In pre-pandemic times, colleges were often regarded as “melting pots” where diverse student populations mingled with and learned from one another over the course of four years. However, in the wake of quarantine and remote learning, the illusion has shattered, exposing widespread inequity and magnifying disparities in privilege between individual students. In particular, international students have borne the brunt of the pandemic, struggling to coordinate their living situations, navigate their educations and access appropriate resources needed to attend classes.
Historically, international students and United States universities have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship. International students who attend school and temporarily live in the U.S. on F-1 visas issued by the government are granted access to quality education and opportunities for socioeconomic advancement in the form of potential jobs.
In turn, U.S. universities maintain levels of student attendance and generate a portion of their tuition money by taking in students from other countries. As estimated by a 2020 Forbes article, the previous decade yielded a 6% increase in U.S. high school graduates. However, the estimate is set to decrease over the next decade to as low as 0.2%. As a result, international student populations tend to add to the U.S. economy and supplement income for higher education institutions, rather than detract from the economy and compete with the interests of U.S. students.
Throughout the pandemic, international students faced challenges coordinating their living situations and meeting the educational requirements laid out for them. Early in the pandemic, as reported by the Harvard Gazette, students taking an all-online course load were not allowed to “to travel to, or stay in, the United States.” An executive order intended to slow the spread of the pandemic, issued in June of 2020 by former President Trump, suspended HB-1 visa holders from entering the country, barring international students from participating in work-study programs and skilled workers from starting their jobs. Though the executive order was eventually lifted and students pushed back on the all-online-course-load rule enough to get it repealed, a series of temporary obstacles easily posed complicated logistical challenges.
Another potential cause for concern came in the form of a new policy proposed in September of 2020, which laid out a stricter definition of “academic progress” among international students and imposed a fixed time limit on how long they may spend in the U.S. while completing their education. The ramifications of such a policy were analyzed in depth by a legal consultant here and are something that students may need to take into consideration as they continue their education.
Due to the aforementioned difficulties, international students have lived in their home countries for the majority of the pandemic, sometimes attending class on the other side of the world from their peers and professors. Living in the United States is a priority for many students due to the effect of different time zones on mental health and learning. Even in online education, international students can be put at a disadvantage when compared to their peers in the U.S.
Often, the curriculum and grades for synchronous online classes require students to attend at specific times of day in order to participate in live discussions with classmates and earn participation points. For both asynchronous and synchronous online courses, exams may be scheduled for narrow time windows that force students to take tests when they are less alert and not able to perform to the best of their abilities. The Daily Free Press revealed that students attend class in time zones up to 12 hours ahead of standard time in the region.
However, the impact of time zones on international students may change in the coming months. According to an article by the American Council on Education (ACE), embassies have reissued a large volume of visas to students as of May 2021, allowing them to enter the country and attend classes from within the United States.
The change in presidential administration has also contributed to shifts in attitudes toward international students and foreign workers. In the summer of 2020, President Biden released a statement that repudiated Trump-era policies and reasserted the value of international students.
Also, U.S. universities have begun the shift toward more in-person and hybrid classes, reinstating some of the normalcy from before the pandemic. To accommodate the added strain of the pandemic or challenges faced by certain groups of students, professors have worked to redesign their curriculum, revised their class structure and changed exam windows to create greater equity. However, it is incumbent on students to request specific accommodations for each exam, and the degree of flexibility granted varies from professor to professor.
Access to resources for effective remote learning has posed the greatest challenge to international students and their universities. In particular, technology has become an essential resource for students attending class, completing work, accessing course-specific materials and taking tests such as midterms and finals. For one, students have had to purchase or borrow their own electronic devices with functional microphones and cameras. Also, from country to country, there is a certain variation in the technological interfaces students engage with. International students may need to coordinate with their professors to match certain search engines and bypass online security protections barring students from completing their work.
Another practical concern is the quality of WiFi in certain areas of the world as well as its ability to hold up over long distances. Should the WiFi fail, students can face academic consequences based on the requirements and leniency of their professors. For example, if students lose WiFi connection before or during a class session, they could potentially be penalized for nonattendance. If WiFi cuts out while students are taking their exams, their grades in the course may suffer, or, in some cases, they may even fail the course. It is an ongoing challenge to make sure students stay in class and receive a fair chance to complete their exams despite technological issues.
The bright side — as universities across the United States transition back to in-person learning — is the effort being put into vaccinating and reacclimating students. Not only will certain stressors associated with the pandemic decrease for international students, but the solutions negotiated in the midst of COVID-19 may even supplement post-pandemic education in the coming years.