When college is online, where do international students go?

Marta Biino from Turin, Italy, was excited when she first got the news that she had been accepted to Columbia University’s master’s degree program in journalism. Living in New York City was a goal of hers and her acceptance into her dream school was an important accomplishment. But then the reality – that she might not be able to attend classes in the fall – settled in.

Now she is planning to defer her enrollment until January 2021, as uncertainty around campuses reopening continues in response to the pandemic. Although Columbia has given students the option to attend in-person in the fall, Ms. Biino is postponing to gain the time she needs to get settled financially and to secure a visa. She plans on working in Turin to help pay for her tuition. 

“Since the virus has started, my parents have been working a lot less. ... If I get a loan, I’m not sure when and how we’ll be able to repay it,” she says. “I don’t know about paying $75,000 in tuition fees for a teaching quality which will obviously, despite best efforts, not be the same.”

International students who study in the United States are navigating an unprecedented situation. Not only has the pandemic exacerbated existing challenges, such as securing visas, but it also has created a new set of concerns. Besides weighing whether online classes justify expensive tuition, international students also don’t want to miss out on an integral part of the American university experience.

“It was always my goal to go abroad for higher education,” says Rufaida Zareer Shams, who lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and plans to enroll as a freshman at the University of San Francisco, even if the fall semester is online. “But if a whole year is online, and it is the cost of a full year’s tuition, then no, I don’t think it’s worth it. But I guess students’ hands are kind of tied right now.”

Anticipating a further decline 

While international students are a sliver of the higher education population – 5.5%, or about 1 million – they spend more than $40 billion a year,according to advocacy group the Institute of International Education (IIE), citing Department of Commerce data. 

In the past few years the number of international students has basically flatlined, after more than a decade of growth, as the Trump administration tightens visa and immigration requirements, says Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, an association of higher ed institutions and groups. While the U.S. continues to attract the most students from other countries, more and more of them have begun to pick universities in Britainand Canadaas hostilities mount and visas become increasingly harder to obtain.

“International students are an important part of American higher education,” says Mr. Hartle, noting that they bring funds and diversity to U.S. schools. “Based on conversations with college and university officials, we’re projecting a 20% to 25% decline in the number of international students who will come here this fall.”

The U.S. is typically a popular choice for students from China, accounting for 33.7% of the international student body,based on IIE figures. On May 29, U.S. President Donald Trumpissued an executive ordersuspending some Chinese graduate students from entering the country. Officials are planning to revoke the visas of students and researchers affiliated with educational institutions linked to the People’s Liberation Army over concerns about intellectual property theft. The move comes in response to rising tensions between Washington and Beijing on matters concerning the pandemic, trade, and the status of Hong Kong. 

Plans upended by the pandemic

Students already attending school in the U.S. are still regrouping after the disruption caused by the pandemic-related lockdowns. According to the responses from 441 institutions to an IIEsurvey administered during April and early May, 92% of international students remained on campus or in the U.S. Universities worked to providehousing, health care support, and online tutoring to them.

Sultan Aldabal, a rising senior studying political science and economics at Northeastern University in Boston, was at first unable to fly home to Saudi Arabia in early March due to cancelled flights. He has recently returned after months of being stuck in his Boston apartment. Although happy to be home, he is concerned that he may not be able to secure a visa to return to campus for his final semester. Still, the situation has given him time to reflect.

“The crisis has made me appreciate my family and my loved ones. … It really makes you look at things in a different perspective,” he says. “I’ve learned how to adjust, how to adapt through the [fear], and it has given me a lot of time to think about my life.”

Takato Watabe was finishing his junior year at the University of California, Los Angeles when the school ended in-person classes. The economics major initially welcomed the news about transitioning to an online format, and he and his friends celebrated by playing Nintendo video games. But then reality hit. Mr. Watabe, who returned home to Yokohama, Japan, on March 30, says he quickly missed the flurry of activity on his sprawling campus.

“The coronavirus has taught me a lot of things, like the importance of spending time, physically, with my friends and how important my time studying abroad was,” he says. 

Unmoored, but resilient

Some students say they felt the same sense of unmooring that American students did, missing their routines and social circles in the U.S.

“Being independent, that was the motivation behind going to college for me,” says Ushna Arshad Khan, a rising junior from Lahore, Pakistan, studying mathematical economics at the University of Richmond in Virginia. “As a girl in Pakistan, you can’t do whatever you want or go wherever you want. In the U.S., it’s a lot better because you can basically carve out your day and not have anyone influence that. Also, when you’re in college, you’re surrounded by people doing the same things as you, so it’s easier to keep on track.”

Those students who couldn’t return home found ways to build communities and support systems on their abandoned campuses – many of which helped them cope with the stress of the pandemic. 

Atri Hassan, a rising senior from Bangladesh studying psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, found comfort in the small cohort of students who stayed behind, and from professors and international student organizations.

“I think having friends and roommates who are international really helped because we could at least talk to one another and update each other on what was going on,” says Ms. Hassan. 

For Grea Lee, who just finished her first year at Amherst College, also in Massachusetts, the pandemic was manageable because of the college’s decision to move all remaining students into three central dorms. Although in-person interactions were discouraged, the move helped build solidarity and a sense of normalcy.  

“I think just the fact that we were living in these dorms just sort of made people feel some kind of unity,” says Ms. Lee, who recently returned home to Suwon, South Korea. “Even if we didn’t really see each other that often, just the fact that we were sharing a living space together still made us feel like we were part of a community.”

Mr. Watabe, who usually is busy with coursework and internships in the U.S., now is spending valuable time with his family in Japan and on activities that make him happy, such as reading books and hiking. He plans to return in the fall if he can get a visa; otherwise he will take classes online from Japan. The crisis has given him a new appreciation for his American experience.

“I was in the States for almost three years, and that life in America became kind of normal. But it wasn’t. It was very, very rare and a valuable experience and the coronavirus taught me this. … It taught me how important my life in America was.”

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