their opinions.
“[We] have a stake in the direction that America decides to go in,” Abdulla said. “An action that America takes affects people in far-reaching areas of the world.”
Latin American Student Organization President Eleonara Sharef ’07 agreed, pointing out that the next U.S. president will play a crucial role in determining Cuban-American relations.
Savas, president of the ISO, said that he is particularly interested in the upcoming election because he is worried that the religious affiliations of both presidential candidates will set a dangerous precedent for nations whose citizens may wish to separate church from state.
“I think that it is incorrect for candidates to aim at and manipulate religious sentiment,” Savas, a native of Turkey, said. “As far as I know, citizenship in this country is not defined through religion. As such, it shouldn’t be brought into politics.”
Savas, who spent five years abroad in England and Denmark before coming to Yale, said he was especially attuned to this issue because of the debate surrounding secularism in contemporary Turkish politics.
“I don’t think that a religious register should be a part of political discourse in this era,” he said. “We are not living in the age of crusades.”
YIRA member Hrvoje Ostric ’07 said that the unique political perspectives which international students frequently offer at YIRA meetings add a refreshingly divergent opinion from those presented by American students who are more often influenced by the popular press.
“A lot of times we’ll be talking about a certain country during a Security Council Simulation, and you’ll have someone from that country,” he said. “They provide an interesting firsthand perspective.”
But some international students said they prefer to try to effect change outside of the Yale community instead of discussing the issues with their peers.
Michelle de Saram ’05, a native of Sri Lanka who has also lived in London, said her interest in the global repercussions of national policy decisions prompted her to undertake a project to clarify U.S. foreign policy decisions for West African citizens. De Saram said she believed that decisions involving trade and the war in Iraq were poorly explained, leading West African citizens to harbor negative opinions of Americans. As a result, De Saram devoted her summer to correcting this problem. As part of her project, she traveled to Ghana, Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso and Mali.
“People’s perceptions changed when the policies were explained to them,” she said. “Not that they necessarily always agreed with the policy, but they at least saw things in a new light.”
Adam Jenkins ’06, an American expatriate who moved to England, also sensed the distances between cultures when assessing international politics.
“As an international student, you’re confronted by two different sides of the same picture, and you’re adding opposite pieces that [are not coherent],” Jenkins said. “For instance when Edwards was named V.P. [nominee,] it was covered all day for weeks in British news channels, but it was not particularly significant to American commentators.”
More generally though, Abdulla emphasized that the political opinions of international students are particularly valuable in an educational setting like Yale where shared ideas are an integral part of the learning process.
“It’s all about informing people about the international system,” he said. “It’s important to let American students know there are other perspectives in the world.”
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”17255″ ]