(Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash)

New Flexibility for International Students

Late Friday, just hours after the University of Washington announced it planned to end in-person instruction until the end of March, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said it would give colleges leeway on regulations for international students as coronavirus cases spread.

As I first reported, the department will allow colleges to adapt their policies and procedures to make certain that the COVID-19 outbreak does not disrupt education for students on visas:

The guidance will allow colleges to temporarily lift restrictions on distance and online education. Under current regulations, international students are not allowed to take more than one online course in a semester without jeopardizing their visa status. With the possibility of campus closures looming, colleges had been pressing the government to act. In a letter to Chad Wolfe, acting secretary of homeland security, Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University, which has moved classes on its Seattle campus online, called on the government to loosen the regulations. “Students should not be put in the difficult position of risking their health or jeopardizing their education,” he wrote.

The change will “enable students to temporarily participate in distance learning,” the spokeswoman told me, provided that colleges report any procedural adaptations to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program.

It’s unclear what other types of modifications colleges will be permitted to make. The spokeswoman said that the purpose of the guidance was to make sure international students can make “normal progress in a full course of study.“ Does that mean, for instance, that there will be more flexibility in departure dates for graduating students or for those whose OPT is running out? Colleges should expect more details in a memo later this week.

In other coronavirus-related news:

  • It was a busy week on the coronavirus beat. Check out my articles on how colleges are helping international students deal with the uncertainty caused by COVID-19 and the why the outbreak could cause international-enrollment headaches. I also worked with three other reporters at the Chronicle of Higher Education to look at the implications of the University of Washington’s decision to move to online and remote classes.
  • In my reporting, I heard from folks at UW about how the decision was affecting them, including Machelle Allman, director of the Center for International Education on the Bothell campus: “We on the staff are here, keeping the offices open and serving students…The tone is one of cautious optimism that the changes will be temporary.”
  • International-education groups are pressing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to clarify guidance it issued on student exchanges. The vaguely worded directive suggested that colleges “should consider postponing or canceling” study-abroad trips and other international exchanges. The memo stopped short of ordering colleges to cut trips short and bring students home. It also did not specify regions of the world that students ought to avoid but rather appeared global in scope. Already, many colleges have pulled students back from study-abroad destinations that have been hard-hit by the coronavirus and have canceled spring-break trips. Still, the message from the CDC, which has never before issued guidance on student travel, left many in higher education uncertain of how to proceed.
  • Education groups are canceling conferences, but NAFSA says its annual meeting in May is still on.
  • Can internationalization survive the coronavirus? Robin Matross Helms argues it could be a learning moment.

For ongoing coverage of the coronavirus — and all things international ed — follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. And did someone forward you this email? Sign up here to subscribe.

Chinese Students: Ambitious and Anxious

Yingyi Ma is a sociologist at Syracuse University whose insights into the Chinese student experience on American campuses are always sharp and insightful. With the publication of her new book, Ambitious and Anxious: How Chinese College Students Succeed and Struggle in American Higher Education, I asked about a few takeaways from her research.

Q. Why you think study-abroad culture became so pervasive in China?

A. This has much to do with the rise of a middle class in China hungry for quality education opportunities. Despite heavy investment and expansion, the Chinese higher education system has not stood out yet in the league of world-class universities — only two Chinese universities are ranked among the top 100 in the world, while over 40 of American institutions are. China’s middle and upper class consider that overseas education could be the savior for their children’s education.

Q. The stereotype of Chinese students is that they are wealthy and pampered. Why is that problematic?

A. It is problematic on two fronts: It obscures the socioeconomic diversity among Chinese students. I’ve interviewed students whose parents sold their only apartment to move to the edge of the city, so as to realize the profits in the midst of China’s real-estate boom. Middle-class parents work several jobs. Chinese students yearn for paid campus jobs — one-third of my sample worked on campus to alleviate their parents’ financial burden. The stereotype of the wealthy and pampered delegitimizes Chinese students’ academic and social struggles and prevents American institutions from recognizing their needs and providing necessary support.

Q. You came to the U.S. as a student from China, yet you are a generation older than these students. What do you see as the similarities and differences between your experience and that of today’s students?

A. My generation and this generation of Chinese students both yearn to broaden their horizons and see a larger world through study abroad. We are different in that my generation was largely funded by American higher education, primarily through graduate school and doctoral research programs, whereas a majority of this generation of Chinese students are self-funded. It is also much more common or “natural” for this generation of Chinese students to study abroad than in my generation. This change reflects the rise of China in the world and the capacity of its people to afford international education.

Q. In the book, you lay out actions colleges can take to improve the Chinese student experience and help them succeed in American higher education. What are a few key pieces of advice?

A. In admissions policies, I suggest more direct recruitment in China by partnering with local schools, which can help Chinese students gather better information during college application process, rather than leaning on the third-party agencies that often lack quality control. In student affairs, institutions need to take a proactive approach and provide more structured networking opportunities for Chinese students. For example, the University of Illinois’s football 101 camp may benefit Chinese students through the social glue of campus sports. For faculty support, a few classroom strategies may be helpful for Chinese students’ classroom participation, such as more small-group discussions and more preparation before speaking rather than spontaneous speaking. Last but not the least, career services may work with the alumni office to build a strong global alumni network, which in turn may help Chinese students locate career opportunities in global China or Asia.

Q. From the coronavirus to Sino-American political tensions, we’re at a moment of uncertainty when it comes to China. What do you think the future holds for Chinese student interest in studying in the U.S.?

A. Sino-American political tensions and the coronavirus will undoubtedly pose new challenges and potentially dampen the enthusiasm for Chinese students to study in America in the near term. However, I think that in the foreseeable future, China will remain the top sending country for international students to America. This is largely due to the unprecedented size of the middle class. Their strong demand for quality higher education cannot be met by the Chinese domestic education system, which despite much effort to reform, is still mired in the rat race of testing. This drives many Chinese students away.

Thanks to Yingyi. I have an extra copy of her book, which she has been gracious enough to offer to latitude(s) readers. If you are interested, send me an observation or questions you have about Chinese students in America to latitudesnews@gmail.com. I’ll share the answers — and send one reader a copy of Yingyi’s book!

Around the Globe

The European Union advocate general says Hungary broke EU law when it passed regulations that forced the closure of Central European University, the liberal-arts institution founded by George Soros.

Two French academics are on trial in Iran on national-security charges.

Swiss scientists could be blocked from participating in the next big EU research program.

American universities are losing ground while British higher education is rising, according to the new QS subject-matter rankings.

Administrators at India’s Jawaharlal Nehru University are warning students not to shelter victims of recent riots.

Students in Thailand participated in widespread pro-democracy protests.

The SEAS 360º program at the University at Buffalo has won IELTS USA’s award for best practices in international enrollment management.

And finally …

Besides learning (a little) about Beyblades during my few days off, I got to do some reading. In addition to Yingyi’s book, I sped through Mara Hvistendahl’s The Scientist and the Spy: A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial Espionage, a fascinating and compelling read. The scientist of the title is an American-educated engineer at the center of an effort to procure genetically-modified corn seeds from Iowa fields and spirit them back to China. One of the real geniuses of Mara’s writing is that there’s never any question of his culpability, yet readers come to see the dangers of the FBI’s “thousand grains of sand” theory, the idea that Chinese students and scientists who come to America are pressed into becoming amateur spies. Those of you on the front lines of dealing with questions of universities’ vulnerability to Chinese espionage will find much that resonates — one chapter deals with the investigation at the University of Texas’ M.D. Anderson Cancer Center — but The Scientist and the Spy is such a tautly told story, I’d recommend to anyone looking for a good book.

Now I need another one! Tell me what you’re reading, or what you’ve recently enjoyed. International-education connections not necessary.

’Til next week — Karin

A freelance journalist and expert on global issues in higher ed, Karin has been writing for more than a decade about the changing relationship between American colleges and the world.