Students on the lawn at Harvard University
Harvard University recently unveiled plans for all-online courses this fall. A surprise announcement from the State Department may complicate online learning for foreign students. Credit:

Foreign students are questioning their futures in the United States after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced major restrictions to student visas this week. Students must take in-person classes in the fall to remain in the country. Online-only students must leave or transfer to schools offering in-person instruction.

The announcement reverses earlier relaxations that allowed foreign students to remain when schools went online to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

The pushback to the announcement was swift: An online petition circulated, letters to the editor were penned, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University filed a lawsuit against ICE over the new restrictions. Grassroots organizing helped foreign students change to in-person classes after registration ended, and professors offered one-on-one instruction to keep students enrolled.

Until ICE issues more information, many questions remain. Are both undergraduate and graduate students affected? What if universities change to online-only classes midsemester due to an outbreak of the virus? And how do students who are ordered to leave return to countries with closed borders?

“I’ve had a stress headache for the last 24 hours.”

“I’ve had a stress headache for the last 24 hours,” said Udita Mukherjee, a doctoral student in geology at Tulane University. Mukherjee isn’t sure whether the announcement applies to her, because although she holds a foreign student visa, she takes exclusively research credits. If she were ordered to leave, she couldn’t go to India, because India has stopped international travel.

International students are coping with new uncertainty about their visas and educational futures, and the research community at large is asking how science continues in their absence.

Nicole Gasparini, an associate professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Tulane University, doesn’t want to lose her students who are supported by national grants. “These students have already been trained. It’s such a waste of money to not have them here.” More than half of her graduate students have been international, and she guesses that’s fairly representative of her department.

In 2019, the State Department issued nearly 400,000 of the most common type of academic international student visa, F-1, and about 10,000 visas for vocational or nonacademic study, M-1. The announcement affects both visa types and, presumably, their dependents, including partners and children.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 8% of schools are planning online-only instruction, 25% hybrid, and 59% in-person in the fall. A remaining ~7% haven’t decided or are considering multiple options. Students at fully online colleges cannot attend while in the US, according to ICE, but it is unclear whether short-term shutdowns at ‘open’ universities from an outbreak would force international students to leave.

“I’m puzzled and confused. I’m angry—it just doesn’t make any sense,” Gasparini said. The United States has been a scientific powerhouse, she said, but with policies like this, “we’re just going to get so far behind.”

“[International students] are really vital to our success as an educational institution.”

“Science is something that is supposed to cross borders,” said Lina Pérez-Angel, a doctoral candidate at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado Boulder, who isn’t sure whether her visa status will be affected. “You try to come here to pursue your dream, and this country, or this government, is just telling you that you can’t.”

West Virginia University assistant professor Carsten Milsmann worries about how the chemistry department will teach classes in the fall. Almost half of the department’s graduate students are international, he said. “They’re really vital to our success as an educational institution.”

International students are questioning their futures in the United States after graduate school.

“If I were told I’m not allowed to stay here, it would be really devastating,” Jiwon Yi said. Yi, who has studied in the United States since she was 13, studies the neurobiological mechanisms behind chronic pain as a doctoral student at Washington University in St. Louis.

Yi is reconsidering whether she wants to remain in the United States when she graduates because of anti-immigration policies. Living elsewhere would be “a very difficult commitment to make for someone like me who has lived in this country for half my life.”

Schools have until 15 July to declare their plans for the fall, be it in-person, online, or a mix of both. Lizbet Boroughs, associate vice president of federal affairs at the Association of American Universities, told the Washington Post that she has been asking for guidance since April, but now colleges and universities have only 9 days to respond.

President Donald Trump has called for schools to open repeatedly, while the presumptive democratic nominee Joe Biden criticized the ICE directive on Twitter.

For Mukherjee, the news is merely the next step in closing the country’s borders, including the recent ban on H-1B visas.

“I really like the research that I’m doing,” Mukherjee said. “But is it worth it, to be made to feel so unwelcome?”

—Jenessa Duncombe (@jrdscience), Staff Writer


Duncombe, J. (2020), Schools scramble to keep students in wake of “devastating” new visa rule, Eos, 101, Published on 08 July 2020.

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