International students faced visa revocation and deportation recently, but are now able to learn by remote from the States or in their home countries. (Courtesy photo)
International students faced visa revocation and deportation recently, but are now able to learn by remote from the States or in their home countries. (Courtesy photo)

The Trump administration agreed to rescind a directive that would have barred international college students from the U.S. if their colleges offered classes entirely online in the fall semester. Still, those students remain reticent about how their future college and career plans may be impacted by a seemingly hostile position over their visas.

According to the nonprofit Institute of International Education, more than 1 million higher education students in the U.S. — about 5 percent of the total student body — come from overseas. For the tenth consecutive year, China remained the largest source of international students in the United States in 2018/19 with 369,548 students in undergraduate, graduate, non-degree, and optional practical training (OPT) programs. Emerging market countries showed some of the strongest growth year over year, especially Bangladesh (an increase of 10.0 percent), Brazil (an increase of 9.8 percent), Nigeria ( an increase of 5.8 percent), and Pakistan ( an increase of 5.6 percent).

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released a notice July 6, prohibiting foreign students from entering or remaining in the country to take fully online course loads. Many colleges and universities began implementing plans weeks earlier to offer online-only classes because of the coronavirus pandemic. This measure left international students scrambling to determine not only if they would be in violation of their visas, but also if their home countries would allow them to return since many nations have closed their borders to those traveling from the U.S.

Fortunately, there was immediate backlash to the announcement.

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) sued the U.S. government in federal court two days later, calling the directive “arbitrary and capricious” and petitioning the court to have the decision reversed and declared unlawful.

In an agreement with ICE and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the government rescinded the policy.

Olamide Abubakar, a junior engineering student from Nigeria said the notice has left her relieved for the moment, but extremely anxious about her ongoing status under COVID-19.

“There has been a lot of confusion for me as to whether it was time to go home or transfer to another school holding courses in-person rather than by remote. I had to think about my fears of becoming ill in a classroom setting because I could not work virtually and if it was worth the risk,” Abubakar told the Informer. “The decision seemed particularly heavy-handed, as if the government was saying ‘get out, you’ve lost your value to us’ when international students often make up entire science and technology departments.”

Abubakar, a University of Texas-Austin student, said the administrators of the university have been extremely helpful in assisting her with necessary documentation, and ensuring she is able to manage online classes.

“My greatest hope is that the unrest and pandemic end quickly – or that I am able to graduate successfully without risking another mandate like this one. Had it been not been rescinded, my options would have been somewhat dire,” Abubakar said.

The Institute of International Education (IIE) is studying the effects of COVID‐19 (coronavirus) on global student mobility on U.S. higher education campuses and found that 302 institutions reported over 40,000 international students enrolled in classes and on campus in summer 2020 alone. In addition to the international students already on campus, institutions estimated an additional 7,297 new or continuing students enrolled for the summer semester were not able to come to the United States to attend classes.

To best support these students, colleges and universities offered them a range of options, including enrolling in classes online (58 percent), deferment to the fall (40 percent) or spring (39 percent) semesters or beyond, or refunds (10 percent). colleges and universities continue to prioritize the health and wellbeing of their international students (72 percent) and provide support, including housing (57 percent) and emergency student funding (42 percent). Furthermore, 60 percent of institutions have now released a written statement or letter in support of international students on their campus, which is an increase compared to our prior report.

For example, University at Buffalo-SUNY in New York transitioned to online instruction in the spring semester, at which point both the non-credit Intensive English Program and credit-bearing ESL program did so as well, “so international students could continue their English studies, whether they were here or back in their own country,” John Wood, interim vice provost for international education told U.S. News and World Reports.

They also report some institutions offering academic support individually or in groups for international students, in and outside the U.S. who need help with taking all classes online and other academic issues caused by the COVID-19 changes.

Still others like HBCU Jackson State University reportedly advised all international students to stay home until January 2021 and continue their studies online.

“It’s good and bad, but I’m okay,” the 21-year-old Shepherd told the Bahama Tribune. “I’m managing because I did online in high school when I left Queen’s College, so everything is fine. I’m just glad to be home. I haven’t been home this long in about six years.”

The former junior national champion and senior accounting major said she understands the bigger picture surrounding the pandemic and the safety of quarantine, so it’s made her more reflective than angry.

“My body needs this break. I’m feeling stronger because I’m more relaxed. I think this is good and bad for me. At least I’m taking my vitamins on time to deal with my asthma, I’m learning how to play my guitar again, I’m starting yoga and I’m spending more time with my dog, Star,” Shepherd said. “But I think the most important thing is my mom and my parents are happy that I don’t have to travel right now.”

International students studying at U.S. colleges and universities contributed $41 billion during the 2018-2019 academic year and supported more than 458,200 jobs.

WI Guest Author

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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