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Challenges at Home and Abroad

With dizzying speed, the coronavirus outbreak has come home to American higher education, prompting hundreds of campuses to suspend classes and move to online instruction. Yet, the abrupt announcement Wednesday night of a ban on travelers from continental Europe, followed by restrictions on entry from Britain and Ireland, underscored how the pandemic continues to pose particular challenges for international education.

The top six education-abroad destinations, all in Europe, host nearly half of the 342,000 American college students who study overseas. Even though U.S. citizens are still permitted to travel from Europe, institutions scrambled to get students back home.

“We are through the looking glass now,” Noah Rost, director of the Programs Abroad Office at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, told me.

When we spoke midday Sunday, Rost was still working to help some of his students return — packed flights and reductions in routes have made it slow going. Tennessee provided financial assistance to help students cover the cost of pricey last-minute tickets.

For people outside education abroad, it may seem surprising that large numbers of students remained abroad, even as colleges moved to restrict international travel. But longstanding risk management practices suggest that students may be safer at overseas universities or program sites, where they are supported by professional staff, than flying home. “The danger is in the act of travel,” Rost said, “not in being abroad.”

Images of passengers over the weekend, stuck in hours-long crushes in customs queues, highlighted these hazards. At airports like O’Hare, it was the opposite of social distancing:

Even when students are back in the United States, there are still complications. Rost is trying to figure out how to keep students “academically whole,” to ensure that the precipitous mid-semester end to their international experience doesn’t cost them credits. In some cases, students can study online with their overseas campus; in others, Rost is working with faculty members to seek out alternatives.

How might post-pandemic study abroad look different? I asked Rost. Students and parents may be hesitant to go overseas, he suggested, which could lead to more virtual exchanges or hybrid models, with short-term study abroad embedded in on-campus courses. Still, he concluded:

“We will come out on the other side, leaner but also smarter and more creative.”

What do you think COVID-19 will mean for the future of international education? Do you have creative solutions to credit issues and other challenges facing students returning from study abroad? Please share! Email me at latitudesnews@gmail.com or find me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

More Guidance on International Students

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security sought to further clarify its guidance to colleges about how to handle student-visa issues during the coronavirus outbreak. Last week, the department informed colleges that they would be given leeway to adapt policies for international students during the public-health crisis. The latest guidance lays out three common scenarios related to emergency procedures colleges have put in place:

  • In the first, the college completely closes, and there are no online courses or alternate learning opportunities. Students should remain in active status in SEVIS, the student-visa database, as long as they intend to resume their studies when classes resume, the department said.
  • Under scenario #2, the college cancels in-person classes and shifts to online instruction, and the international student stays in the United States. In this case, students could count online courses toward their full course of study, without tripping restrictions that limit them to a single online course a semester.
  • The third situation mirrors the second, except the international student leaves the U.S. Students would still be allowed to engage in online study and would be in active status, even outside the country.

The guidance clears up what had been a confusing situation with some federal officials telling colleges to terminate the records of any international student who left the U.S. Colleges will have 10 days to notify the government of any changes they make. But due to the “fluid nature of this difficult situation,” the department cautions, the guidance is subject to further tweaking.

Some unanswered questions persist: For example, will international students be expected to return if in-person classes resume with just a week or two left in the semester, or can they complete the term online? And what happens when students try to reenter the country next fall:


A warm welcome to a new member of the Open Campus newsletter family. First Gen is a newsletter on the first-generation college experience, written by Zipporah Osei, a journalist and senior at Northeastern who is the first in her family to go to college. In her latest newsletter, Zipporah writes about how colleges’ coronavirus shutdowns often failed to take into account the needs of their most vulnerable students:

“This whole ordeal has revealed real fractures in the infrastructure of support that should exist for first-generation and low-income students.”

It’s a topic I also tackled in the Chronicle. While low-income students face particular challenges, campus closures can leave international students in a bind, too. Check out my piece here.

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Around the Globe

Marshall University has ended its international-student pathways program with INTO University Partnerships, just seven years into a 30-year agreement.

Another Chinese professor has spoken out against the Chinese government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

A former professor at West Virginia University has pleaded guilty to fraud charges based on his work for a Chinese global talent program. James Patrick Lewis, a physics professor, took leave from his job to work in China and hid it from the university.

The Council for Advancement and Support of Education has submitted comments on a proposed form to collect information about colleges’ gifts and contracts from foreign government sources.

Australia’s University of Tasmania will cut three out of four of its degree courses because of a sharp drop in the number of students from China due to coronavirus travel restrictions.

Two Australian universities have renegotiated their contracts to host Confucius Institutes, the Chinese government language and cultural centers, in order to safeguard their autonomy.

The British government announced plans for the “largest and fastest increase” in spending on research.

And finally …

Last week I asked for suggestions of good books to dive into and readers, you did not disappoint:

  • Bob Massa recommends To Shake the Sleeping Self by Jedidiah Jenkins, the account of a 14,000-mile bike journey from Portland, Oregon, to Patagonia, Argentina. “Well done, moving, honest account of a young man finding himself.”
  • Alison Corbett says she’s been hooked on Jonathan Coe’s Middle England. “It’s the first fictional account I’ve read which throws light on why the Leave vote happened. (Very helpful for this ex-pat.)”
  • Injy Elnimr is returning to an “old favorite” Around the World in 200 Days by Anis Mansour.
  • Ben Waxman praises Delia Owens’ “beautifully written” Where the Crawdads Sing. Now that he’s done with it, he has picked up Yingyi Ma’s Ambitious and Anxious, about the Chinese student experience in the U.S.

Thanks for the recommendations — and keep them coming. Amid all the distressing news in the world today, I hope you all can take a few minutes for a little self-care, whether it’s reading a book, going for a run, or trying out a new hobby. Stay safe, and hug your loved ones (or at least don’t laugh at them too hard when they fall off the roomba).

’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.