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Will International Students Be Able to Stay at Their American Universities?

Ianni Le


Student visas for the United States were complex even before recent COVID-19 rule changes. Since many universities are announcing that their fall semester courses will be taught wholly or partially online, the constant modifications for student visa exemptions that relate to taking online classes have left many international students scrambling to figure out what to do

With the situation still developing, even after the initial reprise, the stress of checking the new exemptions every day, if not every hour, is still taking a toll on international students and their families as they try to make important decisions about their futures with limited options, resources and time. Recent suspensions of work visas are also having an impact.

More than a million international students attend college on campuses large and small all over the country, and are an integral part of their higher ed communities. Here's what we know about the new rules and how schools are responding in order to support their students.

What Does This Mean for Student Visas?

International students under F-1 Student Visas currently attending universities in the United States will be permitted to stay and complete their degrees even if their instruction moves entirely online due to potential outbreaks. This means that students living in the States currently attending a college or university that intends to offer classes fully online this fall will no longer need to leave the country nor will they need to find an alternative way to complete their degree. A welcome change from the previous policies that demanded international students immediately find an alternative or risk deportation, though for many, this did little to help the stressful impacts of the initial rulings.

The changes for incoming international students are more significant. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) states that new students taking a fully online course load will not be issued visas nor will they be permitted to enter the United States. 

With scholarships having been revoked and U.S. embassies and consulates globally suspending operations these past few months, many students were understandably at a loss as to what to do or even what options they have to choose from. U.S. embassies are now starting to open in phases, with the intention to start processing immigrant and non-immigrant visas if the situation allows (where they were previously only providing emergency services). However, having to take specific classes simply because they're offered in person may make it difficult for students to earn their degrees on time, and as international students often pay a premium to attend American universities, many will have to consider forgoing the goal of graduating from college in the U.S..

This recent update does not affect any international student that was actively enrolled in a U.S. university before March 9, 2020. They will be permitted to complete a full course load online, whereas new international students will be expected to find a hybrid or in-person learning alternative.

What Are the Options for International Students?

ICE is currently recommending that students facing difficulties in obtaining their student visas transfer to a school that offers in-person or hybrid class programming or, if available, register instead for in-person lectures at their resident university. Setting aside the fact that international students (like all students) are attached to the school they commit to, transferring this close to the start of fall semester may not be a viable option. Most international students have already paid deposits on tuition or housing. In addition, the transfer process takes time and the start of fall semester is just a month off at many schools. 

Available slots for in-person classes are limited as colleges work to maintain social distancing regulations and this won't work for international students who might feel safer or more comfortable taking an online course load to limit the possibility of coronavirus exposure. Remaining in their home countries to take online courses for many means waking up at 3 a.m. or staying up all night in order to attend lectures and meet deadlines — understandably something most would like to avoid.

ICE has also suggested that new international students can look into deferment as their schools make temporary modifications in light of the coronavirus pandemic, as it's possible this may be the easiest solution in light of all the changes this year.

In addition to the difficulties of meeting these stringent new developments, individuals coming from specific countries are currently barred from entering the U.S. if they have been residing in those countries in the last fourteen days. This is an added layer of complexity as international students coming from these areas will need to first quarantine in a different country for two weeks before they are permitted to enter the U.S. at all.

How About Recent Grads Trying to Obtain Work Visas?

International students all around me have all been understandably exhausted by this entire ordeal, and those of us from immigrant or international families who are lucky enough to have birthright citizenship can only stand by and offer support in any way that we can. 

Now that most of us are either recent graduates or a few credits away from graduation, most have a better handle on how the different visas work in conjunction with one another and it was supposed to be a marginally simpler decision of whether to attend graduate school or work to attain a work visa after our college graduations.

Now that everything they thought they knew has changed, many recent graduates have given up trying to stay in the United States, not wanting to continue to subject themselves to the never ending anxieties of visa changes. I’ve been checking in with international students in my circle of friends to see if they need anything during this time. Though I tried to act quickly, it seems that many of them have been dealing with this for far longer than I realized and most had already made their final decisions to leave.

For some, the recent visa changes meant moving up the timeline for moving out of the United States as they were already planning to do so further down the line. But making plans to move eventually is very different from being told you have a very limited amount of time to get yourself and your whole life out of the country. For many, this past week has been a whirlwind of last minute packing, flight arrangements, calls home and heart breaking rushed goodbyes to college friends.

The fact is that many international students don’t only need student visas, they also have to apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT) which gives you the right to work in the United States for one year after graduation. This is also a necessary step to obtaining a work visa (H-1B visa) should you want to remain at your job or in the United States as a whole afterwards. The administration has currently suspended all H-1B visas until the beginning of 2021.

This legislation does not only affect international students this year. The suspensions and delays in all different types of visas has made it virtually impossible for international students to make any plans for their future. You must remain in the States for the duration of your OPT application process, and you must start your application while you’re still in school. Now that there are so many new complexities to the process and countless uncertainties, it is more than understandable why many students struggling to hold on to their visas have chosen to leave.

Unfortunately, not all recent grads will be allowed to return to their parents or home countries. Most of the students I went to high school with were from multicultural families. Though we all grew up in Shanghai, China and many of us choose to call Shanghai home, most of us are not Chinese citizens. We were a huge mix of different nationalities, as most international students are. More often than not, our families don’t reside in the same country as the one printed on our passports, and with so many closed borders, the only option graduates have is to return to whichever country we have citizenship in, even if our whole family is elsewhere.

While I have always been aware of how much my birthright citizenship to the U.S. affords me, I am speechless by how something as simple as a blue passport cover can make such a difference. Obtaining a work visa in the United States is a lottery, and my heart is broken for all the international students fighting to hold onto the lives they have worked so hard to build here.

College communities and officials are working to try and provide some reprieve to international students, and the situation is still developing. The only thing there really is to do is try to keep tabs on the situation and follow universities as they release more information. Students everywhere are sharing as many resources as they come up, whether it's professors reaching out to offer in-person classes or students hoping to switch class slots with someone who needs it. My LinkedIn page has been flooded with international students working in Canada, offering to set up times to talk with students and graduates in the U.S. who are looking for other options, hoping to provide international graduates some additional resources.

It's inspiring to witness this wave of support for international students. CollegiateParent will provide updates and resources as often as we can, and we stand by all international students and their families during an arduous and confusing time.

Ianni Le is a writer and content creator for CollegiateParent. She attended the University of Colorado at Boulder, graduating with a degree in Media Design and English Literature. She grew up in Shanghai, China and enjoys her dogs, books and food equally.
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