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Few apply to Florida universities after DeSantis order to help Jewish students, others

Students walk through Turlington Plaza on the University of Florida Campus in Gainesville, Fla. (Sam Thomas/Fresh Take Florida)<br/>
Sam Thomas/Sam Thomas
Students walk through Turlington Plaza on the University of Florida Campus in Gainesville, Fla. (Sam Thomas/Fresh Take Florida)

At least five people in the United States have applied to Florida universities through Gov. Ron DeSantis’ emergency order to encourage students across the country to transfer to Florida who feel they experienced religious persecution on campus after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks.

The governor’s order announced last month waives application fees and, in some instances, grants in-state tuition to transfer applicants.

Of the 12 public universities in the state, at least two students applied to the University of Florida, two applied to Florida Atlantic University and one applied to Florida State, the schools confirmed. Spokespersons for the University of South Florida, Florida A&M University and New College of Florida did not respond to repeated emails and phone calls within the past two weeks.

DeSantis announced the order during his State of the State address, when he compared Florida’s response to the Israel-Hamas war to reports of antisemitism on other college campuses. He promised Jewish students around the country that Florida will “welcome them with open arms.”

“Over the coming months, they will have a tough decision to make – pack up and leave or stay and endure continued hatred,” he said in the address.

DeSantis mentioned only Jewish students in his speech and the emergency order cites only statistics about antisemitism, but any student can apply if they have experienced religious discrimination or harassment at their current university. Florida universities may require statements, photographs or official records from students to confirm they have a “well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of religion,” according to the order.

Gov. Ron DeSantis gives the State of the State address from the House Chamber of the Capitol Building in Tallahassee, Fla., Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024.
The Florida Channel
/
Fresh Take Florida
Gov. Ron DeSantis gives the State of the State address from the House Chamber of the Capitol Building in Tallahassee, Fla., Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. (The Florida Channel/Fresh Take Florida)

The day after issuing the order, DeSantis clarified during a Republican presidential primary debate with Nikki Haley – just before he dropped out of the race – that non-Jews could also apply, saying the order was “...not just for Jewish students — [but for] anyone who's being persecuted or being marginalized because of their faith in any college around the country.”

It is unclear whether the students who applied through the order are Jewish. The privacy of university applicants is protected under federal law and schools must have written consent from students before releasing an applicant’s name and other personal information.

“I think what Gov. DeSantis is doing is more political than actually intentional,” Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said. “In a state where we have Nazis parading around I-4 and policies that demonize LGBTQ+ students, a lot of students are looking for new places to go because they don't feel like they can be themselves in Florida.”

The order was DeSantis’ latest attempt at influencing how Florida schools respond to the war. In October, his administration through the State University System unsuccessfully ordered pro-Palestinian groups at the University of Florida and the University of South Florida to be shut down.

Several public universities in Florida are among the schools with the largest Jewish student populations in the nation. The University of Florida, with 6,500 Jewish students, has the most.

Amanda Press, a 21-year-old business management senior at Florida State University, said Florida universities are safer for Jewish students but, even at FSU, she has experienced antisemitism.

“As much as the state can say that people making antisemitic statements are not welcome at our university,” she said, “if there's a kid walking down the sidewalk and they yell an antisemitic slur, which has happened to me, there's really nothing that you can do about that.”

At UF, a pro-Israel flag and the Jewish student center have been vandalized.

Shabbos “Alexander” Kestenbaum, a 25-year-old graduate student at Harvard, who is one of six students suing the university there over antisemitism, said most Jewish students he spoke to are looking to transfer to schools in Israel.

A fountain flows outside of Florida State University’s James D. Westcott Jr. Memorial Building
Lauren Witte
/
Fresh Take Florida
A fountain flows outside of Florida State University’s James D. Westcott Jr. Memorial Building in Tallahassee, Fla. (Lauren Witte/Fresh Take Florida)

“I can't point to a specific university or college [in Florida] where students have said, ‘That's where I want to go,’ but I appreciate the governor's focus on the issue and standing up for a clear case of injustice,” he said.

Across the country, student protests on college campuses have induced debates on university leaders’ responses to the war. Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and MIT, in particular, received backlash after a congressional hearing on campus antisemitism with the schools’ presidents in December became heated.

“For whatever reason, this has all turned into a political thing,” Press said. “Some communities are not as quick to say, ‘I don't care what your political views are — being antisemitic is not okay.’ A lot of schools just aren't saying that.”

Though Press said she appreciates DeSantis’ order, she believes the reason few students have submitted an application may be a lack of awareness.

“I had vaguely heard about it,” she said, “but I go to school here and I'm in student government. If I didn't hear about it, I could assume not that many people know.”

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This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at lauren.brensel@ufl.edu.
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