With campuses closed due to the COVID-19 crisis, students from other countries face significant travel restrictions and visa concerns
Boston College junior Jocelyn Chan had just found an apartment off campus, and was planning to stay there over the summer while she worked on her senior thesis, a research project on second-language acquisition in children in one of BC’s labs.
But when BC announced on March 11 that it was closing housing and facilities and giving students four days to move out, Chan’s parents decided they didn’t want her in Boston alone, and she flew home to Hong Kong. She no longer expects to be able to return to the US this summer.
Similar scenarios have played out all over Boston this month, as campuses closed suddenly, leaving students scrambling to pack their belongings and return home. For international students, worries over travel restrictions, visas, flights, and time differences add more layers of concern to an already stressful situation.
Massachusetts is the fourth most popular state for international students studying in the United States, and is home to more than 70,000 international students, all of whom were forced to choose between returning home, staying in off-campus apartments or with friends, or petitioning to continue living on campus.
“For students, it’s just really challenging to make that decision, because, you know, some may want to go back to their home countries, but they can’t get flights,” explained Susannah Marcucci, director of the International Students and Scholars Office at Clark University. Also the Eastern Massachusetts representative for NAFSA, the Association of International Educators, Marcucci added, “Some may want to stay here. Others may want to go home but are, you know, concerned that they may not be able to travel back to the US.”
Some students petitioned their schools to allow them to stay on campus, and on most area campuses, it is reported that a few hundred students remain in dorms. But the most international students returned to their home countries. Sarah Bensouda, a Northeastern University freshman from Morocco, considers herself lucky that she was able to make the trip.
“I was already planning on going home; it was the last flight to Morocco before they closed the borders,” Bensouda said. “If I didn’t get on that flight, I would’ve been stuck in the US, in Boston, on my own, with literally nowhere to go.”
Steven Zhang, a BC sophomore from Beijing, echoed this sentiment, adding that he knows other BC students who had their flights cancelled or weren’t able to get home.
“I’m the lucky guy,” he said. “The day right after my flight arrived in Beijing, everything changed. I transferred in Hong Kong, and Hong Kong has forbidden all flights to transfer there now.”
For students who were able to return to their home countries, the worries didn’t end there.
Though some teachers have accommodated time differences, many classes are still held only at their original Boston times, leaving students living in countries with time differences with no option but to watch recorded classes, or wake up at three or four in the morning to attend class.
“I usually attend my 10pm lecture, which would normally be 10am,” Chan said. “If I feel like I want to attend the midnight lecture, then I might. I have another one at 3am, so I don’t want to go to that one, but the professor has said she will try to have at least one class where it’s early morning for me.”
Zhang studies computer science, and said it didn’t bother him that most of his classes were recorded lectures, because there wasn’t normally much participation anyway. But he was worried about maintaining his visa status and returning to the US.
“There’s a concern that you probably won’t be able to get back to the US,“ Zhang said. “There’s a lot of concerns—the visa thing, the flight thing… Right now I feel that even though the [US] government can stop the spread of the disease and probably secure people, they probably still will maybe shut down the border.”
Under normal circumstances, international students studying in the US may not stay outside the country for more than five months. Because of the coronavirus, ICE has released guidance saying international students’ visas will remain valid while they take online classes, whether they are in the US or at home, as long as they are “making normal progress in their course of study.”
But some students are still wary of remaining outside the US for too long, and many are still unaware that they are allowed to remain outside the US for more than five months. Despite these concerns, numerous travel restrictions and fears over the US government’s handling of the coronavirus have led some students to change their summer plans.
“I applied for a couple of internships and they were going to reply to me in April,” Ines Martinez, a BC freshman from Mexico,’ said. “My original plan was to hear back from them in April, and … if I got one of them, to stay in the Washington, DC area for a month. But now I think I will stay in Mexico.”
The US Citizenship and Immigration Services has suspended all routine visa services worldwide until at least April 7, causing further problems for students whose visas have expired, or students who are just now being accepted to universities for the fall semester and will need to apply for visas.
The suspension of routine visa service is one of the biggest concerns facing those in the international education field, according to Ken Reade, the Director of International Student and Scholars Services at UMass Amherst.
“Even in the best of times, those appointments during the summer are extremely difficult, very, very backlogged,” Reade explained. “If provisions can’t be made and exceptions and special dispensations made, then I think you’re looking at a worst-case scenario where literally hundreds of thousands of people will not be able to get to the United States in time for fall semester.”
For international students graduating this spring and planning to remain in the US, job hunting poses another problem. International students normally enter the job market after graduating through Optional Practical Training (OPT), which allows them to remain in the country for 12 to 17 months after graduation.
But students who have been authorized for OPT must leave the US if they exceed 90 days of unemployment, a scenario which seems likely in the current job market.
“I can’t think of a worse time to be heading into the job market right now for any graduate, domestic or international, right now, and so I think that when you compound that with the fact that internationals always are unfortunately at a slight disadvantage because of the visa complications for long term employment … it does worry me greatly,” Reade said.
Chan hopes that she can work on her senior thesis remotely over the summer, but is worried that the time difference will make it hard to communicate with her advisor, while it will be difficult to do the necessary data analysis on her own.
“Even if the travel restrictions aren’t in place or aren’t very strict, I don’t know how well [the US is] handling the situation,” Chan said. “I am kind of concerned that we won’t be able to come back for the fall semester.”