RALEIGH, N.C. — Although most North Carolina universities — including Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State — still plan to bring students back to campus for some in-person classes starting next month, international students are fearful of what could happen if classes move entirely online.
They would be forced to leave the country, according to new guidelines announced this week by federal immigration authorities.
"The looming threat is what if the coronavirus does exacerbate late in the fall and Duke and other schools do end up going virtual," said Dennis Wang, a junior at Duke.
Wang said the scenario would be worse than when most universities went all virtual in the spring. There was an exemption that allowed international students to stay in the U.S. for the spring and summer online courses and maintain their status.
"Now you have to leave the country," said Wang, who's from Canada.
Some students might have to stay in a quarantine area if they returned to their home countries, Wang said. Others live in rural places and might see their education impacted by unstable internet connections and time zone differences.
"We are already the minority," Wang said. "I think the fact that this is coming out just tells us that we are more unwelcome than we thought we were."
WHAT IS THE NEW POLICY?
The U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools that are fully online for the fall semester, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection will not allow those students to come into the United States, according to a news release from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Students currently in the U.S. and enrolled in online-only programs, as Harvard University recently announced, must either leave the country or transfer to a school that offers in-person instruction.
For students attending schools with a mixture of online and face-to-face classes, the university must fill out a form to certify that the program is not solely online and that a student isn’t taking all online courses for the semester.
Duke President Vincent Price said the university is "deeply concerned" about the new policy. He said it will limit the ability of qualified students and scholars to begin or continue their studies in the U.S., including the thousands of international students who study at Duke each year.
"This is a misguided effort that will only harm talented young people and the colleges and universities that are vital to our society," Price said in a statement.
Price said Duke is committed to allowing international students to begin and complete their education at Duke because it aligns with their mission to "train leaders for the global community."
"We will continue to support our international students through these challenging times," Price said, "and will work with the higher education community to advocate for policies that open doors, not close them."
PRESSURE TO TAKE IN-PERSON CLASSES
The new policy also puts pressure on international students to take in-person classes, and it could limit their options for courses, particularly for first and second-year students taking larger introductory classes that are typically taught in an auditorium setting.
"It’s effectively forcing those who feel uncertain or unsafe in that situation to choose between continuing their education or being forced to leave the country," said Mark Nance, an associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at N.C. State University.
An online petition from university professors around the state urges the UNC System to move classes online this fall. Faculty at UNC-CH, NCSU, East Carolina University, UNC Charlotte, N.C. Central University, Appalachian State University, Western Carolina University, UNC Wilmington, UNC Asheville and Fayetteville State signed the petition, which had more than 500 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon.
"Because the COVID-19 epidemic is not yet under control and because communities surrounding our campuses are put at risk by campus activities, it is unsafe for students and instructors to return to face-to-face instruction," the petition says.
Carolina Guenther, an N.C. State computer science major from Brazil, opted to stay in Raleigh for a summer internship after finishing the spring semester online. She doesn’t have to worry about getting back into the United States, but she is nervous about the return to campus and the pandemic getting worse.
"There’s no one on campus now, and when everyone comes back the situation is going to be very different," Guenther said. "There may be a big rise in cases or put you at a bigger risk of infection."
But Guenther said going to class is the only option for her to stay in the United States and maintain her visa status. If N.C. State switches to online courses, she’d be forced to go back to Brazil within 10 days of that announcement.
"As a rising senior, I really want to graduate," Guenther said. "I just don’t want my progress on my courses to be impacted by that."
NOT ALLOWED BACK IN THE U.S.
Rafael Albuquerque, a junior at N.C. State from Brazil, wanted to take all of his classes online, because the U.S. now restricts travel from Brazil. But with this new rule and N.C. State having a hybrid model, he would need to come back to Raleigh to maintain his visa status and take at least one in-person class.
Albuquerque fears he’ll have to take a gap year or semester. That means he’d lose his student visa and have to re-apply for it.
"It’s very nerve-wracking because if we do choose to take a gap year, it could impact our chances to get a work visa after we graduate and get sponsored by companies," Albuquerque said. "Maybe it will be the logical thing to do, but of course it’s something that we get very worried about."
He said the travel ban, non-refundable tuition and paying rent for apartments off campus that he can’t live in are already stressful. This policy adds to the overall feeling of anxiety.
N.C. State’s Office of International Services hosted a town hall Wednesday for students to ask questions about the new Immigration and Custom Enforcement guidance.
"Supporting the health, safety and academic success of all our students — domestic and international — remains critical as we move forward in uncertain times," spokesman Mick Kulikowski said in a statement.
Additional information may be forthcoming but is not guaranteed, said Ioana Costant, UNC-Chapel Hill’s director of International Student and Scholar Services.
"International Student and Scholar Services is working closely with senior University leaders to ensure the University is compliant with this new guidance and to continue to support international students," Costant said in a statement.
‘SHORT-SIGHTED AND COUNTERPRODUCTIVE’
International students typically pay the highest rates of tuition at universities, and others work as teaching assistants who help faculty and often teach their own courses, according to N.C. State’s Nance. He said losing those students would cause a problem financially and logistically as universities are trying to be very careful about the student to faculty ratio and the need for social distancing.
Universities also miss out on those perspectives from all over the world that international students bring to labs and classrooms in a variety of fields that enhance the educational experience for everyone, Nance said.
He said he views the decision as a political move aimed at appealing to President Trump’s voter base.
"The whole point is to make the U.S. and universities less attractive to international students," Nance said. "While we’re busy trying to recruit the best and the brightest form around the world, they seem to be actively working against it for electoral gain."
International students studying at U.S. colleges and universities contributed $41 billion and supported 458,290 jobs during the 2018-2019 academic year, according to an economic analysis by NAFSA: Association of International Educators. In North Carolina, the more than 21,000 international students contributed about $722 million and created more than 9,000 jobs.
The long term implications of this policy are the students next year and down the road who decide not to apply to U.S. colleges and universities, according to Nance. He said that means they don’t stick around to contribute academically and in the business community and don’t found that company, which can’t be measured.
He hopes the UNC System, which holds a lot of political weight, and other universities get in touch with congressional leaders to express their dismay at this policy.
"It’s awful," Nance said. "I think it’s short-sighted and counterproductive and inhumane."
CAN THE RULES BE CHANGED?
Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued ICE over the new rule, and others are trying to find loopholes like creating an in-person class solely for international students, the News & Observer reported.
Some critics of the policy, including Chris Marsicano, an expert on higher education lobbying and a visiting professor at Davidson College, suggested tweeting about the issue and reaching out to political representatives to fight it.
"...call your members of Congress and tell them you oppose the #StudentBan. Focus especially on members of the Judiciary Committees in the House and the Senate," Marsicano tweeted.
Teddy Kellogg, from Advance, N.C., took that suggestion to heart. Kellogg, 27, and his partner Alix Choinet, a French national, are currently living in France and planning to move to New York to attend PhD programs at Cornell University.
Kellogg said they woke up to the news with dismay.
"We have already been under stress regarding the uncertainty of our arrival in Ithaca, NY, and this certainly multiplied our worries and anxieties," Kellogg said in an email. "We have both spent the day exploring different avenues to challenge the decision."
Kellogg wrote a letter opposing the policy to U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who is one of the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and on the subcommittee for Border Security and Immigration.
"This means he has some sway here," Kellogg said.
Beyond triggering uncertainty for international students to get back into the country and the threat of long-term career plans being upended, this policy lets them know that they are an expendable resource, Kellogg told the News & Observer.
"At best, Trump is trying to coerce universities into having in-person classes while taking these students hostage," Kellogg said. "At worst, it is just a hard-line anti-immigration initiative meant to send a message of nationalist protectionism."