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Supporting International Students in Time of Coronavirus: Looking Beyond Immigration Concerns

The higher education community went into a collective uproar following the ICE guidelines that would have deported international students whose universities go to an entirely online format. Many on social media and in news outlets were writing about the topic. Colleges and universities joined a collective lawsuit against the federal government. And it looked like the pressure worked – the guidelines were rescinded.

As an international student pursuing my third degree in the U.S., I am familiar with the restrictions that we, international students, have. Yes, the rescinded guidelines were terrible, and yes, I am thankful for the collective action to support students like me. But we are not done yet. There are more crucial conversations we need to have in higher education about serving international students, especially in the age of COVID-19. It is not enough to get international students here – we need to also support their needs.

Musbah ShaheenMusbah Shaheen

First, the movement towards online teaching and learning will have a particularly detrimental effect on international students, especially those just beginning their college careers. Yes, it is difficult for everyone to engage fully when sitting in front of a computer screen. But we already know that international students, especially those form non-English speaking countries, are less likely to speak and engage in class than their domestic peers.

I experienced that myself. As a first-year international student, I avoided speaking in class because I was worried my English wasn’t good enough, that my peers would judge me, and that what I had to say was irrelevant.

There are cultural differences that make some taken for granted assumptions about pedagogy different for international students. Attitudes towards professors as authority figures is one of those differences – not everyone is culturally accustomed to challenge their professor’s opinions or even look them in the eye.

It took forever for me to finally call my American Popular Music teacher by his first name – it was very awkward to address him as Robbie. This was a transition I made throughout my time in college.

I can’t imagine doing that in a virtual setting, unless we become more deliberate about supporting international students.

For  example, faculty often offer office hours and invite students to drop by or email them to set up a time to address class-related concerns. I was not accustomed to just “dropping by”, and emailing a professor was very stressful. It took time for me to become more comfortable with faculty I saw and interacted with multiple times a week.

We need to ask, how are faculty going to build rapport with the international students in their classes? Offering time for virtual office hours is helpful, and commendable given that professors have personal lives as well. But faculty need to consider more direct outreach to international students. Online learning does not have to be impersonal, and it shouldn’t be, especially not for international students.

Even as a doctoral student who had to finish the spring in an online format, I was discouraged and uncomfortable. I felt less inclined to want to speak and less connected to my classmates. Imagine how much more stressful these experiences may be to a first- or second-year international student?

Another important consideration for supporting international students is social connections. Time with peers is crucial for students to develop cross-cultural friendships and benefit from their education in the U.S. These relationships will become much more difficult for international students who may already be experiencing the anxiety of being in a new country and adjusting to a new way of living and learning, without having physical spaces for connections.

Finally, the health considerations. Institutions should ask themselves: are there plans for when an international student is ill (with COVID-19 or otherwise)? Is there someone they can contact when they need help accessing physical or mental health? For example, if an international student contracts COVID-19 and has to quarantine for 14 days, is someone going to check in on them? Does the student health insurance, which is mandatory for most international students, cover COVID-related costs? Is that made explicit to international students who are also learning  a new health system?

Yes, the higher education community did well in their swift response to brutal ICE regulations and were successful ensuring that students can remain even if their format is entirely online. But are we ready to take the responsibility for international students’ health and wellbeing during a pandemic? If we don’t , then we are reinforcing the narrative of international students as revenue not people, and doing harm to our students.

Musbah Shaheen is an international student from Syria who has completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the United States and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in higher education and student affairs at The Ohio State University.

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