Quandary of being international

protect international students
Photo by SU Globalists

SEVP’s modified exemptions hurt international students’ lives and careers

By: Kaizhao Zero Lin

It was late Monday night, and I decided to look at my WeChat Moment (like Facebook)  for the last time before going to sleep. Surprisingly, my Moment was filled with angry emojis and concerned thoughts from my friends who are international students like me. Students are in a new round of panic after learning that some may be forced to leave the U.S. under the modified immigration policies.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program announced on July 7 that the “U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the U.S.” Those who are in this situation need to either leave the U.S. right away or transfer to another college offering in-person classes in the fall; otherwise they may face strict immigration consequences, such as deportation.

In fact, this is not a new policy but rather a modification of the temporary exemption that allowed non-immigrant students to take online classes in the spring 2020 semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The SEVP has not yet explained why international students cannot be exempt for at least the fall semester as well.

When universities transitioned online in the mid of spring 2020, many international students abandoned their properties and fled back to their home countries at the beginning of the outbreak. Students were aware of high infection rates while traveling but the sudden online curriculum made them leave for safety of their homes. However, some international students like me chose to stay in the U.S. believing it would be able to control the disease soon.

Unfortunately, the poor disease management under the Trump administration has proven that the government still does not control well. We still see tens of thousands of new cases being reported every day. As the situation got worse, the government established travel bans and limited international travel.  Staying in the U.S. soon became a safer option than risking infection on a long flight back home. Now, foreign students find themselves struggling with the situation that threatens their livelihoods. And this is not the end.

As the policy prescribed, students’ F-1 visas may be revoked if they take online classes in their home country, or if they cannot come back to the U.S. to receive in-person or hybrid-style classes. The potential of losing their student visas took most international students by surprise, as their goal is just to finish higher education here: Most of them have sacrificed a lot to achieve this goal, such as leaving parents and native countries and dealing with complicated college application requirements.

Fortunately, Syracuse University will offer a hybrid-style class module for the following semester. However, international students remain unsure if they will be forced to go back after the Thanksgiving break as the school will not offer any residential classes afterward. This hybrid model does not directly fit into any of the regulations.

Given the situation of growing COVID-19 cases, though it might slow down in the following month, there is still a high possibility of a second wave of outbreak just like the one in Beijing in late June, which makes it more dangerous for international students to spend tens of hours on travel. Moreover, the school still charges students the same for tuition, and some juniors and seniors may have already signed an off-campus house lease. Not everyone can understand how being an international student feels like if they are not in their shoes, and this is the reality that most international students face.

On a similar note, non-immigrant students face a further challenge: finding a job in the U.S. A non-American nationality with no-green-card status prevented the group from getting a paid internship, specifically during this highly unemployed situation. Most of my internship applications ended up with an “under consideration” status and were never updated further. More importantly, international students’ granted CPT/OPT will be affected if they cannot return: Students have to be in full time academic year standing to be eligible for CPT/OPT. If students are forced to leave the country under the regulation, it will cause their academic hours to reset, making it more difficult to find a job.

With all these uncertainties that international students are facing due to SEVP’s modified exemption, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued the Trump administration in federal court on Wednesday for this modified regulation. It is encouraging to see that universities are taking measures to stand with international students. There is a need to foster connections among international students and alumni because they have been in the same shoes. Fortunately, there may come the opportunity at Syracuse University.

blended logo

Manvi Upadhyay, a recent graduate, and Sonia Wee, a television, radio and film senior, came up with the idea of creating Blended, a platform dedicated to empowering the international community at Syracuse University, enabling foreign students to have an honest and personal understanding of life after graduation.

By connecting students with mentors and alumni in the working world or in higher education, on-boarding student mentees will receive a six-week mentorship program beginning in the fall semester. It will be broken down into three 30-minute bi-weekly virtual meetings between a student and their mentor, whom they will pair according to your fields of interest and/or geography. This is going to be a more than useful opportunity for international students and alumni to collaborate, network and lift up one another, especially under these challenging conditions.

In these times, foreign students need to establish strength in unity — We can overcome this quandary one day.

Kaizhao Zero Lin, an SU rising senior from China studying international relations and newspaper & online journalism, is the editor-in-chief at SU Globalists and network content developer at Blended. You can contact him via Twitter (@kzerolin) or email (klin06@syr.edu).