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To keep their families safe, is staying away the best thing students can do? Plus, coronavirus-related layoffs hit study abroad, Sino-foreign joint education ventures are down, and a former admissions official pleads guilty to accepting bribes to enroll unqualified foreign students.

“They Don’t Want Me Home”

Photo by Kirill Petropavlov on Unsplash

The public-health campaign against the coronavirus began early in Singapore, where An Nguyen and Kaela Seiersen are spending the semester.

In early February, not long after the pair arrived, Singapore’s command-and-control government put in place strict physical distancing rules, imposing thousands of dollars in fines for violations. Lectures at the National University of Singapore, where both women study, were moved online, and thermometers were handed out to students, who log into a special system twice daily to report their temperatures. A friend of Kaela’s who traveled to China for the Lunar New Year was required to quarantine.

Singapore has close commercial and cultural ties to China, the original epicenter of the pandemic, yet both Kaela and An said they had few concerns — in large part because of the city-state’s swift response. If anything, the women said, they worried about their families back in California, where relatively little attention at the time was paid to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

But as the weeks ticked on and the virus spread globally, European students were called home, then ones from Canada. Friends from other American universities were told they had to return, some under threat of losing credit for the semester. In mid-March, An, a sophomore at the University of Arizona, was given two days to come back to the U.S. Shortly after, Kaela, a junior at the University of California at Berkeley, got an email.

I spoke with An and Kaela as part of an article I wrote last week for the Chronicle of Higher Education about the unintended consequences of colleges’ decision to end in-person instruction and send students home. (I learned about their case after one of An’s professors, Chris McMorran, shared a podcast he had made with the two students, Home On the Dot.)

Public-health experts told me colleges made the right decision to reduce the spread on campuses, but that students could inadvertently take the coronavirus home with them — a risk that was heightened when many took part in spring break.

Kaela and An had no plans to hit the beach, but they were anxious about the potential of contracting the virus in congested airports or on long international flights and bringing it home to their families, who were by then sheltering in place. “I was flipping out,” An said.

The choices today aren’t easy for any students, but the women’s dilemma underscores how much more complicated the stakes are for those who travel overseas to study. Remaining on campus leaves students far from the social supports of family and longtime friends — and, with global travel restrictions, who knows for how long. But when staying home is one of the most effective things people can do to reduce the rate of infection, international travel is high-risk behavior, for students and for their loved ones.

Even as she appealed to stay, An and her parents made a plan for her return. Her mother and father would each drive a car to LAX, then leave one for her. She would drive herself to her suburban Los Angeles home, immediately quarantining from the rest of her family.

Eventually, though, her petition was successful, and she was granted permission to stay, as long as she signed a waiver freeing the university of responsibility. Kaela was, too.

Late last week, Singapore announced it was putting in place more restrictive measures, closing many businesses and schools. Still, when I checked in on Saturday, An said she was trying to focus on her studies and hoped to finish out the semester.

Kaela has other plans. She wants to remain in Singapore through the summer, rather than return to her family outside San Francisco. “My parents made it explicitly clear,” she said, “they don’t want me to come home until it gets better in America.”

Strategy In the Storm

Like my colleague Eric Hoover, I’ve been swamped with surveys all purporting to predict fall enrollment. Students are canceling their plans, say some. No, they’re still coming, assert others. They’ll come but will take a gap year first. They’ll study abroad, but they won’t study here. The era of global student mobility is done.

Trying to project in early April, in peak pandemic, what conditions will be on the ground this fall is a little like trying to forecast the aftermath of a hurricane when you’re still in the eye of the storm. With the hurricane, at least, you have a little more to go on: You can see what happened when the winds previously made landfall, you can conjecture based on past natural disasters. We’re in uncharted territory now.

But — uncertainty doesn’t mean that higher ed is frozen in place. It can’t be. Colleges have to admit and enroll next fall’s freshmen, they have to recruit the classes beyond. Surveys or no, they have to figure out a strategy. What’s yours? Enrollment managers, marketers, recruiters, English-language-institute directors, I want to hear what you are doing — and I bet others do, too. Email me at, or send me a message on Twitter or LinkedIn. Look for more reporting on the coronavirus and international-enrollment plans in the coming weeks.

Students Fear Coronavirus’ Impact on Studies

Three out of four Chinese students studying overseas are concerned about the impact that the coronavirus will have on their education, according to a survey of nearly 9,000 current students by the Beijing Overseas Study Service Association, a group representing student-recruitment agents. Among students’ worries: whether they will be able to return to their college when the pandemic subsides because of countries’ new entrance restrictions and whether suspended courses and exams could delay graduation. About a third of the survey respondents are studying at American colleges.

In addition, more than 60 percent of students reported they had been singled out for discrimination because they are Chinese. The outbreak has spurred cases of hostility and xenophobia toward Asian-American and international students.

Extra credit reading: Chinese students stranded abroad have created a dilemma for Beijing. Returnees could reintroduce COVID-19, just as China has gotten its spread under control. But to leave students overseas could undermine confidence in the government.

Around the Globe

A former admissions official at USC has agreed to plead guilty to a scheme to fraudulently enroll unqualified international students in graduate programs in exchange for thousands of dollars in cash.

China’s high-stakes college-entrance exam, the gao kao, has been postponed by a month because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Students in Chile went on an online strike, saying that their universities are ill-prepared for remote education.

Lawyers representing Dreamers are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to delay its ruling in a case that will decide the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program amid the pandemic.

China approved 74 Sino-foreign joint education ventures in 2019, fewer than in previous years.

The Council on International Educational Exchange, a major study-abroad provider, announced a “significant reduction” in its domestic and international staff.

My friends over at The Weekly Dispatch asked a few reporters to reflect on the crisis and its impact on higher ed. Read what I said — and check out coverage from multiple angles in two other newsletters, Zipporah Osei’s First Gen and Jeff Selingo’s Next.

And finally …

These days, we all have our ways of coping: Zoom happy hours. Bread baking. A guy in France ran a confinement marathon on his 23-foot balcony. My friend’s husband completed an ultra, more than 50 miles, in his backyard. (Congrats, Cameron!) And Grace Taneri, the former chancellor of Eastern Mediterranean University, has been sending me photos of the first blooms from her garden in Nicosia:

Stay well, everyone.

’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.