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I’m writing this article as an international educator and an advocate who wants to speak up for a vulnerable and underrepresented group, international students, during the global COVID-19 pandemic.
When COVID-19 became imminent in China in early February, I saw American colleges and universities working to accommodate Chinese applicants. Many international admissions offices offered opportunities for applicants to delay their transcript submission, due to the closure of schools and higher education institutions in China. And in response to the closure of the testing centers for TOFEL, IELTS and GRE/GMAT, a number of admissions offices also provided flexible policies, including online interviews and the Duolingo test, which allows students to take the English proficiency test at their homes. Those strategies made Chinese applicants and their families feel welcomed, despite the virus chaos they are experiencing in China.
But while admissions offices have been doing what they can to accommodate the needs of Chinese applicants, none of us know if those students will arrive on campus on time for fall 2020. U.S. embassies are shut down during the outbreak in China. We are unsure if students can access a visa interview once the consulates are open, if they do open. As I am typing, I received an email regarding the canceling of immigrant and nonimmigrant visa appointments in India. With the quick spread of COVID-19, it’s reasonable to expect an increasing number of visa appointment cancellations and embassy closures globally. It’s disheartening to think that international students’ future educational journey is in a state of limbo.
Back in the United States, institutions are quickly reacting to how the outbreak might impact their domestic students who are studying abroad. For health and safety concerns, study abroad and international programs have been brought to a halt. Students studying overseas, especially in the countries with a level-three travel advisory, were counseled to return to the States immediately. And at home, many institutions are shifting in-person classes to online learning and/or shutting down their campuses completely. It seems that American colleges and universities are making the best efforts to protect their students from being exposed to COVID-19.
But as a guardian of an international freshman and a person who cares deeply about international students, I am extremely disappointed at the level of attention that has been paid to international students throughout this crisis.
In making their decisions to close their physical campuses and move classes online, colleges and universities have often not considered that many international students do not have a home outside those campuses. Even though some institutions offer exceptions for students with special needs, they frequently neglect international students when developing such policies. That’s especially problematic, considering that research has shown that international students can be culturally challenged when it comes to reaching out for help. Not many international students are equipped to advocate for themselves when a crisis arises.
Inoculating against racism during this chaotic time is also needed. With the spread of the virus, many international students, especially Asian students, have experienced microaggressions and even more blatant discrimination. But, in general, institutional efforts have been lacking when it comes to providing educational workshops and other interventions to address such issues. I spoke with eight Chinese students who are studying at different institutions in the United States, and sadly none of them mentioned any programs being offered to pre-empt the rise in xenophobia or prevent the panic, fear and racism elevated by the COVID-19 outbreak.
Doubtless, the pandemic has caused a tremendous level of stress for everyone. Yet the stress on international students is significantly greater than on many of the domestic students in the United States. International students not only have to worry about their own well-being, but they also have huge amount of concerns for the safety and health of their families in their home countries. The magnitude of the stress is even greater when considering there is no clear guidance for them in terms of whether they should remain in the U.S. or return home, or if they can choose deliberately.
I have great empathy for international students who must navigate visa policies amid the crazy spread of the virus. The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) has announced flexible adjustments on student visas and updated rules for remote learning. But campus international offices have different interpretations of what the change actually means, so it’s not hard for us to image how confused international students could feel.
There are challenges that international students confront come from their home countries, as well. Take China as an example: the most updated policy by the Chinese government requires all Chinese nationals who return to China from overseas to complete a required 14-day quarantine. The quarantine locations are normally local hotels, and people are expected to pay for the stay at their own expense. Parents of international students are not only concerned that their child’s studies will be interrupted but also that they could become infected with COVID-19 during their travel. On top of that, students are worried about being unable to return to the United States due to the travel bans.
Given all these concerns, it’s not surprising that a number of international students in the U.S. experience mental health issues. When facing crises, people tend to look for support from their families. But international students’ families are thousands of miles away and in different time zones. Are colleges and universities taking proactive measures to reach out to those isolated students? Do we have professionally trained counselors with cross-cultural understandings available (even virtually) for international students? Or are international students’ mental health needs being lost in translation during the COVID-19 outbreak? Institutions need to be considering these questions.
As we witness the outbreak unfolding globally, we in higher education should pay more attention and offer systematic support to vulnerable international students. As we develop policies to react to the fast-changing situation, we cannot afford to neglect them. For example, when colleges and universities decide to evacuate their campuses, we should offer special support for international students, especially those who are unable to find a place to live. If students are unable to live on campus, institutions should consider making a collaborative effort to reach out to the international community or provide coordination for alternative housing. Additionally, the international office or another designated one should take the lead to send out separate communications for international students to address their concerns and offer assistance.
As an admission professional, I am happy to see that U.S. higher education institutions are providing specialized supports for international applicants to encourage them to apply. But it is simply not enough to encourage new international students to enroll at our institutions. We must offer comprehensive support to those who are already with us.