The coronavirus pandemic caused its fair share of challenges for college students as campuses closed in the spring and universities continue to shift online for the fall. This is especially true for international students, who have encountered numerous obstacles such as border lockdowns, travel restrictions and the threat of deportation.
Before the University of Oregon moved entirely online for the spring term, Shreya Silori, an international student from India and Thailand, decided to remain in Eugene for the first three weeks of the term.
“Suddenly everything just happened so quickly,” Silori, who is also a junior double-majoring in journalism and international studies, said. “Countries started closing their borders, so I never really even tried to go back home.”
As COVID-19 surged across the globe, Silori registered for an entirely online class schedule for the fall. Then, United States Immigration Customs and Enforcement announced on July 6 that international students enrolled at U.S. institutions operating entirely online in the fall were at risk of being deported.
The regulation applied to nonimmigrant F-1 students pursuing academic coursework and M-1 students pursuing vocational coursework. The directive introduced a number of hurdles to international students like varying time zones, poor internet access and barriers to resources and support services, according to an International Student Scholar Services Instagram post.
The federal government rescinded the rule on July 14. However, it continues to cause anxiety among some international students.
David Ai, an international student from China, has been studying in the United States since 2014. For Ai, the fear of being deported is still in the back of his mind.
“Students like me have to worry. Like what if the U.S. decided to ban students from China next month?” Ai, who is also a junior majoring in psychology, said. “What am I going to do in the future? I spend most of my time here.”
When ICE announced the regulation, UO encouraged international students to enroll in an in-person class called “Success in Online Learning.” Though the government rescinded the directive, incoming international students are still required to show proof of in-person enrollment in order to obtain a visa, Dennis Galvan, the dean and vice provost for the Division of Global Engagement, said.
Around 500 international students at UO are currently outside the United States, Galvan said. Travel restrictions and border lockdowns are still in place due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“The rule is that if you've spent the last 14 days in China or in Brazil, you just can't enter the U.S.,” Galvan said. “It puts those students in a tough position.”
At UO, about 50% of the international student population is from China, Galvan said. “We have students from 90 countries around the world at any given year,” he added.
UO announced it was shifting to mostly online instruction for the fall term on August 26. Silori, who is also UO’s International Student Association program executive, said newly-enrolled international students have expressed a lot of worry about the circumstances.
“I realize it’s a big problem for incoming international students to enter the U.S. at the moment without registering for an in-person class,” she said. “And a lot of students [are] panicking because there are countries that have closed the U.S. embassy, so they cannot get a visa appointment.”
The Department of State suspended routine visa services worldwide in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, in July, the department announced a phased reopening of U.S. embassies and consulates.
Ivy Fofie, an incoming international graduate student from Ghana, said she is still waiting for the embassy in her country to reopen.
“Our airspace has been open to international traffic since Sept. 1 and the embassy has not given us any information about their reopening or processing of our visas,” she said.
Fofie, who is studying communication and media studies, said the embassy cancelled her visa appointments twice and she is currently unable to acquire a student visa for the fall term.
Fofie said she hopes UO and other universities can lobby the State Department to open up embassies for international students so they may obtain their visas in time for the winter term. She also expressed concern that the continued closure of U.S. embassies has less to do with the ongoing pandemic and more to do with discrimination.
“If the embassy in India was able to open to serve international students even through their COVID-19 numbers are rising by the day, it should be able to open in countries like Ghana where the numbers have been steadily declining,” Fofie said. “UO should be asking questions why this is so.”
Fofie said she is planning on studying remotely for the fall term. However, the university has provided two in-person courses for graduate and undergraduate students in order to acquire their visas once embassies reopen, Fofie said.
In an Instagram post, International Student Scholar Services suggested new undergraduate and graduate students enroll in at least one in-person course if they wish to enter the U.S. New students who plan on remaining outside of the U.S. for fall term may enroll in entirely online instruction, according to the post.
UO has also introduced a number of resources for international students such as the #NoVisaNeeded program. International students who are currently located outside the U.S. are eligible for the program. The program provides accommodations for time zone differences, according to the program website.
The university’s Division for Global Engagement has also shifted to interacting with international students through social media platforms such as WeChat and WhatsApp to support and better communicate with students, Galvan said.
“UO is very committed to being a global university because that's good for everybody,” Galvan said. “We’re super committed to keeping our international students connected.”