The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly impacted all aspects of higher education. University amenities have closed, on-campus housing is limited, activities have been cancelled and classes have been restructured.
As mask mandates, social distancing and capacity limits were enacted to prevent the spread of the virus, higher-learning institutions have had to adapt to the current circumstances, rearranging the learning environment and programs to better fit these safety requirements. Remote and online learning have been seen as the answer to these problems, and the best way to ensure students and faculty are safe from contagion. This has caused a number of classes, that were previously in-person, to become remote or fully-online.
Online instruction has proven difficult for international students in particular, as lack of fluid communication about policy changes, sudden reallocations and technological difficulties, among other obstacles, have decreased the accessibility and quality of education received.
International students are an integral part of the education system. They bring a fresh perspective into classrooms and allow domestic students to think outside the box of their usual experiences.
The pandemic has threatened the longstanding tradition of international student’s enrichment of the U.S. education system. Although institutions around the country are preparing to return to face-to-face instruction for Fall 2021, it is unclear whether this will be possible. It is the responsibility of these institutions to ensure that their international students are properly taken care of and communicated with.
When the pandemic began in Spring 2020, many students around the country, whether international or domestic, were displaced, requiring them to return home. For international students, this meant suddenly relocating across the country to receive remote instruction for the rest of the semester.
The outrage and surprise at ICE’s requisition that international students participate in in-person classes or risk losing their student VISA status was well-documented in the article Coronavirus: Anger Over U.S. Decision on Foreign Student Visas. The decision sparked reactions from higher education faculty and politicians alike, who worried about the logistics of preventing international students from acquiring legal status and how this would affect efforts to keep student communities safe.
Kicking international students out of the US during a global pandemic because their colleges are moving classes online for physical distancing hurts students. It’s senseless, cruel, and xenophobic. @ICEgov and @DHSgov must drop this policy immediately. https://t.co/MHYduGA1Pk
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) July 7, 2020
The pressure of rapid relocation took its toll on countless students. While I did not have to move across the country due to the pandemic, my move away from campus and from my friends had an impact on my motivation and work ethic.
In our conversation, Ariélle Gil, an international student from Aruba expressed feeling a similar way:
“I moved back to Aruba a year and a month ago, and that first semester that Covid hit I bombed my courses. The two semesters after that have been quite nice actually since I don’t have as much pressure on myself like in physical classes and I’ve excelled in my education. Online gives you the opportunity to take things at your own pace so that is a major plus.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by a student from Mexico, who said he actually preferred online schooling but did not feel they were fairly priced:
“I struggled more before the pandemic started. In Zoom people are not interrupting the professor the whole time. They can take more control over who is talking. While I was still getting used to English, listening to a bunch of accents at the same time in a classroom was really confusing for me. The experience of online learning is completely different. Most of my classes are not worth the money I am paying. They even charge an extra fee because it’s online.”
It is particularly important for international students to become immersed in the culture of their institutions, as their classmates serve as a support network which they cannot access elsewhere. The newsletter Latitudes, which focuses on higher learning news, outlines how international students rely on local students to model their behavior and serve as guidance on how to navigate higher education spaces, whether socially or academically:
“When students come to the United States, they are thrust into an all-English world. Immersion has its challenges, but the unavoidable need to speak English can help students learn faster and pick up colloquial and social language. By contrast, students studying remotely are living their lives in their native tongue, using English only during class sessions and on assignments.”
Many of the students in the program I teach in at NYU are here on student visas. And given their countries of origin and time zones, many of them would not be able to make an online program work from their home countries. They would have to drop out. https://t.co/vBDapHqFys
— Elizabeth Spiers (@espiers) July 6, 2020
This linguistic division can hinder students’ ability to get accustomed to speaking and writing in English. Additionally, their parents or support networks may not be prepared to assist them with navigating an education system and a language they do not understand.
I had the pleasure of speaking with international students from Florida International University, a hub for international exchange. Ariélle talked to me about struggling to adapt her schooling to her parents’ house:
“At first it was really difficult, I had to actually leave my parents’ house because they could not wrap their head around the fact that I needed to be left alone during class. My life here still has to go on and I needed to get a job so that I can support not only my house and car in Miami but also a car here and rent and such.”
Not all international students have access to a quiet space where they can focus on their studies. The cost of tuition includes important services and accommodations, like campus spaces and amenities, but his last year the pandemic made these important spaces, unavailable. Lack of privacy caused challenges to concentration and family conflicts.
Communication challenges have also increased between institutions of higher learning and the families of non-native speakers. Pavement Pieces reported on the logistical problems that ensued due to lack of up to date information on ever changing immigration and school policies regarding the coronavirus’ impact on higher education and student accommodations.
Recently, the United States vaccination efforts have somewhat contained the dangers of the virus, but for international students worries about family members abroad in countries with high levels of contagion has been extremely difficult. Many countries are now entering the worst period of contagion.
International students’ motivation to study and the state of their mental health may suffer due to the dangers their families might face in their home countries, something that faculty and staff should keep in mind when interacting with their students.
Given the terrible condition in India with COVID, almost every Indian has a family member who currently has COVID, or is in the hospital with COVID, or recently died with COVID. So be kind to your international students — give them space to deal with this madness.
— Sapna Sarupria (@SarupriaS) April 28, 2021
International students reported frustration with school departments that did not know how to process their cases. I spoke with a student from Mexico who expressed dissatisfaction with the university’s handling of his immigration issues:
“I am not satisfied with the communication between the International Student Center and me regarding my status. It was super complex at the beginning. I’ve been doing really well at school and I even got offered a position as a teaching assistant, but because my college couldn’t figure out my status I couldn’t do it. Nobody in the office knew what to do about my status, that is their job, and I had no idea, I’d just come to this country. I am paying for you to help me, this is included in my tuition.”
It is important to consider that international student centers across the country have been struggling to adapt their operations to meet the needs of international students in this new modality. However, programs such as the University of Maryland’s Global Ambassadors Program, which partners veteran international students with first semester international students to assist them in their transition, have been very successful in making students feel more comfortable among the uncertainty of the pandemic. The article UMBC, Towson University help international students stay connected during COVID pandemic outlines the services the program offers:
“The offerings include delivering multiple virtual town hall sessions to address immigration requirement updates; boosting collaboration with campus partners to ensure housing availability for students who could not leave the country; enhancing virtual services and support programs; increasing communication, process-related workshops and virtual advising appointments, and offering opportunities for face-to-face meetings once health policies permitted, according to the International Student and Scholar Office.”
A great number of universities are offering similar services through their international student centers. The pursuit of higher education abroad is a stressful experience for international students. Adding a pandemic, a move to hybrid and virtual learning and social-distancing requirements, have made it critical for universities to provide resources to navigate university studies from a distance. Providing up to date information, guidance and support will be key to help international students cope with the mental, emotional, financial and isolation burdens caused by the pandemic. Ensuring that international students feel they are part of a community will greatly impact their experiences.
Alexa Baez Ramos was born in Havana, Cuba and moved to the United States in 2012. She is pursuing a Bachelor of International Relations at Florida International University, where she also works as a Writing Assistant for humanities courses. When she’s not working or studying, she can be found under a tree listening to music and reading poetry.