I hope this article finds you in good health and that you remain hopeful in this difficult time. As an international student, I am writing to you to discuss the situation of Emory University’s international students during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the recent reversal of F-1 and M-1 visa regulations by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in July. The regulation initially required that international students, such as myself, would face deportation unless they registered for at least one in-person class this Fall. Fortunately, ICE rescinded the most draconian elements of this policy by exempting all non-first-year international students from its in-person class provisions. However, I remain incredibly disappointed that it took such an egregious and discriminatory federal action to bring the current precariousness of international students’ lives to the forefront of Emory’s campus dialogue. I urge the Emory community to better acquaint itself with the international student body and understand that international students are humans, not simply tokens of diversity. 

ICE’s discriminatory actions against international students are a wake-up call that forces the entire Emory community to understand the difficulties faced by international students and step up its support. However, even during crises like the ICE restrictions, many of our experiences and needs go unaddressed relative to the domestic student body. As minorities at Emory, we continue to face many significant challenges during this time, especially since ICE’s policy continues to apply to Emory’s incoming first years. My hope is that this article will help domestic students and administrators alike understand the obstacles faced by international students and what further actions need to be taken to overcome them. I implore the administration to refrain from rolling back measures implemented in response to ICE’s initial visa policy to help international students maintain current efforts to alleviate international students’ extraordinary pandemic-related burdens. 

Upon the release of ICE’s initial regulations, I spoke with many of Emory’s international students to learn what the policy would mean to them. For 3,104 international students from over 100 countries, approximately 20% of Emory’s student population, the policy poses serious implications. Of the 73 people I interviewed, whom hail from countries all over the world, including India, China, South Korea, Singapore, France, England, Sri Lanka, Germany, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Canada, all revealed diverse circumstances and unique problems with feasible solutions for the upcoming semester. 

International students’ visions for the Fall differ significantly. Following Emory’s Spring remote learning announcement, many chose to stay in the U.S., either on Emory’s Clairmont Campus or in off-campus apartments, but others returned home. Among the 73 international students with whom I spoke to, 34 are now residing in their home countries while the rest remain in the U.S. 

International students currently residing in the U.S. and those at home abroad live in two distinct realities, and each group faces its own hurdles regarding the upcoming semester with or without ICE’s interference.

Of the 34 students currently residing in the U.S., all have been separated from their families since January. This will likely continue until December if they choose to stay in the U.S. for the entirety of the fall semester, as many have planned. 

For those that are currently at home abroad, they have a few choices, each with its own limitations.

Firstly, these students can attempt to travel back to the U.S. for the Fall, which Emory maintains as an option for all international students. Although this may seem superficially appealing, many find the prospect terrifying. Air travel in the midst of a pandemic is hazardous; as someone who has experienced a 14-hour flight with a COVID-19 patient on board, I myself am very hesitant to take on such risk. Secondly, many international students currently live in countries with fewer cases of COVID-19 than the U.S. The Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic, along with some U.S. citizens’ refusal to wear masks, inspires great fear among many international students. To many, leaving a low-risk country for one that consistently breaks its own single-day COVID-19 positive case records seems unreasonable.

Even with these risks in mind, however, some still consider returning to the U.S. This group faces still another challenge: finding flights. The U.S. currently maintains a list of countries from which inbound travel is banned, so students from countries like China or Brazil don’t have the option to fly directly from their countries to the U.S. The only option for such students is to fly to another country (those not subject to American travel restrictions) and quarantine there for 14 days prior to their flights to the U.S. Being alone in an unfamiliar foreign country during a pandemic is certainly not appealing. Some Chinese students have already begun their quarantine in Cambodia as they attempt to return to the U.S. 

Students’ second option is to shoulder a fully online course load in their home countries, which means taking classes at unreasonable times. Twelve-hour time differences are extremely difficult to navigate, as I have found when taking synchronous classes from China this spring. For international students all over the world, taking a full semester of classes online this F means another round of dealing with time change. International student Emma Cao (22C) told me that she may even rent an apartment in her hometown rather than living at home, so as to avoid disturbing her family while she commits to Eastern Standard Time for her classes.

Given the significant shortcomings of the two above options, many international students are also considering a gap semester or gap year. Brazilian student Julia Holzheim (22C) told me that she hopes to work at a nonprofit organization this semester, and South Korean student SeungWoon (Simon) Cho (22C) has decided to finish his military requirement this year instead of returning to Emory. However, many lack opportunities to properly consider this path. Given this year’s grim job market and the awkwardness of applying for internships in the middle of the summer, many are finding their search fruitless and exhausting.

Above all, a number of students mentioned that they were still debating between these three problematic options even as the clock ticks towards the Fall. Needless to say, international students are burnt out and insecure. 

Addressing Emory’s Guidelines 

Considering the above insight into international students’ perspectives on the Fall, I hope to provide recommendations to my domestic peers and the Emory administrators about the Fall semester.

Firstly, now more than ever, emotional support and individualized communication are essential. As international students, we have learned to live in this foreign country by relying largely on ourselves and our international peers. All we hoped for from Emory when ICE first announced its changes was immediate assurance. I’m extremely grateful to have such consistent support from people like Office of Undergraduate Education Advisor for International Students Frank Gaertner, but I hope Emory steps up its game as an institution. 

An initial compassionate statement from administrators to the international community, in addition to a release of new guidelines, would have meant more than Emory’s dispassionate provision of the latter. Instead of telling students not to panic, assurance that the university will take our side would have been more helpful. International students’ anxieties about the Fall, even absent of an immediate threat from ICE, are very real. Emory has continued to be silent on many of these anxieties. 

ICE’s visa policy may have been rescinded, but its lessons persist: we as international students learned that even today, we cannot always count on being welcome in the U.S. It is also incredibly disheartening to see that administrators and my domestic peers only seemed to notice us because of the nationwide reaction against ICE’s actions, even though we have struggled for months with the problems that I explored above. We still face family-related, academic and professional concerns. Therefore, we hope that even before administrators take policy-oriented action, they step up their support for and communication with international students and their families.

Second, according to the above analysis, approximately 46% of international students choose to remain in the U.S., most of whom intend to return to campus. The other 53% currently reside elsewhere and face three equally grim options: return to the U.S. and risk their health, take online classes from home, or opt for a gap year or semester and hazard a perilous job market. In that vein, we hope the University better addresses these options as they further plan for the fall semester. 

Given those hurdles, I’ve worked with another international student — Cynthia Peng (22C) from Vancouver, Canada — to develop several strategies that would significantly improve the international student experience at Emory this fall.

As Emory implements a new policy to allow transient study in foreign countries, it’s important to note that some students live in geographically massive countries, where the partnered colleges can be hundreds miles away from their homes. We hope Emory understands students’ varied housing and transportation situations vis-à-vis its partner institutions. Emory must also account for time zone-related difficulties when taking online classes. Further encouraging professors to implement flexibility for deadlines, for example, would enable international students to live healthy lives while also juggling huge time differences. Emory should also encourage the creation of online directed study courses with flexible meeting periods, so as to meet the needs of students in faraway time zones.

For international students considering a gap semester or year, administrators should invest in expanding Emory Connects at this crucial moment. We suggest that Emory actively recruit international alumni to participate in Emory Connects and create a program dedicated to providing connections for international students. This would significantly benefit those experiencing difficulty finding internships and enable others hoping to take time off from coursework to do so.

Furthermore, Emory should take a more proactive stance towards policy changes and other affairs that influence international students’ well-being. For example, international students would benefit significantly from more mental health support through Student Health Services. Moreover, increased creative programming and the creation of a forum, through which international students could voice their concerns directly to the administration, would help to better solve international students’ difficulties.

The International Students and Scholars Services (ISSS) could also launch a virtual compassion, acceptance, reality and engagement (CARE) campaign for international students. Such a program would highlight different aspects of international students’ lives and facilitate routine and clear and effective communication. For many reasons, a CARE campaign would show us that ISSS and the University will have our backs when other unanticipated, visa-related problems arise.

The Emory community should also be conscious of visa problems that may arise in other countries. The U.S. consulate in Beijing has not functioned since February and everyone, myself included, who has applied for U.S. visas there during the last five months has seen their appointments canceled. It’s important to keep in mind that many international students are still unable to go back to campus, policy changes notwithstanding. I hope domestic students understand and the Emory administration lend a supporting hand to help us as we struggle through this unprecedented time. 

We hope that Emory will not let us down. The international student community at Emory has suffered enough, even without ICE’s policy. 

If I’m not able to return to Emory for the last two years of my undergraduate studies, with great sadness, I will take it as it is. I have no regrets and I sincerely thank Emory for the best two years of my life; I could’ve never become the person I am today if not for the opportunities that Emory afforded me. I will miss my beloved clubs, the squirrels on the quad, vibrant discussions in the classrooms, snacks at my favorite professors’ office hours and, most of all, my friends, who supported and accompanied me along my journey in this foreign country. I hope I’ll get to see them again in the future when we are in a better, safer and healthier world than that which we live in today. 

Stay safe. Wear masks. And don’t forget about international students.

Sincerely,

Iris Li 

Iris Li (22C) is from Beijing.