The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is affecting nearly every aspect of life, and higher education is no exception. Colleges and universities have made a widespread move to remote learning, with some having canceled resident classes through the summer. Residence and dining halls, recreation facilities, performance spaces, and offices have closed on campuses across the country. Many students have been instructed to return home and remain there to shelter in place and practice social distancing. But what about students who may not have an easily accessible home outside of their on-campus residences? What is happening to international students?
International students make up about 5.5% of the total population of college students; there are over one million of these students in the United States. Colleges and universities are making plans for a variety of specific issues for this group, from admissions and housing to expiring travel documents. While each institution is different and students should consult with their campus leadership, here are some broad concerns we’ve noticed for international students in the wake of COVID-19.
Despite institutional orders for students to return home, thousands of international students are unable to do so. Travel difficulties, border closures, and health concerns have weighed heavy on these student’s minds, and many are stuck in the U.S. with limited time to find accommodations.
Institutions are rushing to provide support. Some campus are offering scaled back housing and dining options for students who have no choice but to remain on campus, while others have offered help for students seeking off-campus housing. A few institutions have offered small stipends for students who do want to return to their home countries, but global travel advisories have essentially removed this option for many.
For those who are able to find housing and remain in the U.S.—on campus or otherwise—the expiration of travel documents is still a major concern.
International students are required to keep a handful of forms and documents to maintain legal status in the U.S. whether they stayed in the country to study or returned to their home countries. The Department of Homeland security has approved remote learning and has stated that students taking classes online outside of the U.S. will not have their visa status affected.
All international students, in country or otherwise, should maintain their I-20 forms. Resources are avaliable directly from the Department of Homeland Security, but their contact page currently notes a 3-5 day delay. Fortunately, most universities have services available for international students and larger institutions often have whole departments committed to global education. Campuses across the country have worked to move these services online, write FAQs, and streamline processes to provide as much aid to international students as possible. Students should contact their advisors, study abroad offices, or global programming leaders if they need individual advice and help maintaining necessary documents.
Even if students are able to find housing and keep travel documents up to date, finances through the COVID-19 quarantine and beyond is a huge point of stress. Students may have to figure out how to fund an unplanned stay in the United States for the summer. Others may be furloughed from on campus operations and missing a paycheck. And all students still have to pay for college necessities like textbooks and tuition.
The Institute of International Education has set up an emergency fund for students facing economic hardship due to the coronavirus, and many individual institutions have followed suit. Depending on the campus and availability of funds, students can receive a one-time payment up to a couple thousand dollars to support them during the coronavirus outbreak.
Many campuses are allowing students-employees to work from home if they are able, and some are prioritizing avaliable hours for those who have the greatest need. A few campuses also offered paid leave or the commitment to compensate all employees through a certain time period. Any financial aid an international student has received will also continue.
There are still a lot of unknowns surrounding COVID-19. International student concerns will continue to evolve alongside the virus and higher education institutions will have to keep adapting.
If there is one thing we do know for certain, it is that college and universities will do all they can to take care of their students. There will be more problems to address and more disappointments to mitigate. However, as long as higher education continues to care (and we do—take for instance these employees who volunteered to call every student enrolled on their campus to offer support) we will get through this.