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‘It’s Too Overwhelming’ Foreign Students Try to Balance Studies, Visas and Life In a Pandemic

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Above image credit: For some it's graduation. Others it's finding a way back to their home countries. But one thing's clear: this semester has been difficult to navigate. (Mawa Iqbal | Flatland)
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7 minute read

Daffy Liu loves taking photos. She discovered this newfound passion when she took a multimedia reporting course at the University of Missouri last year. Something about capturing people’s everyday expressions, especially during a COVID-19 pandemic, resonated with her. 

“I feel like there are now too many facts for people to know…it’s too overwhelming,” Liu said. “People need to open a door to express their feelings and emotions. Photo is a good way to do that.”

Liu emigrated from China in 2019 and enrolled at Mizzou as part of a 2+2 degree program, where she completed her first two years at the American International School of Guangzhou. A rising senior, Liu is thankful she came to the school that offers “the best education for journalism here.”

Now, however, she’s found that her student visa status has been clouded by ambiguity. In recent weeks, more than 25,000 students like her in Missouri and Kansas have been whipsawed by changing immigration guidelines. Those guidelines initially threatened to push some of them out of the country should campuses be closed due to the pandemic, only to be rescinded — at least for now.

“There’s just too many things going on,” Liu said. “I think the university is just as confused as me. It’s kind of a mess.”

Mass confusion

On July 6, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that foreign students on F-1 students visas may be deported for taking all online courses due to the pandemic. 

Following the July 6 ruling, students, professors and allies took to social media to speak out. Some domestic students started circulating petitions against the rule in solidarity with the international student community.

Harvard and MIT also sued to challenge this rule. Soon, over 200 other universities joined in public support of their students. 

It worked. On Tuesday, the government rescinded its recent ruling. Professors and students were elated.

“It is a win in that someone sued them and ICE realized, ‘we can’t do that right now,’ ” said Hollie Hall, a graduate student from London at the University of Kansas. Hall is also a founding member of the newly formed International Student Advisory Committee.

While this may be a victory now, the future remains uncertain for many international students, some of whom say they feel like an afterthought. 

The reason to open college campuses to in-person classes shouldn’t hinge solely on them, said a group of international students from the University of Kansas during a Zoom call. 

“We were kind of seen as the scapegoats for universities opening up or else we have to leave,” said Marta Carvajal Rejidor, an international student from Costa Rica at the University of Kansas. “We’re not the only reason why the universities are opening up. People don’t see the whole picture.”  

International students play an important role in sustaining higher education. While they account for about 5.5% of overall enrollment, more than one-third of colleges and universities rely on international student tuition payments for more than 10% of their revenue.

But other factors are at play in the decision to open campus, according to a statement by Grant Daily, KU’s student body president. Daily highlighted that universities have had to consider the breadth of the community, which includes students who are homeless, who rely on university jobs, or those with learning disabilities who are unable to learn through Zoom.

“The list goes on,” Daily said in the statement. “That’s just to say putting the decision only in the realm of economics of how broke KU is does not take into account that closing KU also hurts students too.”

One of the misconceptions stirred by the recent immigration guideline debate is that international students wish to overstay their visas, or they immediately return to their home countries for work after earning their degree in the U.S.

“What I’ve been seeing on social media is, ‘how do we actually know they’re actually studying?’ ” said Hipatia Medina. “I can only speak for myself, but we are working. We are actually contributing to society. When we are here, we are part of society.”

For students who hold F-1 visas, the Optional Practical Training program allows for them to work one to three additional years for academic training to gain more experience in their field, similar to an internship. 

Before they can pursue additional academic training, they must get approved for the program, pay around $450 for the work card and have the international student office sign off on the application. This can take several months to process.

However, the Trump administration has been considering restricting the OPT program for Chinese international students since May of this year. Students like Liu have based their whole post-graduation plan around getting into the program. 

“My original plan was to stay here and after graduation, find a job as a photographer in the news media industry. If not, then just save up enough money for grad school,” Liu said. “OPT is a really good opportunity for journalism students to stay. But, if there are no opportunities here, I guess I will have to go back to China.”

Campus safety

While the Trump administration has left the program intact for now, Hall believes recent events have undermined confidence in the international student policy.

“The way the administration has been I’m still worried that he could pull something else out of the bag,” Hall said.

Hall said the guidelines are prone to being changed from one week to the next, especially because of the pandemic. The outcry of support for international students, while welcomed, has shed light on a debate on whether it is safe for anyone to return to campus this fall.

KU professors have been filling out spreadsheets on which academic buildings will house which courses at which times this fall.

Bruce Hayes is the department chair of French, Francophone and Italian studies at KU. And while he said his department is relatively small, figuring out how to properly structure their classes to meet social distancing guidelines has been difficult.

“How do you fit students into these classrooms?” Hayes said. “It was a Tetris game of trying to move classes around.”

Assistant Professor of Spanish and Portugese Rafael Acosta said he’s pessimistic about the school being able to provide safe, in-person instruction this fall.

“We have seen a tremendous spike in COVID cases in the last couple of weeks,” Acosta said. “We’re still in the summer, which for a college town like Lawrence, means a lot less people here than usual.”

Some international students left the U.S. because of COVID-19’s strict travel constraints, including Claudia Salas-Foreno, who is currently in her home country of Colombia. Colombia has closed its borders to anyone traveling from the U.S., even their own citizens.

But other international students were forced to stay back. This left students stressed about their academics, grades, staying healthy and what their next steps could mean for their career. Risking their health to be on campus compounds the anxiety being an international graduate student already brings.

“I’m immunocompromised and a lot of Graduate Teaching Assistants would have had to risk their health to teach on campus whereas domestic students would not,” Hall said.

Hall said some of her friends were stranded here because they were unable to return to their home countries. Countries like Uganda and Morocco have closed their borders to people from the U.S. in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus.

“They’re allowing us to take more hybrid classes than they were before,” Hall said. “It seems the declaration didn’t really take into consideration that we have health problems too. International students shouldn’t have to risk their health to work on campus if domestic students don’t have to risk their health.” 

And, according to multiple university reports, COVID-19 has already taken a toll on institutions budgets. This also came at a time when budgets were cut in Kansas and Missouri

It seems university administrators, professors and economists are aware of the value students bring to higher education and the states. With international students fronting more than double in student fees when compared to domestic students, the loss of attracting and keeping students there could be astronomical. 

According to KU’s office of International Student Services, enrollment has already been on the decline in recent years. 

While international students account for roughly 5.5% percent of enrollment nationwide, Inside Higher Ed reported that 36% of colleges in the U.S. depend on international tuition payments for at least 10% of total revenue..

Support system

It’s a calculated risk, but KU professors were willing to work with their students any way they can to make sure their international students could stay here.

Department Chair for Slavic and Eurasian Languages Ani Kokobobo remembers a flood of colleagues coming to her offering to teach tutorials and independent studies for students who needed it.

“I have advocated for KU to give faculty the choice to teach online for their safety but a lot of my people are very committed to teaching in person,” Kokobobo said. “I had multiple colleagues reach out and say, ‘if you need to do a tutorial in person, I will do it to keep the students safe.’ I found it really heartening.”

A former F-1 visa holder from Albania herself, Kokobobo said this situation feels very personal to her and her faculty, many of whom are also first-generation immigrants.

“When I have these immigrant students from Russia or from Croatia, I know what it’s like,” Kokobobo said. “Their lives are already so difficult with just having to acclimate to the Midwest, figuring out how to live in this new system. And now in the midst of a pandemic, everything is thrown into absolute chaos.”

Kokobobo said that having to choose between the health of domestic students and international students is “cruel.” Which is why, she said, ICE rolling back its rule Tuesday was great news.

“I am relieved and happy for our students,” Kokobobo said. “ICE could try again, but right now it’s a victory and I am happy”

However, for international students, the threat of ICE “trying again” isn’t anything new. 

“We had been having this conversation for at least a couple of weeks with the international office and the provost,” Humberto Gomez, an international student from Mexico said. 

Gomez also is the first international student on the Student Executive Board and director of diversity and inclusion for the KU Student Senate. He and several other students met with the provost at KU to map out next steps should the administration change visa requirements. 

“The only thing that changed is we weren’t going to have that exception anymore because of the coronavirus, but that was something that KU had already [considered],” he said. 

Gomez explained international students have always had to take “at least a couple of classes in person.” 

He said hybrid is the best model, based on meetings he’s had with the student senate and university leaders. But this back and forth has changed the way students are planning for their future.  

For some students who are in the final stretch of their PhD programs, like Jessy Ayestas, getting a job in the U.S. isn’t as attractive. Though she is a Fullbright Scholar with a J-1 visa and will need to return to her home country of Honduras, she had initially considered a postdoctoral job after graduation or to come back to the U.S. after a two-year stint in Honduras. 

Not any more. 

“[I’ll] probably search for a job elsewhere in the world. And it all depends on how the current situation really looks,” Ayestas said. “I think…the environment is very unwelcoming and very uninviting.”

And while she does not want to return to China, despite her parents’ concerns for her safety, Liu may find herself in the same boat as Ayestas.

“We spent too much time, effort and money on this,” Liu said. “The reason why I studied journalism here is because I am disappointed with the Chinese government…there’s no free speech there.”

But because of the administration’s recent attempts to tighten immigration, Liu said she is now “disappointed” with the American government as well. 

“I feel like there is nowhere I can go after graduation,” Liu said.

Emily Wolf contributed to this report. Wolf is a Dow Jones summer intern with Flatland.

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