As more than 200,000 Indian students enrolled in American universities in 2019, many of them were hoping that their degrees at a foreign university would be a springboard for their career aspirations or help them eventually move abroad. But what happens to dreams like this in the time of Covid-19?

For now, many students face the prospect of doing their courses online – at the same price. “It feels bad to pay so much in fees and then do my programme online,” said Ritika (name changed), who is pursuing a Master of Science degree at a university in California. To Ritika, online education is like getting the “Kindle” experience instead of the real book.

As many as 202,014 Indian students went to the United States for higher education in 2019, a record high. For them – as well as the thousands more hoping to go this year – the Covid-19 crisis and the restrictions on educational institutions that followed have thrown up the double-whammy of steep, unaltered tuition fees, without a real-life campus experience.

It was “all going so well” when Ritika moved to California from Delhi in August 2019, she said. When her second semester kicked off in January, she got a job. But then the pandemic forced universities to close. In mid-March, her coursework migrated to online classes.

Ritika even lost her job, she said. Even though she’d moved into her brother’s apartment in San Francisco, she had to continue paying for rent and utilities in Los Angeles, because she wasn’t sure whether to sublease her apartment given a lack of clarity around when the university would reopen owing to the coronavirus crisis.

“It feels unfortunate that I arrived in the US to do an MS at the time of the pandemic,” she said.

A job offer is an important prerequisite to obtain Curricular Practical Training – a temporary work authorisation for foreign students. Jobs, though, are difficult to find during the pandemic, because “there’s a hiring freeze everywhere”.

Stay or go?

Roshni Nedungadi was accepted into her dream school, Columbia University, for a Master of Public Administration programme, in March. But a few days after confirming her spot, a nationwide lockdown was announced in India on March 25. “People were still saying, ‘give it a few weeks, we’re going to get past this,’” she said.

At the time, the number of cases in India was low, but colleges in the US were shutting down, forcing foreign students to travel home. “But with the curve slightly flattening there, the uncertainty now is from India,” Nedungadi said.

Columbia University announced it would likely adopt a mix of online classes and on-campus classes in the autumn, when the American academic year begins. “But that’s starting to seem a little sketchy to us, if I’m being honest,” she said. “It seems like universities are just pushing students to come in at this point” with no official schedule or plan of action, given the unpredictable nature of the pandemic.

It’s especially hard for students from Asia, because of the uncertainty over rules.

“A friend in Myanmar is in the same situation as I’m in – there is uncertainty about what governments will do next, when the total lockdown will be lifted, visa offices will reopen, flights will resume, and so much more,” Nedungadi added.

Besides, when it comes to Ivy League colleges, it doesn’t make sense to pay the exorbitant fees for online classes. “The worst part is the lack of clarity,” Nedungadi said. “All I know for certain is that they’ll send out more information in July.”

Roshni Nedungadi is an incoming student at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

Dr. Rukshaar Khanam, who was supposed to start working at a hospital attached to the University of Illinois for her residency programme this year, has a slightly different story owing to her ‘essential worker’ status.

Khanam took the United States Medical Licensing Examination, the entry-level exam for a residency in the US, last September. She was supposed to start working at a hospital on June 22 but needed a J-1 visa – a non-immigrant visa for physicians coming from outside the US.

However, with consulates closed, Khanam and others are now unable to get visas, leading to fears that their programmes may get deferred. “Since we are termed as ‘essential personnel,’ student bodies and medical organisations in the US are doing their best to speak to the Indian government to get us across, but everything is up in the air,” she said.

Khanam added: “It’s like Russian Roulette with the visa. We don’t know when it’s going to come, and even if it does, we don’t know if we’re going to be able to fly out.” Every week lost will cost Khanam opportunities and fellowships in her field, given the medical residency cycle.

Even though India sends the largest number of international medical graduates to the US workforce, “it’s been a horrible experience so far,” she said, largely because of Covid-19.

Dr. Rukhsaar Khanam is waiting on a visa to do her medical residency programme in Illinois, US.

The big picture

In 2018-2019, over one million students left their countries to study in the US, for the fourth consecutive year, data from Institute of International Education released by the US Embassy shows. And Indians made up a record high of over 18% of all international students – the second-highest number of international students in the US after China.

But there are fears that a combination of restrictions on visas by US President Donald Trump’s administration as well as concerns about Covid-19 might change that this year.

“This is an election year in the US, so there’s added confusion this year on the visa front,” said Vivek Bhandari, co-founder and CEO of education platform Scholarly, which, among other things, offers online courses that have transferable credits to US colleges. “Will this mean changes in visa regimes? Will they make changes to STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] or regular OPT [Optional Practical Training]? Only time will tell.”

Bhandari has consulted several parents and surveyed several online teaching programmes while developing his course material. The biggest anxiety for most Indian parents right now, he said, is that they’re getting “pushed” by universities into taking admission at schools that offer low-quality online teaching methods. “With Covid-19, you’re suddenly thrown into a situation where people are forced to study online – but they’re not ready in terms of content, infrastructure, delivery, or the right teachers.”

He added: “When students are remote, how do you make sure they understand? How do you engage them in the class?” That’s the education challenge that’ll define the next few years, he said, especially since 2021 could see enormous competition from a large number of foreign students vying for a limited number of seats. “So far, parents haven’t been happy this year,” he said.

After college, jobs?

On June 2, US members of Congress wrote a letter to Foreign Secretary Mike Pompeo stating that international students and their families contributed roughly $41 billion to the US economy in 2018-2019 alone, despite accounting for only 5.5% of US college enrolments, and requesting that “international students can enrol in the fall and preserve the Optional Practical Training program”.

But there are fears that the Trump administration may put restrictions on Optional Practical Training permissions and suspend the H-1B limited-term work visa programme, which would deal a blow to many students’ plans of working in the country afterwards.

“If there is any follow-through on that—a threshold on visas, raising the fee, or anything else—it is going to be devastating for people hoping to pursue their American Dreams,” said Kanishk Karan.

An H-1B worker employed as a Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Lab, who is currently working remotely ever since he was repatriated to Delhi from Washington, DC through the Vande Bharat mission, he thinks this will have an alarming effect.

It’s going to be a financial loss as well, because several PhD students and workers borrow loans when they move to the US and aim to unload their financial baggage while working in the US. “I took a lot of loans to pursue my studies. And if you eventually have a bleak future ahead of you where you don’t know whether you will get a job in the US, it’s very worrying.”

Prospective students will probably turn their attention towards Canada or Europe, Karan thinks –
and the pivot to Canada may have already begun.

Kanishk Karan is an H-1B worker and researcher working at the Atlantic Council based in Washington, DC.

Far from home

Aside from the big-picture questions about careers and paying back loans, many students are also simply grappling with the challenge of being far from home at a time of a global crisis.

Some students, who were forced to evacuate within a few days after cases in the US began rising dramatically, and had nowhere to go, received “emergency housing” at the University of Texas, Austin, said Pranav Premnath, a Physics and Astronomy major going into his fourth year at the institution.

“But they were still halfway across the world from their family,” he said. “Speaking for myself, too, being away from my parents for so long, not knowing when I’ll be able to see them again, is a whole lot of anxiety and stress.”

Navya Garimella, a third-year student studying biology at the University of Washington, said, “it’s been stressful for Indians in my class who work to pay for their rent…They’ve now lost their jobs.”

Her classmates who have graduated are now forced to enrol in Masters courses, and take on additional financial burdens just so they can continue to stay in the US, she said. And for those still in school, people “just don’t have any motivation anymore – it’s a lot more work, and it’s a lot less learning than you would like.”

Garimella added: “It’s all very overwhelming. But everyone’s in the same boat. These last three months have been tough, but it’s important to remember that things are getting better.”

Coronavirus cases in the US are slowing, and universities are gradually announcing plans to restart classes in the autumn, Garimella said. “It’s understandable to feel anxious, but there is light at the end of the tunnel if you try to stay hopeful,” she said.