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Tough Choices for International Students

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When Fordham University moved to online classes, Shaojie Zhang decided to stay in his apartment on New York’s Upper West Side.

His decision upset his parents, especially his mother. “My mom got super worried,” said Zhang, who goes by Carter. “She wanted to buy me a ticket to come home.”

His situation isn’t an uncommon one. As the coronavirus spreads across the United States, many international students are faced with a decision, to stay or go?

With the federal government relaxing visa regulations to permit international students to take courses online whether they remain in the U.S. or travel overseas, some students are opting to return to their home countries. While most American colleges are permitting international students and others with no place to go to stay on campus during the outbreak, they may prefer to be with family and friends. Others are from countries or regions with relatively low infection rates. Anticipating global travel bans, some fear if they don’t leave now they may be stuck:

And the slow American response to the public-health crisis has led many to conclude they would be safer back home, even when home is China, the original epicenter of the outbreak.

Zhang’s parents in Beijing were confined to their home for weeks, only able to leave their neighborhood with a special pass. “I was so worried about them,” he said. “Now they are worried about me.”

In a WeChat group, anxious Chinese parents shared data about coronavirus cases in their children’s college towns, swapped details about online marketers who would ship face masks to America, and fretted about empty store shelves. “No eggs, no protein,” one mother wrote about her child’s aborted trip to an American grocery store, appending a sobbing emoji.

Andrew Chen of WholeRen Education, an international-education consulting company, has been organizing hourslong virtual Q&A sessions for parents with Chinese-speaking officials at American colleges and high schools. They have fielded hundreds of questions. “There are a lot of concerned parents,” he told me.

Still, Chen is unsure whether there will be mass departures of students to China. In a WeChat survey of 600 parents he conducted last week, just 2 percent said their children were now in China.

One reason students may hesitate is China, like many countries, has put in place quarantine rules for travelers from abroad, confining them to special quarantine hotels for 14 days. Returning students have also been subject to social-media criticism from people who worry that they will increase infection rates just when China seems to have gotten the epidemic under control. SupChina, a news site focused on China, details some of the vitriolic comments posted on students’ accounts: “Why did you come back? So your foreign dad is not as good as you thought?” and “The quarantine seems like a vacation for you. Luxury hotel, single room, wifi, food…you are in luck!”

Zhang, who is studying for a master’s degree in quantitative finance, said he feared that a long trip with hundreds of strangers who had not been tested for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, put him at far greater risk than self-isolating in his studio apartment. His parents came to agree.

“It’s more dangerous to be on a plane,” he said. “I could get exposed.”

Zhang was also concerned about how he would navigate a 12-hour time difference if most of his classes continued in their regular slots. International students can face other logistical hurdles — platforms used for online learning like Zoom or Google Meet, for example, are not licensed and available in all countries.

Still, several of Zhang’s friends decided to return home, scrambling to find flights out of New York. As America hunkers down, it’s far from clear when they, and other international students, will be back.

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Still Many Unknowns on Visa Regs

NAFSA: Association of International Educators is asking federal officials to publish a notice of Special Student Relief, or SSR, in the Federal Register that would allow the government to temporarily suspend or alter student-visa rules for certain groups of international students because of unusual circumstances. In a letter, Esther Brimmer, NAFSA’s executive director, asked the government to invoke SSR to give colleges flexibility on issues including duration of status and employment eligibility as they respond to the coronavirus outbreak.

SSR has been used twice before, for Nepali students following a 2015 earthquake and for students from Libya and Syria affected by civil unrest in their home countries.

The government has promised colleges greater latitude on international-student regulations and has published guidance on how to navigate the rules. Yet a great deal of uncertainty remains. I asked on Twitter what some of the big unknowns are for international educators in advising students. Here’s some of what you told me:

  • If an international student is graduating in May and does not have a job offer, are they required to leave the country?
  • If graduating students depart the U.S. and continue full course of study via online classes so as to maintain F-1 status, can they apply for OPT and return?
  • If we develop online options for new students who can’t come this fall will DHS relax the one academic year rule for CPT/OPT eligibility?
  • For colleges already adjusting course delivery beyond the spring semester, how does the government define “the duration of the emergency” from the March 13 guidance?
  • If federal officials do approve SSR, how in the world will they be able to process all requests that come in?

Of course, the anxiety isn’t limited to visa regulations. From the cancellation of standardized tests like the SAT to closures of embassies and consulates around the world to the biggest question of all, will families still send their children abroad to study, little is assured in international education today.

What are your unanswered questions? How are you advising your college’s international students? Tell me — email me at latitudesnews@gmail.com or contact me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Investigated for China Ties, Researcher Develops Coronavirus Test

A cancer researcher at the University of Florida left the United States in 2019 amid an inquiry into his alleged failure to fully disclose his Chinese academic appointments and funding. Now, Weihong Tan leads a team of 300 Chinese scientists who worked to develop a fast, easy test for COVID-19. HIs case illustrates the potential costs of the U.S. government’s stepped-up investigations of researchers for not disclosing foreign ties.

“The Chinese government overreached, and the American government overreacted,” one Chinese-American professor said. “China tried to recruit, but it was unsuccessful. Now we help them do what they cannot do on their own.”

Read the story, published jointly by ProPublica and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Around the Globe

Fulbright scholars say the U.S. government exchange program abandoned them, leaving them to find their way home from Italy during the coronavirus outbreak.

Supporters of international educational and cultural exchange asked congressional leaders to include such programs in any coronavirus relief measures.

NAFSA announced it was canceling its annual conference, which draws thousands of attendees from around the world.

Scholars at Risk, a group that protects scholars and supports academic freedom worldwide, is moving its Global Congress online. Sign up for virtual sessions this Thursday and Friday.

The Peace Corps brought home 73,000 volunteers — and fired them all.

Some Chinese students caught in a coronavirus travel ban have tried to find a “back door” to return to classes in Australia.

The president of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology criticized the college’s student-union president for calling COVID-19 “Chinese pneumonia.”

Hey, that’s me on the Education Writers Association podcast, talking about covering the coronavirus.

And finally …

In the Bay Area, we’re wrapping up week one of a mandatory shelter in place. Cooped up inside, it can be easy to let the workday seep into free time. (Just me? OK.) I’m trying to remind myself to let the stress out. Here are a few things that have been making me smile:

  • Facetiming with the kiddos. Somehow my brother convinced them to run a mile to Rocky Beach for “PE class.”
  • Fellow Canadian Nadine Baladi told me about the Newfoundland and Labrador Instagram page. It’s the most stunning place, right?
  • Hamsterkauf is the perfect word to describe coronavirus panic-buying. Thanks to Shanon Langlie for sharing this article.
  • Reply All’s “The Case of the Missing Hit” is an instant podcast classic.
  • Before he was a reporter, my friend Eric Kelderman was a professional musician. He dusted off his trombone to play #songsofcomfort.

What’s your respite from all the doom and gloom? Let’s share the little things making us happy — email me or tag me on Twitter with #CoronavirusSelfCare.

’Til next week — Karin

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