It’s hard to overstate the significance of Kamala Harris’ election as vice president-elect of the United States. She will be both the first woman and first person of colour to ever occupy the office, a remarkable achievement that has been celebrated not just across America, but across the world, including in her grandfather’s hometown of Thulasendrapuram, India.
Born in Oakland, California, Harris grew up in an academic family deeply concerned with civil rights. Her mother was a breast cancer researcher and Indian immigrant, and her father was a professor of economics from Jamaica. Her parents were both international students in the US, and met through the Afro American Association, which would go on to become a building block for the Black Panther Party. She grew up in California, but frequently visited family in India.
Her background as a second-generation immigrant in the United States will be familiar to many - in 2013, the Pew Research Centre estimated there are 20 million children of immigrants in America.
Harris attended Howard University, a historically black university (HBCU), graduating in 1986. From there she went to law school at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, and passed the bar in 1990.
Her attendance at Howard, which is one of several US colleges with a rich history and tradition of black higher education, is likely to have influenced her support of HBCUs during her campaign for vice president. Harris and running mate Joe Biden have promised to support historically black and minority-serving institutions as part of their plan for higher education.
As president, Biden has pledged to “rectify the funding disparities” faced by these institutions, demonstrating the power that representation in government has to affect real policy. He has also promised that he will make these schools more affordable for their students, and invest $20 billion in their research infrastructure. It’s likely that Harris will play a key role in making these pledges become a reality.
Harris has a history of shattering glass ceilings. After college, she pursued a successful career in the law, becoming the first female black district attorney in California in 2003. In 2010 she became the first black woman to ever be elected as California’s attorney general, and then in 2016, became the second black woman to ever be elected to the US Senate. For many Americans she is representative of the diversity and multiculturalism of the country, and has paved the way for countless more women and people of colour to find their place in a system that has typically favoured white men - a make-up far from representative of the people of America.
Given Harris’ background and the Democrats’ more liberal stance on immigration, the Biden/Harris administration is likely to usher in much more accommodating policies for international students in America than we have seen over the last four years.
In July, Harris took to twitter to condemn Trump’s threats to deport international students who were not on campus full-time (a problem for many during the coronavirus pandemic), calling them “a vital part of our communities and schools”.
She went on to say that it was “outrageous they are being threatened with deportation in the midst of a public health crisis”.
International students contributed $45 billion to the US economy in 2018, and are crucial to continuing America’s global dominance in the research and education sectors. Biden and Harris appear to recognise this benefit to American society, alongside the many cultural and intellectual benefits that supporting international students also brings. Harris has frequently called education a “fundamental right”, and is likely to bring this rhetoric to international students as well as domestic ones.