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COVID-19 Creates New Hurdles For International Students Building A Future In The U.S.

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The University of Illinois at Chicago enrolled nearly 4,000 international students last fall, about 12% of its total. The school is offering emergency grants up to $1,000 to qualifying undergraduate and graduate students.

After nearly a decade of living in Chicago, Luis Carlos Beltran considers the city his home. He moved in 2011 from his native Colombia to enroll as an undergraduate at Lake Forest College; he then pursued a Ph.D. in biological sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Beltran said he had considered pursuing a faculty position as a professor at an American university. But he recently decided to leave the U.S. for Veracruz, Mexico, where he plans to conduct postdoctoral research on tropical reforestation. After that, he said he hopes to return to Colombia to work in some capacity on large-scale reforestation.

Beltran said he has mixed feelings about continuing his research elsewhere — but for him leaving feels unavoidable, due in part to the current political climate faced by international students.

“I am just committed to just finishing things up,” Beltran said. “It’s an argument I have with other international students that want to stay in the U.S. and see the great economy of the U.S. But, for me, I see all the things that are happening, and I frankly don’t want to be part of a burning ship.”

Luis Carlos Beltran is pursuing a Ph.D. in biological sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Marc Monaghan/WBEZ

In July, the Trump administration initiated a federal policy that stipulated stringent rules for allowing international students to remain in the country to continue their education; they were required to enroll in at least one in-person course in the fall. If their universities did not offer in-person courses for the fall, these students faced two tough options: transfer to different schools or leave the U.S.

Those guidelines were rescinded about a week after they were issued, following lawsuits and backlash from universities and higher education associations decrying the policy as a safety risk for students. Although protected for now, students are left to wonder: Will future policies force them to leave? And, how difficult will it become to find jobs in the U.S. after they graduate?

The total number of international higher education students in the U.S. surpassed 1 million in the 2018-19 academic year, according to The Institute of International Education, a nonprofit that conducts an annual census. The count includes undergraduates, graduates, optional practical training students and non-degree scholars. In that year, internationals made up 5.5% of the nearly 20 million higher education students in the U.S. Illinois ranks fifth among states, enrolling more than 50,000 international students in 2019.

“Abandoning every single thing I’ve built here”

For Ajapa Sharma, a third-year Ph.D. student in history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, leaving the U.S. voluntarily isn’t an option she’s considering even as she’s worried about being forced out.

“Abandoning every single thing I’ve built here — in a time that’s really not conducive to go back — that’s what’s very scary,” Sharma said.

Sharma had planned to travel over this past summer to Nepal, her home country, to do research on the extradition and repatriation of Nepalis from India in the 20th century. But pandemic travel restrictions dashed the trip. Pushing back her program by a year would require an extension of her student visa and funding from the university. Without funding, Sharma said she would need to find off-campus work to cover expenses, which isn’t possible on her student visa.

Ajapa Sharma, a Ph.D. student in history at UIC, had planned to travel over this past summer to Nepal, her home country, to do research. Marc Monaghan/WBEZ

Sharma said the stress about her situation has hindered her from carrying out her research responsibilities from home.

“I’ve been feeling very anxious, it’s very hard for me to actually sit down and do my work,” she said. “I feel like I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing, and I’ve changed like two therapists so far, and it’s very difficult.”

Wofai Ewa, a senior studying mechanical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology, said his main concern is getting a job after he graduates in May. Originally from Nigeria, Ewa believes that finding an employer willing to support a foreign worker H-1B visa will be difficult for him because of current federal policies. President Donald Trump signed an executive order in June banning the issuance of new H-1B visas through the end of the year.

Ewa said he has a few backup plans in mind: adding a minor to extend his undergraduate program, applying to graduate school early or starting his own company to create a path for permanent residency.

“I didn’t want to graduate and not be able to find a job and lose my status and go back home and try to do the whole process again,” Ewa said. “Which is, like, very complicated, very difficult. No one really wants to go through that.”

Wofai Ewa, a senior studying mechanical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology, is worried about finding a job after he graduates in May 2021. Marc Monaghan/WBEZ

IIT hosted nearly 3,000 international students in fall 2018, roughly 42% of total enrollment. The university has taken steps to help international students, offering emergency grants to assist qualifying undergraduate students with food, housing, child care, health care, technology or transportation expenses.

Similarly, UIC — which had nearly 4,000 international students last fall, about 12% of total enrollment — is offering emergency grants up to $1,000 to qualifying undergraduate and graduate students. UIC also kept its housing open for those who needed to remain on campus, and faculty members are holding “town halls” to hear from international students about what they need. Both schools are offering online advising sessions for international students.

UIC’s Vice Provost for Global Engagement Neal McCrillis said if universities are unable to protect international students, they will lose valuable diversity of knowledge.

“There’s countries that are definitely very welcoming to international students right now. And many students are shifting from preferring the United States as their first choice to looking at other options,” McCrillis said. “Long term, that’s really going to undermine higher education in the United States because we won’t get the very best students, all the ones we want.”

Sharma describes the proposed remedies as temporary band-aids on a system that has failed to comprehensively protect international students, an oversight that became starkly apparent during the pandemic.

“When you put pressure onto something that’s already at the point of breaking, it breaks,” she said.

Minju Park is a news intern for WBEZ. Follow her @meenjoo.

COVID-19 is a rapidly evolving story, and we are working hard to bring you the most up-to-date information. We recommend checking the Coronavirus Information Center for the most recent numbers and guidance.

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