Twenty-five-year-old Sarah Nabia had quit her job in anticipation of starting her dream course at the prestigious John Hopkins University in the United States. But, instead of being present on campus and attending classes, Nabia is now holed up in Kolkata, attending her classes online, with no hope of making it to Maryland till at least the end of 2020.

In July, US authorities rescinded an order that would have prevented foreign students at American universities from entering the country if their classes for the upcoming semester were fully online – and also forced those already in the US to leave or be deported. After the order caused much outrage, a number of universities sued the US government, eventually leading to the withdrawal of the new rule.

Despite that, the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement authority on July 24 issued an order saying that new international students who are enrolled in online-only courses beginning in the autumn of 2020 will not be allowed to enter the country.

“Non-immigrant students in new or initial status after March 9 will not be able to enter the US to enrol in a US school as a non-immigrant student for the fall term to pursue a full course of study that is 100 percent online,” the latest ICE order stated. “Additionally, designated school officials should not issue a Form I-20 to a nonimmigrant student in new or initial status who is outside of the US and plans to take classes at an SEVP-certified [Student and Exchange Visitor Program] educational institution fully online.”

Unlike the earlier orders, this only applied to those who were starting their study in the US this year, and hadn’t entered the country yet. But that change still means thousands will not be allowed into the US in uncertain times – with consequences for their future.

‘Internships in danger’

Nabia secured admission to a dual degree programme that allows her to study public health and pursue an MBA at Johns Hopkins University. While the public health school began online classes in July, the business school of the university had initially told students that in-person classes would begin with the autumn semester.

However, the notification has now been rescinded, with the MBA classes also moving online at least till the end of the year. The move has jeopardised Nabia’s hope of securing a summer internship in between her first and second years of college.

“To be eligible for a summer internship in the US, you must have been a full-time residential scholar in the country for at least 12 months,” she said. Since there is no hope of Nabia arrving in the US anytime soon, she finds herself ineligible for an internship next summer.

“For me, this is more of an equity issue,” Nabia said. “I am paying full fees for a suboptimal experience of attending classes online. An investment in a US degree is a huge one, and the online classes just don’t replicate the in-person experience.”

She added: “Lectures can be pre-recorded, but when you are in graduate school, what really matters is the networking. If we were at the university campus, we would have been able to attend talks by industry experts. Now, all of that will happen online and it will obviously be according to the US local time.”

Nabia also said that trying to reverse her body clock in order to stay up at night for her classes and other lectures was taking a toll on her physical and mental health.

Deferred admission

As the current order stands, international students who were “actively enrolled” at colleges in the US on March 9 will be allowed to continue their studies in the country. But new international students who are attending classes online are barred from entering the US.

An Indian student, who asked not to be identified, said she had deferred a postgraduate course in law at an Ivy League university to the 2021 autumn semester, given the uncertainty around the visa rules.

“The university moved its courses online, but was very supportive in letting us choose if we wanted to pursue online classes this year or defer our admission to next year,” she said. “Although, deferring the admission to 2021 has given me this one year that I did not account for. I have already quit my job, and it will not be very easy getting into a new one since employers will not be very comfortable recruiting me for just ten months. I will have to be creative about how I spend my time now.”

However, a deferral is not an option for all international students. Graduate student Nabia told that being a recipient of an external scholarship, she does not have the option to push her course forward. “I could have taken a deferral for my course, but my scholarship had no such provision,” she said. “For me, the scholarship makes up for a huge amount of my fees, and hence I cannot opt to defer my education.”

According to the data collected by the College Crisis Initiative, out of 3,000 colleges, community colleges, and universities in the US, 121 have decided to go fully online for their autumn semester, while 694 will be primarily online. As of July 24, 807 colleges were yet to decide their mode of communication for the upcoming semester.

Autumn semester plans of US colleges as of July 24, 2020. (Credit: College Crisis Initiative)

In an email to students, Harvard University’s college dean Rakesh Khurana said that no changes to regulations for first-year international students are expected in time for the autumn semester, The Harvard Crimson reported.

“We abhor any policies that seek to force us to choose between our community’s health and the education of our international students,” he wrote. “The university is working closely with members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation to extend the online exemption to newly admitted students and ensure that this flexibility remains in place for the duration of the public health emergency.”

By Sunday afternoon, the US had 4,620,02 Covid-19 cases and is the worst-affected country in the world, according to the Johns Hopkins University database.

The US government’s move is not only disastrous for international students but is also expected to have long-term implications for the country’s diverse student community, according to NPR. The National Foundation of American Policy has projected that enrolment of new international students in the upcoming academic year will decline approximately 63% to 98% from its 2018-19 level.

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