BLOOMINGTON, Ill. (AP) — When U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced a change in how it would treat international students taking online college courses, Yossif Elmadny feared his two years at Illinois Wesleyan University would be down the drain.

Fortunately for Elmadny, a junior with a double major in physics and math from Egypt, and other international students in the United States, ICE reversed course in the face of criticism and lawsuits. It rescinded the directive that would have forced international students to transfer to another school or return to their home country if their university switched courses to an online format.

The changing rules are just one part of the concerns that international students have like Elmadny have faced since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Some have been unable to visit home because of federal restrictions that would not allow them to return. Those who remained in the U.S. are left trying to reassure families who worry about their children, far from home during a global health crisis. And some newly admitted students are having trouble getting visas to come to campus.

More than 40,000 international students attend colleges and universities in Illinois, according to the office of the Illinois attorney general, which joined a lawsuit to block the revised rule taking effect. In Bloomington-Normal, both Illinois Wesleyan and Illinois State University have international student populations.

ISU President Larry Dietz said it was a “great relief” when ICE last week returned to guidance instituted in March that suspended typical limits about online education for foreign students.

But the initial action by ICE left students — and higher education officials — shaken.

“The thing I don’t understand is all the visa changes. Most of the international students are already here,” Elmadny said, so letting them stay wouldn’t affect the spread of COVID-19.

Colleges had said the policy would put students’ safety at risk and hurt schools financially. Many schools rely on tuition from international students, and some stood to lose millions of dollars in revenue if the rule had taken hold.

IWU sophomore Chloe Xu, an elementary education major from China, had planned to return home for the summer.

“I had a flight ticket to go back, but I canceled the trip,” said Xu, who feared she might not be able to return to the United States.

It turns out that her fears were justified. China is among the nations from which foreign nationals are barred from traveling to the United States.

Katy Smit, a sophomore in biology at IWU from South Africa, faced a different problem.

“When I first learnt that my university was going to close and offer only online classes (mid-March) for the remainder of the spring semester, I decided to book a flight back to South Africa to complete my freshman year at home and with family,” Smit said via email.

“The morning of the day I was to fly back home, my flight was canceled as South Africa declared an emergency lockdown,” prohibiting incoming international flights, she said.

Smit spent two months with relatives in California before finally getting a spot on a repatriation flight in early June.

South Africa is not on the list of countries from which foreign nationals can’t travel to the U.S. and Smit is looking forward to returning to IWU this fall.

“My only concern is that students comply with the health and safety regulations in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 across campus,” she said. “I hope everyone makes smart decisions and takes all students, faculty and staff into consideration.”

Robyn Walter, IWU international student and scholar adviser, said about 10 IWU international students are in China and can’t return for now. The university is working with them and other international students who can’t get to IWU to offer online options.

“We want them to be here, to be part of our Illinois Wesleyan community,” said Walter. “We really value the perspectives and life experiences that international students bring.”

In addition to continuing students trapped by travel bans, newly admitted students are having trouble getting visas.

Only a small number of students are getting appointments with consulates, and those that do, see them canceled as the date approaches, said Walter.

“I’ve yet to have an incoming student get their visa,” she said.

IWU has about 50 international students among its enrollment of about 1,600 students.

“Our international population has declined over the last four years,” said Walter, and with restrictive guidance from ICE, “it’s going to prove more difficult to recruit.”

Luis Canales, director of the office of international studies and programs at Illinois State University, agreed that actions such as the policy initially announced by ICE hurts recruitment.

“These kinds of policies send a message that international students are not welcomed in this country,” said Canales.

ISU has been working to bolster the number of international students, currently about 575 out of an enrollment of nearly 21,000. It entered an agreement with INTO University Partnerships in January 2018 to help with that effort.

“Having a diverse, international community on campus provides for greater opportunities to learn and grow,” said Canales. “Illinois State believes that a diverse and inclusive campus will prepare our students for life in the 21st century and will help them compete in a global economy.”

Meanwhile, the parents of many international students share the same concerns as parents of U.S. students.

Elmadny said, in video chats with his parents, “they tell me to be careful and not go out too much.” He said, “Masks are a part of my life,” but he worries because many fellow students “are going to go to parties.”

Xu said her parents are “a little bit worried,” but “I have plenty of face masks.”

Walter said, “Parents are concerned that in the U.S. the number of cases is rising and the risk that presents to their students.”

Asked how she reassures them, Walter replied, “I don’t know that I can. I understand their concern.”

But she tells them that the situation is not as bad in Illinois and the number of cases is relatively low in McLean County.

Xu said, “I think the U.S. is trying to do the best (in fighting the pandemic). … I understand why people don’t want to wear masks because of cultural differences.”


Source: The (Bloomington) Pantagraph,