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“I Started to Panic”

In the past few weeks of coronavirus chaos, Jordan Jolo, a student at Marist College, has become accustomed to change: His classes have moved online. A coveted internship at Bank of America abruptly ended. Commencement has not yet been canceled, but Jordan has come to accept that his parents and sister won’t be able to come from France to see him graduate. And whether he’ll be able to work in the U.S., whether he’ll be able to find a job at all — who knows?

At least he had a place to stay. Like many institutions, Marist, a largely residential college, exempted international students and others who could not travel home or who had no home to go to from requirements that students move out of campus housing.

That is, until last Wednesday, when Jordan and 90 other students still on campus received an email telling them that they had to move out — within 48 hours. “I started to panic,” he said.

So did many of his fellow international students. Many lacked the funds to secure last-minute flights that could run into the thousands of dollars. Others faced quarantines if they returned home; for a few, their home countries had closed their borders. As a senior, Jordan feared that it would be nearly impossible to take part in optional practical training if he left. (The government has yet to issue guidance on whether students will be able to apply to the post-graduate work program from outside the U.S.)

In the message to students, Deborah DiCaprio, the vice president for student affairs, said that on the advice of health professionals, Marist had determined it was too risky to allow the students to remain on campus. Exceptions would be considered only in “exceptional” circumstances.

But Jordan said his classmates’ appeals were denied. The college did little to help students find alternate accommodations, he said. Instead, Jordan and some fellow seniors began to organize on social media, trying to determine students’ needs. American classmates responded with offers of help, as did professors. Some volunteered on-campus apartments they had hurriedly moved out of; others had spare rooms. Those still in the area said they would help the students move.

Students also started a Change.org petition calling on administrators to relent, signed by some 1,200 students, faculty members, and alumni. “Forcing students on to flights to go to home is not only dangerous to their health, but also very expensive and sometimes impossible. Please reconsider your decision,” wrote one person. “Do better, Marist,” said another.

On Thursday, Marist released a second message, saying that there had been “misunderstandings and/or misrepresentations of the college’s policy.” The message, from Geoff Brackett, Marist’s executive vice president, said that the college would provide emergency assistance, such as help with plane fare, to students who needed it. If students had “exhausted” other options, they could petition to stay, although the “bar will be set high” for such requests, Brackett cautioned.

In an email Friday afternoon, a Marist spokeswoman said that 30 students had been granted housing exemptions. Each will stay in their own apartment, with a separate bathroom and kitchen to ensure proper social distancing.

Still, Jordan said he was frustrated by the college’s sudden move-out notice, which exacerbated the very real stress his fellow international students felt at being thousands of miles from home in the middle of a global pandemic. “Our parents were very worried,” he said, “and we had to lie to them that everything would be fine.”

“I’m sad. I never had thought that this would be the way my senior year would end.”

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COVID-19 News Round-Up

In other news on the coronavirus and international education:

  • More than 30 higher-ed organizations asked the U.S. Department of Education to delay a proposed information-collection request to colleges on foreign gifts and contracts, saying it would divert time and resources from coronavirus response.
  • The Graduate Record Exam and the TOEFL English-language assessment are now available online. Educational Testing Services began last week to offer at-home examinations proctored by a live remote proctor at scheduled times. The College Board also said it was developing an at-home version of Advanced Placement exams, which will be available for free and will focus on only material covered before early March. But International Baccalaureate exams scheduled for May will not be held.
  • New York state will permit qualified graduates of foreign medical schools to provide patient care in hospitals, part of an effort to relieve pressure on front-line medical staff.
  • Heterodox Academy has fired an employee who posted racist messages blaming China for the coronavirus outbreak and telling Chinese students to go home. The collaborative of more than 2,500 professors promotes open inquiry and viewpoint diversity,
  • British regulators are warning universities against making students unconditional offers of admission after the country’s high-school graduation exams were canceled.
  • What it’s like to prepare for China’s high-stakes gao kao in the middle of a public-health crisis?

New Index Scores Academic Freedom

For the first time, a new index tries to put a score on how well a country does in ensuring academic freedom on its college campuses. Fifty-six of 144 countries measured received the highest rating for academic freedom, while 18, including China, Egypt, and Iran, were given the lowest grade. (The United States was not ranked because not enough scholars with expertise in American academic freedom took part.)

Nations were judged on five factors including the freedom to research and teach, freedom of academic exchange and dissemination, institutional autonomy, campus integrity, and freedom of academic and cultural expression. The index charts academic-freedom trends from 1900 to the present.

The dataset was a joint project of the Global Public Policy Institute, the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, the Scholars at Risk Network, and the V‑Dem Institute. Speaking during its release during SAR Global Congress, the authors said they hoped it would be used in multiple ways: to inform policymaking, as a screening mechanism for international research collaborations, and as a component of global university rankings. I wrote previously about the index and the tension between academic freedom and global rankings.

Around the Globe

There was an extra zero in last week’s item on Peace Corps volunteers being recalled. Some 7,300 volunteers were brought back to the U.S., then fired.

A student-recruitment agency in Brazil is accused of scamming students who want to go abroad.

I talk about big-picture trends in global higher education in the current issue of NAFSA’s International Educator magazine.

International students aren’t an economic boon to the United States, this study argues.

And finally …

Amid all the upheaval, a note from Dawn Edmiston was a much-welcome reminder that academic life — that life in general — does go on. Dawn, a marketing professor at the College of William and Mary, had been set to defend her dissertation, examining the impact of a global business minor on intercultural competency, when the coronavirus outbreak upended campuses. Initially, she feared her doctoral defense would be postponed, but administrators at the college quickly adapted, moving her presentation and others to Zoom.

A silver lining to the virtual defense is that educators and senior administrators from as far away as Israel were able to attend the session. Dawn’s mother and father, who is battling cancer, were also able to take part from their home in upstate New York — their very first Zoom experience. And being a student herself during the pandemic allowed her to have even greater empathy for her own students, who will take classes remotely for the rest of the semester.

“It was not quite the historic Blue Room of the Wren Building (the oldest building of higher education in the U.S.) as I had planned,” Dawn wrote me. “However, I was very grateful to the Administration at W&M for creating this opportunity for us.”

Congratulations to Dawn! How is everyone else holding up? Tell me how you’re adapting to coronavirus life — I’ll share stories in future issues. As always, I welcome your ideas and feedback. You can reach me by email at latitudesnews@gmail.com or find me on Twitter or Linkedln.

’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.