Ways to assist international students during pandemic

According to the Institute of International Education, more than one million international students came to the United States last year, a very significant proportion of them from China (369,548 or 43.77%), compared with 202,014 (or 23.93%) from the second-biggest source nation, India.

On 29 May US President Donald Trump issued a proclamation suspending the entry of certain students and researchers from the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

But the language was opaque.

The proclamation states that “the entry into the United States as a non-immigrant of any national of the PRC seeking to enter the United States pursuant to an F or J visa to study or conduct research in the United States, except for a student seeking to pursue undergraduate study, and who either receives funding from or who currently is employed by, studies at, or conducts research at or on behalf of, or has been employed by, studied at, or conducted research at or on behalf of, an entity in the PRC that implements or supports the PRC’s ‘military-civil fusion strategy’ is hereby suspended and limited subject to section 2 of this proclamation”.

It adds that “for the purposes of this proclamation, the term ‘military-civil fusion strategy’ means actions by or at the behest of the PRC to acquire and divert foreign technologies, specifically critical and emerging technologies, to incorporate into and advance the PRC’s military capabilities”.

The proclamation will mean that several thousand students will not be returning to the United States to continue their studies.

But the effect of this proclamation has been more wide-reaching, with many Chinese postgraduate students unsure of how to proceed, while other international students are just generally uncertain about the future.

International students are not just affected by the general mental health issues that arise out of the pandemic, but by the stress of trying to figure out what their next educational steps should be.

Support for international students

Higher education institutes should do whatever they can to support them. The following are some ideas:

Send check-in emails: When the news of the proclamation hit, many colleges and universities were flooded with emails from international students from China trying to figure out what the implications were for them.

Emails should be sent to international students on a bi-weekly basis, updating them with what the university is offering them and what their options are. When students receive these check-in emails from their advisors and their universities, they feel that those individuals care about them. They also feel safe and more committed to the campus.

Survey students’ needs: Send students a Google form survey and ask them questions about how they are doing, what their goals are for the next semester, are they planning to come to the United States, what are some of the barriers that they are facing, what do they need from the institution and so on.

The results will provide a better picture of what international students need depending on the country that they are coming from. Once we have that data, it will help to figure out what exceptions need to be made and how students’ well-being can be further supported. The data can also be used for advocacy work with policy-makers who may need to change the rules affecting international students.

Make individual appointments: While this solution may not be feasible for larger institutions with hundreds of international students, it is a good idea to make virtual appointments with those students most in need to see how they are.

Host virtual workshops: Another way to answer as many questions as possible is to host virtual workshops where students can attend and ask questions. Many have similar questions. So, doing virtual workshops will save time spent replying to emails and meeting with students individually. Keep in mind that since students are in different parts of the world, it is important to host workshops at different times of the day.

Make videos: Another way to reduce emails is to make videos that cover similar information discussed in the virtual workshop. The videos can be sent out to students or they can be posted on the website. Having the videos is extremely helpful for those students who are not able to attend virtual workshops. (Note: those videos should be closed captioned to help all students understand the information being shared.)

Make exceptions: Many students who have been accepted to attend universities in the United States are unable to attend either due to government restrictions or due to delays in processing I-20 papers (the documents that prove that you are legally enrolled in a programme of study in the United States). Therefore, colleges and universities should be making exceptions for those students who prefer to delay the start of their studies.

What’s more, many of our international students don’t like remote classes. They want to have an in-person educational experience in the United States where they can connect to faculty members, pursue research opportunities and be involved in fellowships and internships.

Another exception that we can make for international students is to decrease their tuition fees and-or help them financially. Many international students have lost their jobs. Assisting students financially for a couple of semesters will allow them to continue with their studies.

Of course, some students will choose to start their studies remotely in autumn 2020 as the pandemic will still be with us and they may not be able to travel to the US. They will need additional support, including:

Free remote tutoring: Because of the pandemic, many services transitioned to online learning. Allowing students to have access to as many academic resources as possible is important for their success. When tutors are assigned work hours, we need to make sure that they accommodate the time zones of international students. Many campuses are offering tutoring through Zoom or other platforms.

Free counselling: Many students know that free counselling services are available on campus. However, they don’t take advantage of them. These need better promotion.

These are some of the suggestions that departments and universities can consider to help international students while they are figuring out their next steps during this pandemic.

Dema Youhanna is a masters programme advisor at the University of California, San Diego in the United States and has a master of science in counselling.