Carolyn Stefanco is the president of The College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York. Alfredo Varela is the college's associate vice president for global affairs.
The novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, has dramatically transformed the student experience at almost all residential colleges and universities in the U.S., but it has taken a disproportionate toll on international students.
When students who were living on campus were asked to return home — often with only a few days notice — international students were faced with a different set of challenges.
Some could not leave due to personal finances, because they were unable to purchase an airline ticket with short notice. Others found that border closures and other restrictions made travel back to their country of origin impossible. Some also reported that while their family members at home felt increased anxiety about having them so far away during a global pandemic, they also discouraged them from returning, as they believed their students would be safer or might have better access to medical care in the U.S. should they become ill.
International students also confronted a situation where, if they left the U.S., they may find it difficult to return to complete their studies.
Not surprisingly, then, a significant percentage of students remaining in residence at American institutions of higher education are from other countries.
The needs of international students were not always well understood, however, as college administrators quickly developed plans to send students living on campus home, to move all instruction online, and to close libraries, health centers and other sites that serve students. Depending on state mandates, some also had very little time to transition all but those deemed "essential personnel."
As a result, the responsibility for advocating for international students has largely been assumed by those who work most closely with them. Playing a role are international recruitment advisors, international support office staff, and, when they exist, global administrators at the vice presidential level who are members of the senior leadership team. Presidents and chancellors who were international students themselves, as well as those who have significant international ties and made global relationships a priority, have also ensured that international student concerns were not forgotten.
For a portion of American higher education, however, overwhelming fear, a crisis mindset, and an understandable focus on the health of students and employees diminished interest in being responsive and flexible with regard to the needs of international students.
While most institutions have clearly tried to do their best by international students, our desire to recruit them as part of our global education goals and our efforts to increase net tuition revenue demand we collectively do more.
Higher education administrators, program leaders and college ambassadors, along with professional associations, must serve the unique needs of international students through new and creative action. We must ask pointed and persistent questions of ourselves and our institutions to ensure we are providing the necessary support during this challenging time. Here are a few to consider.
Develop student-centered best practices to serve international students during the pandemic.
International students who remain on campus are isolated from each other due to social distancing requirements and find few resources on largely shuttered campuses. Their counterparts who were able to return to their countries of origin may find it difficult to participate in some online classes given the enormous time zone differences.
Can we survey international students to better understand their needs during the pandemic? Can we quickly adopt practices to ensure their success?
Advocate for new processes for student visas.
The pandemic has suspended routine visa services at U.S. consular offices, with limited appointments for new student visa applications across the globe. If this lasts until May, the backlog of visa requests alone will tie up applications for months. It is also likely that when consular offices reopen, they will prioritize appointments, with student visas taking one of the lower rungs on the ladder.
Can colleges and universities lead the charge in working with ambassadors and consular offices to move visa appointments online? What other steps could higher education take to help support the flow of international students?
Convene an online global government summit on higher education.
Other countries, such as China, India and Vietnam, have imposed stricter restrictions on travel into and out of their countries. In many cases, these restrictions affect citizens and foreign nationals, and movement within the country as well. The longer these restrictions remain in place, the less likely it is that students will be able to make plans to arrive in the U.S. in time for the fall semester.
In partnership with higher education associations that advocate for our sector and that include international members, can we ask for global consideration of conditions whereby travel restrictions for international students can be loosened?
Increase financial aid for international students.
The pandemic's financial impact has dramatically increased unemployment across the globe. Many international students, just like their domestic counterparts, will no longer be able to afford the portion of tuition and fees they did the previous year.
Can we reevaluate the expected contribution for international students and raise philanthropic dollars to help them to complete their educations?
Create new models of higher education.
Given travel prohibitions and the anticipated increased inability of international students to afford tuition, currently enrolled international students who returned home may not be able to complete their degrees. Prospective international students may also have to give up their dreams of earning a degree from a U.S. college or university.
Can we devise new online degree partnerships between American institutions of higher education and universities in other countries?
Redouble support for Optional Practical Training (OPT) and internships.
With the dramatic rise in unemployment in the U.S., international students about to finish their undergraduate and graduate degrees are telling us they will likely have to forgo OPT. If this situation continues, prospective students, who have long factored OPT into their decisions to study in the U.S., will look more closely at their options in other countries. In addition, many academic programs require internships for all students, and, because international students can only work for one year after graduation through OPT, they can have a harder time securing these internships.
Can institutions of higher education ask consortiums and professional associations, as well as chambers of commerce and economic development organizations, to advocate for the value of providing OPT and internships to international students? Can we devote more resources on our campuses for such purposes?
These and other changes will support international students and global education despite the havoc caused by COVID-19.