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International students grapple with uncertainty in light of COVID-19 measures

Carleton College’s shift to online classes for the first half of Spring term and request that students leave campus by Wednesday, March 18, has left students scrambling to pack their belongings and adjust travel plans. For many international students, the announcement has bred uncertainty and frustration about potential travel bans, visas, and learning across time zones.

Students under special circumstances may petition to stay on campus through Spring break and the first half of Spring term. If they choose to petition, international students are essentially guaranteed approval, according to Brisa Zubia, Director of the Office of International and Intercultural Life (OIIL). OIIL recommends that international students stay on campus, but the decision is ultimately a difficult one.

“I don’t think there’s a right or wrong decision in this case,” said Madhav Mohan ’22, who decided to return to his home country of India. “The objectively smarter decision is to stay on campus, so you aren’t spreading the disease, but there are a lot of emotions involved as well.”

Potential Travel Ban

“For now, we know that the first four weeks will be online,” said Win Wen Ooi ’22. “But what if things get better domestically, and Carleton decides to resume in-person classes, but things get worse internationally? And the U.S. decides to close its borders. Then what do international students do?” 

Ooi is undecided about whether to remain on campus or go home to Malaysia, and her concern is a prominent one in the international community. Given that the U.S. has banned all travel from Europe, excluding the U.K., OIIL warns that a similar ban on students’ home countries may prevent them from returning to Carleton for the second half of Spring term. Even if they are able to re-enter the country, students from high-risk areas may face mandatory quarantine.  

“We don’t know if bans are going to continue to increase,” explained Zubia. “Maybe in five weeks, we realize that they don’t, and students get upset because they could have gone home and come back. But we don’t know, and everyone is making decisions that we’re not a hundred percent sure about.”

Under Carleton’s current plan to resume in-person classes for the second half of Spring term, these re-entry challenges could pose a problem for students’ completion of coursework.

“That’s going to be a huge problem because suddenly, we’re in the middle of nowhere: I took the classes, but now, I can not participate because the online component is cancelled,” said Walt Li ’22. Li hails from China and is staying on campus. The College has not made any statement yet about what would happen in these cases.

Further uncertainty stems from the question of whether in-person classes will indeed resume in May as the College hopes.

“The most complicated factor is that they’re leaving the possibility that you can return to campus open,” said Kyra Ngai ’21. Ngai, who otherwise would return to Singapore, is also staying on campus. “But I think it would be more helpful for decisions if they implemented a whole Spring term of online classes instead of a halfway option.”

“I appreciate that they want to have in-person classes—I think that’s a big part of the educational experience here,” added Mohan. “What I would like to see is that they’re also offering an online classroom functionality throughout the term for international students, so if they do go back home and choose to stay there, they do not have to miss out on the term while being comfortable and mentally in a good place.” 

This option—if provided—would be a make-or-break factor for some students.

“If there was a decision that the entire term is online, I would be on the first plane home,” said Apoorba Misra ’22, whose home country is India. “By saying maybe we get to come back—we’re wondering what if we don’t come back because we won’t be able to. Then we have no visa, and the entire Spring term is wasted. That’s a big risk that low-income, international students cannot take.”

Maintaining Visa Statuses

Abdullah Siddiqui ’23 has his immediate choice made for him: as a professional musician, he is contracted to appear on a TV show in his native Pakistan over Spring break and must return. 

“That presents a lot of challenges. I’d always planned to go back during Spring break, but if I go now, that carries the risk of not being able to come back here,” he said. “Since I’m in a position where I probably have to take next term off, they’re going to have to terminate my SEVIS records, which means I would have to re-apply for an I-20, which is a lot of paperwork and confusion.”

While visa questions like these are non-issues for domestic students, they are looming factors in many international students’ decisions.

As it stands, a shift to online teaching will not affect F-1 and J-1 visa statuses even if students leave the country since they will remain actively enrolled at a U.S. institution. If the College allows the entire term to be completed remotely, students’ statuses will remain safe. But if students are unable to travel back for in-person classes during the second half of the term, they would be required to take a leave of absence.

Therefore, any F-1 or J-1 student who is unable to return would have their SEVIS record terminated, which means that they would need to apply for a new I-20 and pay the $350 SEVIS fee. These students may also need to apply for a new F-1 or J-1 visa in their passport, which is to be determined by the consulate.  

Additionally, because students must wait one year after obtaining their visas to be permitted to work off-campus, international students risk giving up their U.S.-based summer internships if they leave campus now. 

“For a lot of people who live in the U.S., I assume it’s a lot more comfortable to know that you have a family to go back to right now, and that’s all set up,” said Mohan. “For international students, I think right now the most comfortable thing that you can do is also to go back home, but you can’t go back home because you might get your F-1 suspended if you can’t get back.”

Time Zone Differences

During the remote teaching period, Carleton is aiming to implement synchronous learning. That is, courses will be taught within previously scheduled time-period blocks in Central Time. While this policy allows courses to include important real-time student-student and student-faculty interactions, it does not factor in time zone differences, which are drastic for many international students. 

“It’s not confirmed that you’ll be able to watch videos of lectures. It seems that you have to stick to your time block regardless of if you’re 12 hours behind or ahead. I think that’s affecting people’s decisions,” said Ngai. “If there were an option to play back lectures, then it makes a little bit more sense to leave campus. But if not, then it’s just not feasible.”

“I cannot just wake up in the middle of the night for class. And consistent with that, the environment in my home is not really fit for studying, but that’s a shared concern for other people, too,” said Li.

In response to a question about time zone differences, the College’s FAQ page currently states, “All classes will meet at the same time they were scheduled to be held on campus, in Central Time.”

Family Ties

“I woke up [Thursday] morning with a text from my mom saying, ‘You’re coming home,’” said Aldo Polanco ’23, whose home is in the Dominican Republic. After speaking with friends and OIIL, Polanco ultimately decided to stay on campus.

“There’s a chance that they extend online classes through the end of Spring term or the virus is contained, so the travel bans are lifted. But I just couldn’t risk it,” he continued.  “It was either stay here—stay safe, relatively—and assure that I’ll be here when I have to be here, versus being with my family which is obviously something you’d want at a time like this.”

This tension between family and risk-aversion is one that many international students are wrestling with.

“For me, there’s my parents’ wish for the family to stay together. They emphasize the importance of supporting each other in close proximity, especially if we get the disease,” said Ooi. “That’s one thing that’s straining my family’s relations because I don’t want to risk going out of the country and not being able to come back. They don’t understand that it’s not just me saying I care about school. I literally can not say with any certainty whether there’ll be a blanket travel ban on Asia.”

“There’s the emotional aspect of my family wanting me to go back to a high-risk area because they think the importance of family overrides the importance of the disease, but I do think the logical thing to do is to stay here,” added Ngai.

A Community Coming Together

The silver lining—if there is one—is that the Carleton community has shown a heartening level of compassion.

“Informally, at this moment of communal crisis, I’ve felt elements to my support network that I didn’t know about,” said Ooi. “My work supervisor and professors have reached out to say they know international students are disproportionately impacted, and they want to help in any way they can—offering their homes for people and saying that if the College allows, they still would host meals at their homes. That’s an important factor—that we won’t be completely isolated.” 

Ooi is not alone in this feeling.

“I’ve been really happy about the amount of support. Telling domestic students about what’s going on, they’ve all been like, ‘I’m so sorry that’s happening to you’” said Polanco. “And a bunch of them—like a surprising number of them, even people that I wasn’t that close to—said, ‘If you want to stay with me, it’s no problem. I’ll house you.’”

Mohan—like a large number of other international students—received similar housing offers from his peers.

“Just having people say that is really helpful even if I’m not going to do it. Just having people express understanding for your circumstances makes you feel a lot better,” he said. 

Formal Resources

Fifteen minutes after President Steven Poskanzer’s Thursday-morning email announcing the new prevention measures, international students received an email from OIIL affirming that their visa statuses were safe. Throughout the day, OIIL staff were available to counsel students.

“The main resource we’ve been offering is availability,” said Zubia. “Liz [Cody, International Student Coordinator] and I have been navigating a lot of one-on-one’s because there are very unique situations for students.”

While the situation is difficult, Zubia praised Carleton’s decision to allow students to petition to stay on-campus. 

“When you think of support for international students, Carleton not shutting down was a really good decision because that would have had extreme repercussions,” she said. “International students wouldn’t have been enrolled and would have had to go back home, and that impacts employment.”

However, in some students’ eyes, the College is not doing enough to alleviate the stress from the sudden announcement.

“I do wish that they relayed this decision a lot sooner than they did,” said Siddiqui. “We’re right at the cusp of final exams, and this is a completely new stress.”

At press time, the College has not announced any campus-wide adjustments to Winter finals.

“I feel like the College, by now, should have taken action in suspending finals and not having that individual burden on students. Students are being disproportionately impacted across the board,” said Ooi. “There are students who I just see in Sayles panicking over their finals only, and there are students who are doing both. It shouldn’t be an individual student’s job to ask for an extension. At this moment, because it’s such a widespread crisis, they should have taken action. Spring Break is extended, why not extend finals?”

A Remote Term, On-campus

For the vast majority of international students choosing to stay on campus, housing and community arrangements are still in flux. Students can stay in their rooms until Wednesday, March 18, but should anticipate for further instruction beyond that date. 

Decisions regarding these arrangements still need to be made, as the Office of Residential Life is confirming the number of students that will be staying.

For some students, this uncertainty is a source for worry.

“Some international students are having serious concerns about being moved to a building together,” said Li. “They’re afraid that that’s going to be a problem because if the major goal is controlling the disease and not letting it spread, they don’t want to be in the same building as everybody.”

Others, like Polanco, are maintaining a sense of optimism about the upcoming term.

“All my friends who are international students—they were like, ‘Well, we’re not really going to be alone,’” he said. “I think it’s going to be like International Student Orientation part two. It depends on what we try to get out of it. In the end, it’s still a term at Carleton.”

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