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How Coronavirus Threw America’s International Students Into Chaos


Anxious uncertainty is the guiding theme for this year’s back-to-school season. It is both palpable and, in some sense, stale. The debate on whether to open schools during a pandemic – and how – is so necessary as to be painfully familiar at this point.

Perhaps the most unique flavor of the discussion arrived in July, when an oft-ignored category of students glimpsed a rare stint in the spotlight.

Donald Trump’s administration announced just days after celebrating America’s independence that international students would not be allowed to study in the US if their universities did not offer in-person instruction. Their options were limited: transfer universities or face deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

More than 200 universities reacted furiously, and a legal crusade, spearheaded by Harvard and MIT, quickly forced the administration to walk back its attempt to force in-person teaching.

But that sigh of relief is a far cry from easy breathing. America’s more than one million international students still face a set of challenges which, even during universally stressful times, remains uniquely their own.

Homeward Bound

Back up to March.

By the end of that catastrophic month, more than 1,100 colleges and universities had shut down. While international students were in some cases exempt from forced evacuation, other schools, like Harvard, told them to pack their belongings on distressingly short notice

Students unable to leave campus were not, of course, left on the streets; even the most stringent universities provided or helped students find emergency housing. Regardless, the pandemic prompted many international students to fly home to their families – a scramble which turned egregiously expensive.

Li, an international student from China, told The College Post that he spent all of his $15,000 on two flights that were later canceled. Since his plane tickets were not refunded until two months afterward, he lost his chance to return home on other flights.

“The demand exceeded supply largely, and some scalpers made things even worse,” he said.

Ninety percent of international students remained in the United States as traveling home became impossible or prohibitively costly. But staying put presented its own financial barriers. 

Most international students require an F1 visa to attend American universities, which limits their ability to find work off-campus. It hardly mattered that jobs were becoming increasingly sparse; these students were largely excluded from them regardless.

Stranded in a foreign country, unable to work and left to cover all of their normal costs, international students could have been reassured by a robust federal aid program. When Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, it set aside almost $7 billion for students struggling to cover food, housing, and other expenses. 

Almost all international students, however, were deemed ineligible for such relief. Unable to provide for themselves, many sought the charity of friends and food banks. Others more fortunate nonetheless lamented the absence of federal leadership. One student interviewed by the New York Times captured the sentiment well.

“It seems this administration has no concern for international students beyond our wallets.”

A World Away

While most international students remained in the US, a significant minority managed to slip out. But as these students escaped the aforementioned pitfalls, they quickly crashed into others.

One was the realization that a flight home in the spring did not guarantee a return flight in the fall. Most of America’s international students hail from China and India, both of which at the time reported few cases. It was natural to assume that America’s situation would stabilize over the summer. Instead, it became uniquely disastrous.  

As a result, the number of flights allowed to travel between China and the US is still extremely limited. According to Li, Chinese students seeking to return to campus in the fall must first stay in a neighboring country, like Cambodia, for 14 days. Going back is not impossible, but it is sorely difficult.

Even if international students do everything right, they can still be arbitrarily denied entry at the border. Magdalena, a rising senior from Chile, told The College Post that she was warned as much by her university – a disclaimer that only so much is in their control.

“Things are so uncertain, and the law is so unclear even to customs workers, that they recommend printing out proof of enrollment from the university website just to make sure that we can get in. But even that’s not a guarantee.”

A woman wearing a mask looks at her laptop.
In the wake of COVID-19, online classes have replaced classroom teaching. Photo: Edward Jenner/Pexels

Because of the challenges of going back, many international students now face the prospect of studying from home. But this is, in addition to unexciting, wholly problematic.

Online education offers some benefits over in-person instruction. It was becoming increasingly popular even before the pandemic, as more students came to appreciate its convenience, comfort, and quick communication. But several shortcomings threaten its efficacy, and these hit international students especially hard.

Those tuning in from different time zones must wake up at all hours to attend classes and meetings. Depending on their country or economic status, they may not have strong internet connections or adequate technology. For some, living with one’s family during a pandemic, to put it bluntly, is not exactly conducive to a quiet study environment. All of these factors, Magdalena said, can take a toll on students’ mental health.

And while originally an unimposing alternative to traditional education, online courses are now, for Americans and international students alike, the only option. 

Dashing the Dream

Rather than resign to such circumstances, some international students have opted to push back their education. Others now want to graduate early. The degree is not their only concern; they must plan for the aftermath as well.

International students seeking employment in the United States after university rely on the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program as a bridge to a full work visa. Sponsored by the universities themselves, OPT allows students to remain on their students visas while securing jobs after graduation.

In May, four Republican Senators called on President Trump to suspend the OPT program so as to prioritize unemployed American nationals over international students. In June, Trump signed an executive order suspending various work visas, but the OPT program was spared.

But for international students left to study from home, whether OPT remains intact makes little difference. To qualify for the program, students must be physically in the US and start working within 90 days of application. Meeting those criteria is, given the circumstances, unrealistic.

Indeed, given the circumstances, America’s international students now face more looming uncertainty than the rest of us. They came to this country in conviction of its glamor and opportunities, the kind self-endowed in its history books and endemic to its national pride. Against these hopes, coronavirus has swung a stinging rebuke.

More than a million international students have crossed oceans to enjoy the benefits of a world-class American education and a higher quality of life. Their gratitude is both evident and unreciprocated.

Too often international students are defended primarily or solely as mere fuel for the economy, cash cows for their states and universities, commodities to be viewed in economic and not human terms. In doing so, Americans who so often laud the American Dream cheapen the value of those who today best embody it.

While we have no shortage of suffering at the moment, we are not enduring it alone. International students don’t share our passports, but they do share our pain.

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