'It’s not what I signed up for’: New US visa rules leave Indian students in a panic

Students who have invested a lot of time and money to study in the US do so for a whole on-campus college experience.
'It’s not what I signed up for’: New US visa rules leave Indian students in a panic

If being a student in 2020 wasn’t enough of a challenge, international students in the United States were dealt another blow this week — their visa status is now under question as the US implements new restrictions amidst the pandemic.

The United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has announced that international students on a student visa will have to leave the country if their university switches to online-only classes, or they will have to figure out other means of maintaining their legal status. The announcement has added uncertainty and confusion for both students and universities as there remains a lack of clarity on the fate of campus life.

Existing students will have to either transfer to a university which has in-person classes or will be allowed to take more than one class or three-credit hours online while remaining in the US to maintain their visa status.

Hemanth, an undergraduate student of applied mathematics and economics at Harvard University where he received full financial aid, will have to return to India, along with several other international students at the university.

Harvard University announced on Monday that it will be going fully online for the fall semester as the number of coronavirus cases in the US steadily rises. Harvard announced that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences will bring only up to 40% of its undergraduates to campus, including all first-year students and those students who may not be able to learn successfully in their current home learning environment, to attend online classes on the campus.

However, with the new ICE guidelines, that plan stands invalidated, and has only led to more confusion. What’s more, it’s likely that these students will still have to pay nearly full tuition to attend classes online, while dealing with infrastructure and connectivity issues they may have back home.

“There is a lack of clarity, and there is uncertainty over the implications of the new announcement. Students are frustrated and anxious because this essentially takes away the campus experience for us and we will be forced to return home,” Hemanth says.

Panic and confusion

Across universities in the US, students feel the same way as Hemanth does.

Jaskirat, an undergraduate student at Parsons School of Design in New York, says that the announcement has caused a lot of anxiety and panic. “It seems really unfair that students are being forced out of the country. Some students were rendered homeless when students were asked to vacate campus housing. Now they’ll have to go back when there are no international flights. There will be so much displacement, and this will be students across countries. This ICE announcement was extremely unnecessary,” he adds. Parsons, too, has also decided to go fully online for the fall semester.

While Jaskirat has returned home to Delhi, ICE said that students currently in the United States enrolled in such programs must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain eligible for the student visa. “If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings,” ICE had said on Monday.

However, transferring is simply not an option for some students, especially those in research.

Varun*, a PhD student at a university in Florida, says that transferring now is off the table,  especially for those who have invested a lot of time with an advisor funding their research. Moving universities midway would mean that all that research goes down the drain.

In addition to this, it could further drain the financial resources of students, who are already funding an expensive foreign education.

“Applying to university and getting accepted is not possible within half a semester. And for many, including me, this would mean my parents may have to dip into their savings to help me,” he adds.

Students are waiting for clarity from their respective universities, most of which are looking at a hybrid approach. However, this would mean that their visa status hangs by a thread and is controlled by the university. Any minor change could affect them — especially if universities and colleges choose to switch to online classes completely mid-semester. This concern looms large as the US is currently the worst affected country by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There is no guarantee what will happen if cases increase in America in the middle of the semester. Do universities have to change classes to remote? If they do, what happens to me? Do I get stranded there, or do I get deported? There’s so much uncertainty and so much to worry about,” says Ishani, who is studying at New York University.

Safety concerns

Concerns for their health also exist, with the US currently having over 11 million COVID-19 infections.

Ishani questions what will happen if students attend classes in the US and they are found to be positive for the coronavirus.

“All this is happening during a pandemic. I’m back home now, but if I go back to the other end of the world, will I fall sick? Will the university take care of me? Will I have access to free testing? I want to know what safety precautions NYU is taking before I return. These have been our concerns all along and now immigration has been added to it,” Ishani adds.

Another student, who decided to return to India and study remotely due to concerns over access to healthcare in the US, says that the decision affects him in an opposite way where he may be forced to return because his college is on a hybrid model and not returning may impact his visa status.

However, Jaskirat says he will not be going back to campus soon and wants to avoid travelling till the time there is a vaccine. 

“I can be accommodative right now because I’m at a place of privilege and comfort where I have access to the internet and everything else I need for online classes. But, there are so many students who come from places where they don’t even have an internet connection stable enough for online classes,” Jaskirat adds.

Online classes

The very first hurdle in online classes is a stable and fast internet connection, as well as an environment at home that is conducive to online learning.

Hemanth says that many international students at Harvard, especially those who are on the full financial aid program have these concerns as well.

In addition to this, students halfway across the world will have to take classes in the middle of the night, as a result of the time difference in the US. They will also still be paying the full tuition as they would have if they were on campus.

“Given the lakhs of rupees that has gone into this, it’s not what I signed up for. I have been attending classes online in the past three months and I have to do it in America time and studying at 3 am is not what I want to do. If it comes to that, I will defer this semester,” Ishani adds.

Deferring the semester?

Several students across universities are now considering deferring a semester by taking a leave of absence as they do not want to take classes online.

Students like Ishani, Hemanth and Jaskirat who have invested a lot of time and money to study in the US say they did so for a whole college experience.

With that not being a viable option for fall, Hemanth, and many of his friends from Harvard are also seriously considering taking a leave of absence and returning to college for the spring semester.

Hemanth says that the quality of education stands impacted in a great way with online classes. “For students, a large part of the value of studying at Harvard comes from campus life. For students on campus, living the hostel life and networking at the Dining Hall adds great value. The Dining Hall especially is a fraternising space where professors, faculty advisors come and sit, talk to students. So, a lot of academic collaboration and social life depends on the campus life,” he adds.

Fresh admits for 2020 are also considering starting their year in the spring instead of the fall. But deferring also means possibly losing out on scholarships and financial aid, without which the degree may be out of reach. Many who are current students also do not know what the status of their F1 visa would be at the time of return.

A student who was set to start her master’s in data journalism at Columbia School of Journalism said that the university initially agreed to let international students who cannot reach the US by August start online. But now, that is uncertain.

“Ideally, I would defer since I have a full-time job in Mumbai and I'm not in a hurry to begin graduate school. However, I've been offered a really generous full scholarship to Columbia, which is not guaranteed if I defer to next year. I risk losing it, and I'm very conflicted about what to do at this point. It's a shame that students are forced to choose between being able to afford education or keeping their health safe,” she says.

Impact on future

Another student studying in Texas says that she is unsure whether she will have to reapply for a visa and given that embassies will re-open with massive backlogs across visa categories, there is no guarantee she will be able to return in time. She is also worried that an interruption to her visa may have an impact while applying for jobs later.

For Hemanth, and his friends at Harvard, the leave of absence is essentially a trade-off: Either learn from home and compromise on the quality of education or risk interruption to their nonimmigrant student status.

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