Strengthening Support for International Students During Time of Crisis

Blog Post
Photo courtesy of Mount Holyoke College
April 28, 2020

College was where I called home during my years as an undergraduate. For an international student like myself, when home is thousands of miles away, a college provides a comparable replacement: it keeps me safe and provides me with shelter, food, and care. Back then when I said, “I’m going home,” it didn’t mean, “I’m embarking on a 24-hour trip back to Vietnam,” but “I’m going back to college.”

When colleges decided to close their campuses this spring as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, among the students that were most affected, besides low-income and homeless students, were international students.

Asmita Gautam, a senior at Smith College, was having lunch with a friend when she received the announcement that her school would close. Although she and her friends somewhat expected the news, since nearby Amherst College had announced its closure the day before, many seniors around her table couldn’t help but cry. Gautam, whose family lives in Nepal, had another concern—she needed a place to stay.

Not too far from Smith, at Mount Holyoke College (my alma mater), Minh Anh Tran was faced with the same issue. Tran, a senior from Vietnam, was still applying for jobs and waiting to hear back from graduate school. She didn’t want to go back home during this uncertain time.

Gautam and Tran are two of more than one million international students at colleges and universities in the U.S. They have become an integral part of American higher education, with enrollment increasing consistently since 2006, and only starting to slow down after the 2016 election. International students enhance diversity on campus and contribute to the academic success of the colleges and universities where they enroll. Many after graduation become skilled workers and contribute to the U.S. economy. Since international students usually pay full tuition, they have also been an important source of revenue for colleges and universities. Smith and Mount Holyoke Colleges both have a sizable number of international students: 13 percent of the student body at Smith and 26 percent at Mount Holyoke.

Nearly one in four international students live on campus (NPSAS:2016). When campus closures happened, these students had no choice but to leave the country. In their closure announcements, both Smith and Mount Holyoke provided an exception for students from countries with travel restrictions, those whose legal residence is the college, and those having other extenuating circumstances.

But since the announcement didn’t specifically say that international students can stay, it indeed created great concerns among students. “I filled out the form right away, but there was still a lot of anxiety,” said Gautam. Nepal wasn’t a level-three country with travel warning. What if she wasn’t allowed to stay?

Marcella Runell Hall, vice president for student life and dean of students at Mount Holyoke, acknowledged that “the week leading to spring break felt like a whiplash for students.” Mount Holyoke announced campus closure right before spring break, giving students little more than a week to pack up. Heartbreaking as the decision was, Hall admitted that the closure was inevitable to keep the community safe.

The college quickly rolled out plans to assist students during the unexpected transition. The trunk room, which was never allowed for student storage when I was there, was open for students to store their belongings. A few departments on campus provided remote employment for students who have on-campus jobs or work-study. An emergency fund was set up a day after to provide financial support for students in need.

While international students also benefited from these supports, what many of them needed most was the ability to stay on campus. Although both Smith and Mount Holyoke had an emergency fund that could provide travel assistance to these students if they decided to go home, for students like Gautam and Tran, the ability to remain in the country matters a great deal to their legal status. “There are so many immigration implications for international students in this situation,” said Miriam Feldblum, executive director of Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, a non-profit organization that works to raise awareness of the impact of immigration policies on college students, including international students.

Being an international student in the U.S. means enrolling full time at a college or university, taking most classes in person (not online), and not being away from classes for more than five months. Any changes colleges make to the academic programs can therefore jeopardize the student’s legal status. In response to COVID-19, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which manages schools and international students, has been flexible with its regulations in this regard, guaranteeing students’ legal status even if colleges have closed or moved online or if students have left the country.

For seniors like Gautam and Tran, however, there is more to worry about than just fulfilling class requirements. They are both graduating this May and planning to stay in the U.S., either for work or graduate school. Students who want to work in the U.S. after graduation need to fill out an application and get approval from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The tricky part is that students need to be physically in the U.S. to fill out and send in the application, and so far, USCIS hasn’t issued any guidance in response to the escalating COVID-19 pandemic. Tran said that was why most of her senior friends decided to stay, while other underclasswomen went back home. Both Tran and Gautam had already filled out their applications and were waiting for approval (which can take months), and the rule of thumb while having an application processed by USCIS is that filers shouldn’t leave the country.

Colleges like Mount Holyoke and Smith worked quickly to proceed with the housing requests. An international student advisor at Mount Holyoke worked closely with the Office of Student Life to process requests of the international students who asked to stay. In the end, more than 300 students stayed on campus: 84 percent of them were international. Tran had some relatives in Austin, Texas, and eventually decided to stay with them.

And Gautam did not have to worry for too long before she heard back from Smith. The day after sending the request, she received an email saying that she could stay. “I’m very impressed at how fast they responded,” said Gautam.

Feldblum acknowledged that at most colleges, besides the international student office’s staff, not many were aware of all these immigration implications. “It actually got better in the past few years,” she said, when the Trump administration’s hostile attitudes towards immigrants and foreigners started to hurt colleges and their students. While colleges like Mount Holyoke and Smith acted quickly to respond to the needs of international students, the unexpected decision and lack of transparency in the beginning certainly created confusion and anxiety among students. “We were not sure how many students can actually stay, how strict the criteria are, when we expected to hear back,” said Gautam.

An emergency such as this is unprecedented and the speed at which colleges moved to accommodate students’ needs was much appreciated. On the other hand, a crisis gives colleges the chance to relearn their current practices and rethink how they should prepare for a situation like this moving forward, making sure all students are taken care of, including international students.

Here are a few things colleges need to do:

  • Involve a representative from the international student office in any decision-making process of the emergency task force. The representative should be knowledgeable about immigrant issues and will be able to discuss any legal implications for international students.
  • Be ready to provide adequate logistical and financial support to students, whether it is storage, transportation to airports, housing and food, during this disruptive time, and even if the help needs to continue beyond the school year. Seniors should also receive the assistance as well. Although colleges don’t usually allow seniors to stay on campus after commencement, under an emergency when many plans can be changed or cancelled, the transition months post graduation will be much shakier. Some students might have a few month gap between graduation and their next endeavor, and in this case of the pandemic, they can’t go home. These students should be allowed to stay on campus, at least until the end of summer.
  • Promptly inform international students about how the emergency might affect their status, and if colleges provide any support in this regard. Colleges should be transparent about how they will provide support to students, based on what criteria. Simply saying “help will be considered on a case-by-case basis” is not enough.
  • Consider tapping into an oftentimes overlooked resource: international alumni in the U.S. Since they used to be international students, these alums will be able to offer suggestions or assistance that might be valuable to current students.

For students, Feldblum recommended: “Document, document, document.” Any emails, updates, or announcements coming from the college during this time should be saved, in case USCIS asks for them in the future, should the students choose to work or pursue further study in the U.S.

International students are undeniably one of the most vulnerable student populations. For many, college is the only support system available for them in the U.S. Any decision colleges make, big or small, can affect these students immensely, even more so in crisis time. Colleges should be ready to support these students when students need them the most. Only by fulfilling their responsibilities during this time can colleges show that they truly value international students and want to retain them.

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