The magnitude of the crisis among international students

“Not many international students are equipped to advocate for themselves when a crisis arises”

This week’s guest blog is by Ruby Cheng, director of the International Enrollment Program (Asian Pacific Region) at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs.

I’m writing this article as an international educator, a guardian of a college international student, and an advocate who wants to voice up the concerns for the vulnerable and underrepresented group, international students, during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

When the COVID-19 became imminent in China in early February, I saw a great effort exerted by U.S. institutions, trying to accommodate Chinese applicants. Many international admissions offices offered opportunities for applicants to delay the transcript submission due to the closure of schools and universities in China.

In response to the closure of the testing centres for TOFEL, IELTS and GRE/GMAT, many admissions offices provided flexible policies including online interviews and Duolingo test, which allows students to take the English proficiency test at their homes. Those strategies made Chinese applicants and their families feel welcomed, despite the virus chaos they are experiencing in China.

However, while admissions offices are doing what they could to accommodate the needs of Chinese applicants, none of us know if those students can arrive on campus on time for fall 2020. US embassies are shut down during the outbreak in China. We are unsure if students can access a visa interview once the consulates are open, if they do open.

As I am typing, I received an email regarding the cancelling of immigrant and nonimmigrant visa appointments in India. With the quick spread of the COVID-19, it’s reasonable to expect an increasing number of visa appointment cancellations and embassy closures globally. It’s disheartening to think that international students’ future study journey is in a state of limbo.

Back in the US, institutions are quickly reacting to the outbreak for their domestic students who are studying abroad. For the health and safety concerns, study abroad and international programs are put on a halt. Students studying overseas, especially in the countries with level-three travel advisory were advised to return to the states immediately. Institutions made suggestions to move all in-person classes to virtual learning and/or shutting down the campus completely.

“It’s disheartening to think that international students’ future study journey is in a state of limbo”

It seems that the US institutions are making the best efforts to protect their students from being exposed to the COVID-19. However, as a guardian of an international freshman and a person who cares deeply about the international students, I am extremely disappointed at the level of attention that was paid to the international students during the decision-making process.

The decision of moving students out does not put into considerations that many international students who live on campus do not have a home outside of the campus. Even though some institutions offer exceptions for students with special needs, the policy neglects the nature of international students, especially considering that multiple research shows that international students are culturally challenged to reach out for help.

Not many international students are equipped to advocate for themselves when a crisis arises. Additionally, when people are prepping for the outbreak by stocking up necessities, many international students do not have the means to reach a local supermarket. Without meeting the unique needs and providing special attention to international students, institutions are not adopting a proactive way to provide good support for the international group.

Inoculating against racism during such a chaotic time is needed. With the spread of the virus, many international students, especially Asian students have experienced microaggressions and even discriminations. However, institutional efforts are lacking in terms of providing interventions and educational workshops to build a stronger community on campus to address such issues. I asked eight Chinese international students who are studying at different institutions in the US. Sadly, none of them mentioned any programs that were offered to preempt the rise in xenophobia and prevent panic, fear and racism elevated by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Doubtlessly, the outbreak has caused a tremendous level of stress for everyone. International students’ stress is doubled compared to many of the domestic students in the US. International students not only have to worry about their own wellbeing, but they also have a huge amount of concerns for the safety and health of their family in their home countries. The magnitude of the stress tripled when considering there is no clear guidance for them in terms of whether they should remain in the US or return home, or if they can choose deliberately.

I have so many empathies for international students who must navigate the visa policies amid the crazy spread of the virus. Confusions have been mainly centred at how to maintain their legal VISA status. The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) has announced flexible adjustments on student VISA and updated rules for remote learning. However, even international offices have different interpretations for the nuanced change and it’s not hard for us to imagine how confused the international students could feel.

The dilemma facing international students also come from their home country. Take China as an example, the most updated policy by the Chinese government requires all Chinese nationals who return to China from overseas to complete a required 14 days quarantine.

The quarantine locations are normally local hosting hotels and people are expected to pay for the stay at their own expense. Parents of international students are not only concerned about the interruption for their children’s study, but also the possibility of being infected by the COVID-19 during their travel. On top of that, there are also concerns about being locked in and unable to return to the US due to travel bans. Those realities negatively interact with the existing stress international students and their parents have.

Mental health is also a great concern among international students in the US. When facing such a national and even global emergency, people tend to look for support from their family. However, on top of the time differences, families are thousands of miles away from international students.

There are also known mental health stigma among international students, especially Asian students. Are we taking proactive measures to reach out to those isolated students on our campus? Do we have professionally trained counselor with cross-cultural understandings available (even virtually) for international students? Are international students’ mental health needs lost in translation during the COVID-19 outbreak? Those are questions institutions should consider when getting through the outbreak.

“When facing such a national and even global emergency, people tend to look for support from their family”

As we are witnessing the outbreak unfold globally, we should really pay more attention and offer special support for the vulnerable international student group. Systemic measures and assistance should be provided to such a group with special care. Trivialising and disguising the level of international students’ stress will only add more distress to the group. As we are making policies to react to the fast-changing situation, we cannot afford to bring social neglect to the vulnerable international student group.

As an international admission professional, I am happy to see the US institutions are providing specialised supports for international applicants to encourage them to apply and enrol at our institutions. However, deep compassion and care should not stop at the point of admitting students and offering them I-20s. The baton should be passed on to the institutional level by offering comprehensive and specialised support for those who are already on our campuses.

Author: Ruby Cheng is the director of the International Enrollment Program (Asian Pacific Region) at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, and an Ed.D candidate in Educational Equity in Urban and Diverse community at University of Colorado Denver.