UI international students share mixed thoughts on campus safety

Some students feel completely safe from gun violence while others constantly are watching their backs.


Kate Perez

Hua Wei Lee poses for a portrait under the University of Iowa’s International Programs sign in the Old Capitol Mall on March 3, 2023. Lee, a third-year international student originally from Taiwan, said he almost always feels safe when out in Iowa City.

Kate Perez, News Editor

Ming Dong takes preventative measures to stay safe from potential gun violence in Johnson County. Dong said he has subconsciously adopted not going out after 10 p.m., avoiding people on the street, and constantly being on edge and listening for loud noises like gunshots when he is outside or in downtown Iowa City.

“I think it’s weird, but I gradually have a sense like, if there’s some weird noise or weird behavior, I would just walk away,” Dong said. “… That’s a little weird, you know, I shouldn’t think like that.”

Dong, a UI postgraduate student from China, is one of many international students who say they feel varying levels of safety as gun violence rates rise across Johnson County and the U.S.

Johnson County saw an increase in felony gun violations in October 2022, which could be adding to the lack of safety some international students are feeling on campus, in Iowa City, and throughout Johnson County. Additionally, gun violence across the U.S. is contributing to difficulties in recruiting students.

The number of UI international students declined for the fifth year since 2017, according to a 2022 UI report. There were 2,176 total international students in 2021.

Dong said he was aware when he started higher education in the U.S. that gun violence is always a threat. Dong said he came to the U.S. because it has better programs for his area of study: health promotion.  But he did not expect gun violence to be as prevalent as it currently is.

“I see this too much, and I’m, like, numbed by it,” Dong said. “There’s a terminology in psychology about this, but it’s really, like, I see too much, and I’m like, ‘Okay, I just need to do some actions to prevent it,’” he said.

On a national scale, international students have expressed concerns about gun violence in the U.S. In a survey by the World Education Services, a quarter of the 1,920 students surveyed reported that they were concerned with gun violence at their institution.

Russ Ganim, UI associate provost and dean of International Programs, wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan that he heard from international student recruits that gun violence is a concern when considering pursuing higher education in the U.S.

“The concerns are not in great numbers, but we are hearing them nonetheless,” Ganim wrote. “Gun violence in the U.S. has definitely made international recruitment more challenging.”

RELATED: County exploring program to reduce gun violence with ARPA funds

Ganim wrote that global data has shown some international students decided to make the U.S. their second or third choice for international education because of the gun violence within the country.

Additionally, the students’ concerns heavily focus on their safety, both on and off their chosen campus.

However, Ganim wrote he actively tries to ease students’ concerns.

“We try to reassure international students and their families that Iowa City is a safe and welcoming place and that the university takes issues of student security very seriously,” Ganim wrote.

Becky Hanson, UI associate director of international outreach and recruitment, echoed a similar statement in an email to the DI, writing that gun violence across the county is impacting recruitment.

“Fortunately, we are able to promote our smaller city, educated college town with a proven higher level of safety than other parts of the U.S. Incidents of violence in the U.S. is still a question we get,” Hanson wrote.

 For some students, gun violence is not of concern in Iowa City. Hua Wei Lee, a third-year UI international student from Taiwan, said violence is a far-off issue that does not affect him.

Lee, who first came to the U.S. as a teenager to attend high school in West Branch, Iowa, said he has never felt unsafe on campus or while downtown in Iowa City. During his time in Iowa as a whole, Lee said, he has always felt completely at ease.

“I never worry about the violence, but I feel like my parents worry about it more. I really just don’t care, to be honest,” Lee said. “I feel like it’s more like my friends back from home that kind of worry about me, but my friends here and I don’t care.”

In Taiwan, Lee said people typically harm each other with knives as opposed to guns, and he does not see a difference between that type of violence and gun violence.

Lee said he is aware that violence occurs in the U.S. and in Johnson County but does not pay it too much attention.

“I just don’t realize anything happens. I don’t feel like it’s super dangerous. I don’t feel like it’s super deadly,” Lee said. “Probably [I would] if every time I walk on the street I see someone shot, or I see people bleeding on the road or something, but I’ve never seen that before.”

He added that his family, friends, and loved ones back in Taiwan regularly check in on him and are worried about his safety, but he does not see an issue in Johnson County.

While Lee feels secure in his safety, other international students say they are constantly worried about what may happen to them on the UI campus or in Iowa City.

Dong said he has seen social stigmas or stereotypes arise from gun violence, especially among his other international friends. These stereotypes, which Dong said he often sees in media, are leading his friends to sometimes think negatively of different ethnic groups.

“I think that’s a more alerting issue than the safety … this stigmatization, it’s not really beneficial for international students to get into society or to not be racist,” Dong said. “It’s just like a phenomenon … It’s more like implicit bias.”