US students in Philadelphia protest against President Trump's travel ban
US students in Philadelphia protest against President Trump's travel ban © AP

Saaedah Shiravany, an Iranian MBA student at a top US business school, says news of President Donald Trump’s executive order banning citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US left her feeling “empty”.

Ms Shiravany (not her real name) worries that she will be unable to graduate because the ban, covering Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Yemen and Somalia as well as her homeland, would prevent her from participating in an overseas corporate assignment that is a requirement of her course. She fears that if she were to leave the US for the assignment, she may not be able to re-enter the country to complete her studies.

“This ban has robbed me of the experience I came here to have,” she says. Leaving the US would mean saying goodbye to completing her MBA next year. Ms Shiravany does not want to give her real name to the Financial Times because she fears that speaking out may affect her employment prospects.

For international business school students caught up in the confusion surrounding the travel ban, the effect has been to throw their studies and employment prospects into doubt. The Trump administration’s ban, announced last month, sought to limit immigration and refugees from the seven Muslim-majority countries. The president’s executive order was halted on Friday after an order to lift the ban was issued by federal judge James Robart. It remains suspended after the US appeals court on Sunday denied a justice department request to reinstate it.

Sahinaz Safari is a Canadian citizen, studying full-time for an MBA degree at the University of California at Haas School of Business. Because she was born in Iran, she would be included in the travel ban.

Ms Safari has cancelled a trip to Berlin next month, where she was due to attend the MBA World Summit, a conference for 100 business school students selected from more than 3,000 applications. Like Ms Shiravany, she fears being barred from the US on her return if the ban goes ahead. Ms Safari says the fact of her birthplace could derail her US internship plans. She may also face problems changing her student visa into a work permit to restart her career in the US after graduation.

Opportunities overseas

Business schools around the world have been quick to show solidarity with their US peers, condemning Donald Trump’s travel ban.

They also sense an opportunity to attract students from Muslim-majority countries who might otherwise have moved to the US.

Tiff Macklem, dean of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, said welcoming people from around the world is “one of our core values”.

“I will stay here, like a prisoner, for another year and a half and then I’m forced out,” she says. “Where is the logic?”

Few people working and studying at US business schools would be likely to be affected by the ban if it were to be implemented, according to FT data. Just 0.4 per cent — 18 students — of all overseas MBA students at the 80 US business schools covered by the FT’s annual ranking survey hold passports from the seven countries named in Mr Trump’s executive order.

Almost all of those have passports from Iran. In the case of faculty, all 50 in the FT survey with passports subject to the ban are Iranian.

The longer-term problem for US business schools is reputational damage, as the possibility of a travel ban creates uncertainty for prospective students and faculty. Schools have been quick to show support for students affected by the executive order, with demonstrations last week at campuses from Stanford University in Silicon Valley to New England’s Yale School of Management.

Nitin Nohria, dean of faculty at Harvard Business School, was among several school heads expressing solidarity with those excluded, sending an email to staff and students expressing deep concern about a “new order” in the White House.

Prof Nohria, a first-generation immigrant to the US from India, added that the travel ban created “anxiety and confusion” among students, including upset that family members may no longer be able to attend graduation events as well as uncertainty over career goals.

Of 542 full-time MBA students at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, one has been identified as a dual citizen of one of the seven named countries. However, Rohan Williamson, the interim dean, says the travel ban sent a negative message to all students arriving to study from outside the US — 30 per cent of the MBA class.

Most students from the banned countries who are enrolled in courses in the US are on masters or doctoral level programmes, according to figures compiled by Rahul Choudaha, co-founder of InterEdge, which provides support to overseas students seeking US work visas. However, of 12,269 Iranian students enrolled at US universities last year, Mr Choudaha’s team found that less than 5 per cent were working on degrees in business or management.

The absolute numbers matter less than the negative message, says Bhavik Trivedi, managing partner of Critical Square, an adviser for MBA applicants.

“The leaning of the country is concerning,” he says. “What does this say about the US, its ecosystem and its people?”

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