Many colleges and universities in the United States are worried today about how the pandemic is significantly altering the place and role of international students on their campus. But as a faculty member and international scholar, I’m seeing too many colleges frame the issue the wrong way. Many of them tend to be asking, “How will we survive financially if international students don’t arrive in the fall?” rather than “How can we help our international students survive this crisis?”
That colleges are truly worried about their financial bottom line come this fall is not surprising. Since 2013, international students, who are mostly full-paying students, have been providing crucial tuition revenues to many higher education institutions threatened by lower endowment returns, rising costs and reduced state funding.
In November 2019, the Institute for International Education reported, “According to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce, international students contributed $44.7 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018, an increase of 5.5 percent from the previous year.” It further stated that “the number of international students in the United States set an all-time high in the 2018/19 academic year, the fourth consecutive year with more than one million international students.” China, India and South Korea have sent the largest numbers of students to the United States.
If these international students don’t come to campuses in fall 2020 due to closed embassies and flying restrictions, American colleges, and by extension the country’s economy, will be in trouble. But this impending financial crisis should not lead campuses to ignore that the pandemic has unleashed a new precarity upon their current international students, many of whom still remain in the United States, and that they have a responsibility to take care of and help those students. While all of our students have suffered, international students face a distinct set of challenges that puts them in particularly vulnerable positions.
First, when campuses shut down as classes went online and students were asked to leave their dorms, many international students became stranded in the United States. As countries like India closed their airspaces, students watched their tickets get canceled and their opportunity to leave vanish. With flying restrictions in America and many other parts of the world, many international students who are stuck here -- and already living a very finely calibrated financial existence on the brink of survival -- are having to contemplate a new financial insecurity that they never imagined and are unequipped to face.
Since campus jobs in libraries, coffee shops and cafeterias have largely dried up as a result of campus shutdowns, many students have lost the meager part-time income that paid for their weekly groceries. Such jobs are not coming back over the summer, which means that those students risk homelessness and food insecurity over the next few months.
Meanwhile, many international students enrolled in master’s programs who had applied and hoped to transition to Ph.D. programs have seen their prospects evaporate into thin air, as a number of colleges have frozen graduate admissions and limited graduate student teaching assistantships. In addition, students graduating and planning on acquiring one or two years of work experience on their OPT visa have seen their job opportunities disappear. They face the bleak prospect of having no work, no money for rent and no opportunity to get the work experience that makes a degree program from a U.S. higher education institution attractive and worth the investment.
On top of such physical and financial challenges, the pandemic is taking a major emotional toll on international students. Unlike most of their American friends, they often didn’t have places to go once campuses shut down. With their family and close friends far away, FaceTime calls and emails have become the sole ways they’ve been able to have a semblance of a social life and some normality. For women and queer and trans students, this social isolation and vulnerability has been intensified in complex ways. It is often not easy or even possible to crash at the homes of conservative or unwelcoming extended family members who happen to live in the United States.
Helping Students Deal With the Challenges
Meanwhile, as their American peers swiftly left campus for homes across the country, many of these international students, along with DACA students, have become newly and swiftly invisible for their college administrators. This has not occurred uniformly. Many campuses allowed their international students already living in the dorms to remain there safely when domestic students were sent home midsemester. Campus officials ensured that regular meals as well as academic support were provided to them.
For instance, the University of Wisconsin at Stout has been praised for its comprehensive response. Its Office of International Education has reportedly worked closely with its students throughout the pandemic, through virtual meetings as well as coffee hours, to ensure that students maintain their visa status. It has held virtual optional practical training and curricular practical training workshops and pursued emergency grant funding through the Institute of International Education-Emergency Student Fund. It coordinated with partnering agencies to maintain program requirements for students and made similar adaptations to continue general student advising.
In contrast, a medium-size private university handed out small grants of $500 to $750 to international students, but only if they applied for financial assistance. Students reported that when they wrote to the International Student Office with questions, responses were delayed and confusing. Moreover, while well intentioned, these small grants were inadequate, given students have to pay for off-campus housing, rent and food through the summer. Students felt largely abandoned by the university, forced to rely on the benevolence of individual professors to use their research budgets to hire them as summer research assistants or on their families overseas to send funds.
Another university continued to charge students a mandatory fee of $1,500 for services like access to the gym and counseling services that had been closed during the shutdown. Students protested and asked administrators to waive it, but their plea fell on deaf ears.
Such institutional negligence gets compounded when some faculty members are less accommodating than others about international students’ academic work. At one Ivy League university, Chinese and Indian international students said that, as their campus went online and they returned to their home countries midsemester, some of their professors failed to make accommodations for the hardships faced by international students in attending Zoom classes and completing assignments. Those challenges ranged from broadband connectivity and internet access issues to having to attend class from 2 a.m. to 7 a.m. while living in small apartments with their family trying to sleep.
Meanwhile, what most faculty members don’t know is that international students’ visa status comes with many restrictions. They’re often not allowed to work off campus to support themselves. Managing the student visa itself is a logistical nightmare, and many students who are supposed to continue studying next year are worried: if they get evacuated to their home countries, and if campuses move online in the fall, then they may have to stay in their home countries till spring 2021. That means their student visas will lapse, and they’ll be caught in the nightmare of having to reapply for that elusive visa, schedule an appointment, pay exorbitant fees (often equivalent to a month’s salary) and possibly get rejected.
Recommendations for the Future
So what can U.S. colleges and faculty members do to help international students deal with the myriad challenges that they face?
The federal government has specifically earmarked part of the financial support it gives colleges for student aid. In a cruel twist, however, it excludes DACA and international students. Campus administrators could start by reaching out and providing adequate financial support to those students excluded from federal aid. Providing assistance need not be expensive for colleges: for example, since some dorms are operational and open anyway, international students stuck in off-campus housing can be offered low-cost dorm housing at subsidized rates through the summer.
Next, more colleges need to create or expand networks of social support for international students. In addition to offering free housing, meals and health care for students who are stuck, they should also provide free remote mental health access, as well as link students with local hosts or peer mentors. Most international students are fearful right now given the pandemic and political uncertainty; those who returned home are also scared about being able to return to complete their education. Counseling support can make a big difference.
Further, colleges should establish processes to make one-on-one student advising -- academic as well as visa status related -- easily available for international students, so that they can make informed decisions about their course of study, relocation and other relevant issues. U.S. laws determining F-1 (student) and H-1 (work) visas are changing rapidly, as the federal administration considers new regulations. Expert advising about this is critically needed to dispel panic and confusion among students. The students I’ve heard from want colleges to be proactive in explaining what these new regulations will mean and how they will be affected so they can make decisions accordingly.
Also, some international students who returned to their countries in March when campuses shut down have lost their summer internships, which has hurt them financially as well as professionally. One way to mitigate this and retain students is to create new internships and grant opportunities on campuses specifically aimed at international students in the fall.
It is now time for American universities to publicly affirm their commitment to their international students. They should actively participate in the processes that influence changing regulations for student and work visas and contribute to the public dialogue about the valuable contributions of international students on our campuses.
Faculty members can also play an important role. They should be understanding and supportive of their international and DACA students, including being generous in assigning grades and flexible with deadlines. Professors can also reach out and connect with their international students and ask them how they’re doing. Some of those students may be so lost and inexperienced that they may not know how to apply for financial aid or that they can reach out to their embassies for support. Talk to them and do what you can to link them to resources. Faculty can also advocate for their international students and actively work with international student officers and other campus administrators to gain more support for them.
Finally, and in a more general way, colleges and universities must band together to urge the U.S. Congress to facilitate widespread testing and contact tracing. A systematic and robust test, trace and isolate program is key to reopening this economy, inspiring confidence abroad that the U.S. is tackling this pandemic with all of its might and expertise, and bringing international students to college campuses this fall.
In short, we must come together as a community and take care of our students. International students should not be treated as revenue-generating cash cows. If we want them to survive and return, we must do better and show them that we care about them as valued members of our communities. In the short term, we will be fulfilling our responsibilities as educators. In the long term, we’ll be ensuring that America retains its ability to attract the world’s best talent and its position as a global leader.