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Stay, Stay, Stay

Faced with the choice of whether to stay or go as the coronavirus shut down campuses, it turns out international students overwhelmingly made the decision to stay.

This is the stand-out finding of a just-released survey from the Institute of International Education. The group reports that nine out of 10 international students at the colleges surveyed did not return to their home countries after campus closures.

That’s right — 92 percent of current students are still in the United States, on campus or in another location. The proportion is significantly higher than most educators I’ve talked to had estimated.

Here I’ll break for a caveat: IIE found great variation in student behavior between institutions. The larger the university, the more likely their international students were to remain in the U.S. This makes some sense — I’d expect graduate students to be more likely to stay put than undergrads at a residential college. Fifty-five percent of the survey respondents were master’s or doctoral institutions.

Caveats aside, the colleges in the survey enroll nearly half of all international students in the U.S. So this isn’t a small sample. It has weight. Only three colleges, of all those surveyed, sent 100 percent of their international students back home.

Students’ behavior in March could offer a rare bit of good news for colleges come August and September. If most current international students are still in the U.S., travel restrictions, visa-processing delays, border closures, and other impediments to returning from overseas won’t keep them from making it to campus in the fall.

Of course, smaller colleges will be in a tougher spot. And the pandemic presents hurdles for on-campus enrollment, period. But these challenges will be the same for international students as for their American classmates.

New international students, on the other hand…

Let’s talk, about this and other issues in international ed. Find me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

‘I Don’t Have to Feel Alone’

When Khuslen Tulga is feeling low, Miss Vige comes bearing shwarma kabob.

Khuslen, who goes by T, is one of 55 students, almost all international, still living at Hamilton College after the coronavirus outbreak ended in-person classes and sent most students off campus. Her days are bookended by video calls to her grandparents, who raised her, in Mongolia. The Internet is her only tether home after the pandemic closed the country’s borders.

But at Hamilton, her home away from home, “I don’t have to feel alone,” T, a freshman, said. Miss Vige — as she calls Vige Barrie, the liberal-arts college’s director of media relations — texts and calls and stops by with takeout from her favorite Lebanese restaurant. Sometimes they take socially distanced walks through the campus glen and talk.

Barrie is T’s staff liaison and host mother, part of a support network assembled to buoy each of the students remaining on campus. Within 48 hours of the shutdown, almost every student had a pair of volunteer mentors, one academic and one on the student-services side, said Terry Martinez, Hamilton’s dean of students. With just a few quick calls, all did.

Like many small colleges, Hamilton prides itself on its close, nurturing environment. The coronavirus threatened to upend that. “As we moved into isolation, we worried that we didn’t have eyes and ears on our students,” Martinez said.

The abrupt end to the semester and the transition to remote learning has been difficult for everyone. But international students like T — far from family and often with little sense of when they might return home — are among the most vulnerable.

T on the Hamilton campus. (Photo by Josephine Yuen)

Because of its small size, Hamilton was able to take a personalized approach that institutions with thousands of international students might not be able to replicate. Still, colleges large and small have put in place special support services for stranded students. International-education staff at Ohio Dominican University host Zoom drop-in hours for students to ask questions, socialize, and see friends. Illinois Institute of Technology hosts virtual dance-a-thons and other special events to maintain a sense of community. Students and employees at Saxion University, in the Netherlands, fill up “buddy boxes” with small items and volunteer to connect virtually with international students.

Hamilton, too, has assembled care packages filled with practical items like toiletries as well as splurges. (Martinez bought out a local Girl Scout’s entire cookie supply.) “It’s the little things that make a difference,” she told me, and I suspect this is true. When the crisis lifts, international students will remember if they were cared for as part of the college community.

Martinez and her associate deans meet weekly with the students online and bring in guest speakers to address specific issues such as health and safety and postgraduate work. T connects one-on-one with Barrie and her academic liaison, and many of her professors, aware that she is still on campus, make the point of checking in. When her former supervisor in the institutional research office takes her dogs for a walk near campus, she calls T and invites her along.

“I couldn’t feel more grateful to feel at home,” T wrote in an article for Hamilton’s student newspaper, “not only during this pandemic but since I had first stepped my foot on this campus.”

I’ll continue to write about the challenges facing international students during the coronavirus and how campuses are responding. Tell me your stories: I’m at latitudesnews@gmail.com.

Fulbrighters Start Petition

Amid the global crisis, Fulbright scholars were told to come back to the U.S. Travel for fall recipients has been suspended until at least January. The changes have led to financial and health challenges for participants, a group of grantees say, including lost income, canceled insurance, and severed leases. They have started a petition asking the State Department to revise its policies for the Fulbright Program. Among their requests:

  • That Fulbright contracts be honored in their entirety and that scholars receive their stipends and grants in full;
  • That grantees be given a choice to return to their host countries in the future, through an expedited application process, option for grant deferral or renewal, or non-competitive status in upcoming award cycles; and
  • That emergency assistance be provided to grantees who need it to assist with health care, housing, and other unexpected costs associated with the transition back to the U.S.

More Opportunities to Connect

Coming up this Thursday, May 21, I’ll be speaking as part of the International Education Climate Action Summit, an event looking at the intersection of international education and climate change. I’m part of a session of the conference timed for those of us in the Americas, but there is another one for participants in Australia, New Zealand, and Asia. You can find details on the program and register here. And for more background on the Climate Action Network for International Education, which is hosting the summit, check out my piece from a few months ago.

Last week I moderated a conversation with university leaders about international students and the COVID crisis as part of an online forum organized by the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. The hourlong session also featured experts in advocacy and student-visa policy. A recording is now available on the Alliance’s website along with a wealth of helpful resources.

Please share this newsletter with others who would be interested or encourage them to subscribe.

Around the Globe

College presidents raised issues related to international enrollment in a call with the White House, asking that consulates prioritize student-visa applications and that colleges continue to have flexibility in the number of online credits international students can take.

The U.S. government released a new round of guidelines on the coronavirus and student-visa issues. I broke it all down on Twitter.

California community colleges have filed a lawsuit challenging U.S. Department of Education rules that barred international and undocumented students from receiving emergency relief.

A new GAO report says that there is “risk” that international students and scholars may transfer sensitive information they gain in their research in the U.S. back home and recommends that federal agencies provide additional guidance to universities.

Student leaders from College Democrats and College Republicans have signed a letter calling for the closure of Confucius Institutes and the dissolution of Chinese Students and Scholars Association chapters on U.S. campuses.

The Justice Department has accused a professor at the University of Arkansas of improperly accepting funds from the Chinese government while an Emory professor pleaded guilty to failing to report foreign income on his tax returns.

The Chinese government is targeting academics who criticized its coronavirus response.

Tsinghua University’s journalism school will stop enrolling undergraduates and will focus on graduate education.

Canada has announced study and work visa changes.

International students at one British university are being charged rent for belongings left behind when they abruptly returned home.

And finally …

Andrew Pérez’s whole family was planning to travel from suburban Los Angeles to see him graduate from Harvard. Instead, they’ll crowd around a computer on commencement day to watch the virtual ceremony. It’s not what Andrew imagined, but in a way it’s fitting — his degree, he says, belongs to his family and his community. “It’s never been just about me, and it’s never going to be about me.”

This spring is bittersweet for all members of the COVID Class of 2020, but the pandemic robbed first-generation and low-income students like Andrew of an especially meaningful milestone. I hope you’ll read my story about the Lost Commencement.

’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.