International Students Face Struggles, Including Possible Challenges from Homeland Security

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Michigan State University student Liao Zhang in a photo for ELi by Gary Caldwell.

COVID-19 has demonstrated how interconnected we are in a globalized world, but also how international students can face increasing isolation and marginalization particularly during moments of extreme social stress.

MSU’s decision to move to online classes makes sense from a public health standpoint. For many international students, however, it resulted in questions about housing, visa status, current jobs, and long-term career plans.

In ordinary times, MSU brings East Lansing 9,000 people from 140 other countries.

According to Michigan State University’s Office for International Students and Scholars (OISS), “MSU is home to over 9,000 international students, scholars, and their dependent family members from more than 140 countries.”

International students at MSU make up roughly 10 percent of all undergrads and 20 percent of all grad students. That means the decision to suspend in-person meetings has left a lot of students with questions regarding where to go.

Visa requirements do not anticipate what happens during pandemics.

International students primarily enter the United States on nonimmigrant visas – meaning that they plan to return to their home countries after completing their degree. This type of visa only permits them to study in person and take on part-time work related to their field of study. Some limited exceptions are granted to these rules.

These visas are issued on the assumption that students are earning a specific number of credits through in-person coursework. Suspending in-person classes now raises questions about whether universities are meeting requirements established by the government.

Ramya Swayamprakash, an MSU graduate student from India, expressed to ELi her concern that the MSU administration had not considered all the implications for international students when it decided to suspend in-person classes.

Ramya Swayamprakash in a photo from Michigan State University.

Swayamprakash is currently writing her dissertation and so is currently subject to less stringent visa requirements regarding the number of course credits she must complete in person each semester. However, she encouraged other international students to contact OISS to inquire how the decision might impact their visas.

According to Swayamprakash, OISS told international students on March 12 that the decision should not jeopardize their visas since classes had begun in-person and were slated to end in-person. MSU originally planned for students to return to classes on campus on April 20.

Since then, things have changed.

On March 14, MSU announced that it would not resume in-person meetings and would postpone commencement.

The Department of Homeland Security appears to be looking into international students’ situations.

On Tuesday, March 17, ELi received from a source email indicating that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) requested that MSU provide an update on its transition to virtual instruction. The letter stated, “This is part of our requirements to maintain MSU’s certification to continue hosting international students.”

Faculty were asked to complete a survey on how they were continuing to interact with students.

The information that ELi obtained was limited but it suggests that DHS is examining the question of where international students should reside when doing remote coursework during the pandemic – either for this semester or future ones.

As courses move online, questions about overwork arise.

International graduate students employed by MSU also face workplace concerns. The Graduate Employees Union (GEU) voiced concerns to ELi about international students being pressured to work more than 20 hours a week – the maximum that they are legally allowed to work – as MSU transitions to virtual learning.

The GEU feared that faculty might place the burden of the transition on graduate students.

Darren Incorvaia, the GEU’s chief information offer, explained, “We know there is a persistent problem of international TAs being pressured [or] forced into working over those hours. We worry that this will become more pervasive [and] severe now that courses are transitioning to virtual learning.”

Darren Incorvaia

International students face various complications with a generalized “go home to study” order.

When suspending in-person classes, MSU encouraged students to return to their permanent homes but left dormitories open for those who could not.

For many international students, whose permanent residence is often on another continent, returning home presents extra difficulties. If some international students return home, it is possible that they may not be allowed to re-enter until travel restrictions are lifted in the future.

Many MSU international students rely on campus housing, and almost all first-year students – domestic or international – must live on campus. Students who vacate their dorms by April 12 will receive a $1,120 refund, something that may be out of reach for international students. Custodians and food service workers keep campus infrastructure operational for those who remain, but cafeterias only serve meals to go in an effort to promote social distancing.

What will these students do come summer?

Some may return home, but others now need to find accommodations. MSU has promised assistance to international students who now expect to remain here throughout the summer. Some rentals in East Lansing, such as the Quarters, have also expressed their willingness to help students in need of housing as early as now.

The pandemic has been felt personally for months for some international students.

Some international students, particularly from China and East Asia, have been personally grappling with the implications of COVID-19 even before March.

Chinese students questioned travel plans related to celebrating the Lunar New Year, which fell on Saturday, Jan. 25. One MSU graduate student, Liao Zhang, canceled his plans to visit his family in China after his parents expressed concerns that he might be barred from re-entering the U.S. given the situation in China.

Liao Zhang in a photo by Gary Caldwell for ELi.

Zhang canceled his Delta flights, which were scheduled to leave Jan. 25 and return Feb. 4. Since the W.H.O. had not yet declared the situation a crisis, Delta only refunded him 20 percent of the price he paid.

Still, Zhang is relieved that he did not make the trip. On Jan. 31, the U.S. government declared that only U.S. citizens and permanent residents traveling from China would be granted entry. Non-citizens like Zhang would not be permitted to reenter.

And then there is xenophobia and racism.

In February, Asian students on campus felt that some students had expressed hostility toward them because of news of COVID-19.

The Asian Pacific American Student Organization (APASO) released a statement, saying, “Misinformation, such as the death toll and suggestion that the virus was lab-engineered, causes unnecessary panic and anxiety in the MSU community. Similarly, the spread of disinformation in the form of decontextualized videos and memes about Chinese and Asian people on social media have led members of our community to be labeled as carriers of the coronavirus… and continue to be discriminated against and isolated from their rightful academic and social communities for coughing, sneezing, and wearing surgical face masks—common behaviors during our cold and flu season.”

APASO held a town hall on Feb. 20 to address these concerns. President Sam Stanley did not attend but had the University Physician, David Weismantel, read a statement that he had prepared. In a separate update to the community with details on how MSU was monitoring the situation, Weismantel said, “Remember that there are many international students impacted by this outbreak, with family, friends and loved ones in affected regions.”

Michigan State University physician David Weismantel.

When asked if he felt the atmosphere on campus had grown tense, Zhang said no, his social circle was small. But he mentioned a female Chinese friend who felt her students viewed her differently as the outbreak in China worsened.

The virus itself is also stressful for everyone.

Zhang faces his own fears. He was a teenager in China during the 2002-03 SARS outbreak. In 2020, he reads reports in Mandarin about the coronavirus in China and is alarmed.

He also has little experience using the health care system in the United States. MSU graduate students use the Olin Health Center on campus. Zhang has only been there twice and has never been referred out to another doctor. He confessed that he has little knowledge on what his health insurance might cover during the pandemic.

Ramya Swayamprakash, the graduate student from India, is less alarmed but also has her worries. To her, contracting COVID-19 is about social contacts, and she trusts her social circle. Given that East Lansing is a small city, she feels the chance for transmission in public is lower than in other places, such as New York.

Her main concern is for her infant son, but she has been happy with the care that he has received in the Sparrow pediatric ward. She is more concerned with the care available to adults, who are more susceptible to the disease. She cited her own experiences at Sparrow, saying that on previous visits she had been given a bed in the hallway when rooms in the ER were full.

In these circumstances, she believes that an overworked staff might be inclined to turn away a patient with mild symptoms that could become more severe later.

Although Zhang and Swayamprakash face challenges that their domestic counterparts do not, they voiced concerns that all students have. How will they adapt to this new learning environment? How long does the virus survive on surfaces? How long will these conditions be the new normal?

We are all still learning.

ELi has a special section dedicated to our reporting on COVID-19 for East Lansing. See it here and sign up for ELi’s mailer to stay informed

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