By Greer Jackson
When Trevonae Williams arrived at Howard University in Washington, D.C., last fall, she never imagined that she would see her freshman year end prematurely — let alone because of a deadly pandemic sweeping across the globe. Williams is an honors journalism student from Manchester, Jamaica, and one of the many international students affected by the COVID-19 health crisis.
“When I learned about the gravity of the issue, I experienced a lot of shock and subsequent grief. I don’t think there’s anything that could have prepared me for the magnitude of this situation,” she said.
According to the Institute of International Education, international students account for about 5.5% of the total U.S higher education population. Countries as far away as China, India and Nigeria are some of the most popular places of origin. During the 2017-2018 academic year, Howard had the second-largest international student population among historically black colleges and universities, with a total of 920 — approximately 7.9% of its student population, closely trailing Morgan State’s total of 945 and leading Tennessee State’s 584.
Some students believe that Howard’s response to the pandemic thus far has been adequate, citing the administration’s decisions to transition online, introduce a scholarship for those in dire need, and to move to a pass/fail system to accommodate students whose academic performance will be jeopardized.
“I believe Howard has handled the crisis to the best of their ability for the most part. I’ve acknowledged that Howard initially gave us many options that other schools did not provide for their students,” Williams said.
But international students still have questions, as they examine their options. Many of them don’t have the luxury of leaving and entering the country freely — they have to consider the validity of immigration documents such as visas, as well as how to ensure that they remain in legal status.
To Stay or Go?
According to a Pew Research study, 91% of the world’s population lives in countries with restricted travel amid COVID19. Some countries such as Nepal and Nigeria have suspended all travel, while others like Jamaica and Barbados have imposed travel restrictions on travelers from countries such as Iran and China and are enforcing a 14-day self-quarantine for passengers from other countries.
Since this crisis is rapidly changing, the question of whether to return home is best answered on a case-by-case basis. The Student and Exchange Visitor Program has published an FAQ addressing international student concerns, but it doesn’t make any proclamations about whether re-entry into the USA will be granted or denied. Instead, it advises students to stay updated on travel guidelines: “Students should refer to their local embassy’s website through the U.S Department of State for any updates about visa issuance. Also, DHS and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s websites provide information about current travel restrictions to the United States.”
Kalaila Pais, a first-year medical student from Barbados, highlighted that some of her initial concerns were where to stay, where she would store her belongings and whether or not she’d be allowed to enter her home country or return to the U.S.
“I do have family in the U.S., but ultimately decided to go home. I realized the gravity of the situation and since I was fortunate enough to be able to make the trip, I decided it best to leave so as to not have to struggle to afford housing and food costs in D.C.”
Luckily, Pais has friends in the area who were able to help her move and store her possessions.
For others, options were limited. Anmol Gautam, a junior computer science major from Nepal, decided against going back home.
“I did not have a place to stay in the U.S. I decided going back wasn’t a good idea because I might not be able to come back into the country due to potential travel restrictions, which eventually happened,” he said.
Gautam said that the university provided him apartment housing until May 11, but he has a summer internship in New York and doesn’t know whether travel restrictions will be lifted in time for him to make it there.
CPT and OPT
Curricular Practical Training and Optional Practical Training are programs that give international students authorization to gain employment training and to work in paid internship positions.
Trevonae Williams noted that her uncertainty about being granted CPT was a major factor in her decision to stay put.
“I heavily considered going home to Jamaica, but preferred staying in the U.S. in order to not limit my options as it pertains to doing an internship.”
Dr. Peter Ugbong, visa and administrative coordinator for Howard’s Office of International Students and Immigration Services admits that while the process of issuing CPT and OPT has become difficult, provisions are being made to accommodate the situation.
“The students who have been lucky enough to get jobs for the summer are having their CPT processed, and those who are completing their programs this May, who ought to be applying for OPT, are having those processed as well,” Ugbong said.
The Student and Exchange Visitor Program also provides guidance for students who want to participate in CPT during their time abroad, listing three major conditions: the program should be considered integral to the student’s program of study, approved by their Designated School Official, and the employer should either have an office abroad or be able to assess learning objectives electronically.
Maintaining F-1 Status and Online Classes
Ugbong explained that the government is relaxing some rules and regulations to ensure that students remain in status, especially regarding Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status-For Academic and Language Students– more commonly known as the Form I-20.
“We can now send I-20s online, except in cases of students who are prospectively coming in for the fall. Those I-20s have to have original signatures. But for those students who are here in the country, that has become permissible until further notice.”
As long as students are making normal progress in their course of study, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program said, they are considered to be maintaining their student status. Online classes will count toward a full course of study.
“Under current conditions, if an active F student leaves the United States to complete their term online, their SEVIS record should remain in Active status and not be terminated,” according to the program’s website.
Apart from maintaining contact with the international student offices at their respective schools, there are a number of resources that students can use to stay informed, including a regularly updated FAQ published by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as a Study in the States blog maintained by the Department of Homeland Security.
Despite some concerns, Ugbong said he is positive and hopeful: “Our international student community is a strong, resilient group of students.”