How Covid-19 has Affected International Students in the U.S. 

woman wearing backpack facing concrete building
Written By: J. Laura

“I hope I’m making you proud,”
says Alyssa to her family in Indonesia. 

As of November 18th, 2019, The Power of International Education (IIE) reported that the number of international students in the U.S. set an all time high in the academic year of 2018/19. Now international students are under immense pressure as new regulations rose from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The regulations sparked uncertainty with international students. 

With 1,095,299 of international students in the U.S., they make up 5.5% of America’s entire higher education population, according to IIE. Just in 2018 alone, according to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce, international students had contributed $44.7 billion to the economy — an increase of 5.5% from the previous year.  

But before an international student could even enter the U.S. to study, they have to first apply and undergo the rigorous, complicated process of obtaining a student visa. 

The U.S Department of State mentions that college and university students need an F Visa — specifically F1/F2 Visa — in order to enter the country to study. International students must first apply for an online visa application, schedule and attend an interview in the U.S. embassy in their respective country while bringing in all necessary documents (e.g. bank statements to show that they are able to support themselves financially, passport for identification, statement of acceptance from their respective university and so forth). 

The process all-in-all could take months to prepare from the moment they apply to their desired colleges, all the way to the visa interview. Applying for the visa itself or scheduling for a visa interview does not guarantee that their visa will be accepted.

In 2019, a report from the U.S. Department of State shows that out of the 523,084 F1/F2 visa applications lodged in, 134,245 visas were refused worldwide — a rejection rate of 26%. 

On July 6th 2020, ICE mentioned its requirement that international students have to transfer or leave the country voluntarily if their school has adapted classes entirely online because of the pandemic. 

“Active students currently in the United States enrolled in such programs must depart the country or take other measures,” ICE announced. 

The regulation implies that “students already in the U.S. would have faced deportation if they didn’t transfer school or leave the country voluntarily,” AP News reports.

Alyssa Indrajaya is an international student who is studying psychology at De Anza College, located in Cupertino, California. Indrajaya, originally from Jakarta, Indonesia, moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in September 2019,  fresh after her 18th birthday. 

A well established student who graduated as a valedictorian from her high school and president of the student council, Indrajaya knew that she wanted to come to the U.S., citing great “opportunities” as the reason why she wanted to start her next journey in the country.

“I saw the States as an opportunity; a wider opportunity. I think that’s one of the reasons I came here,” she explains. “We came here for one sole reason, which is to learn and to grow, and then to see that rule smacked in our face [those taking fully online classes have to go back to their country] caused some unrest in my heart, my friends’ and family’s. It caused some frustration.” 

During the summer, “the actual plan was for me to go home to Jakarta. But given the current circumstance with the pandemic, my flight got cancelled,” she adds. “We all just decided that it’ll be safer for me to remain in the States.” 

Classes at De Anza College have been fully online since the spring quarter until now.

“It was hard,” she quoted, as she described that she has been struggling to cope with a new level of independence being only 18 years old, and stranded in a foreign country during a pandemic. 

“I felt alone,” she continued. “The pressure of it. And the emotional burden of staying away from home. Being independent on its own without a pandemic is different compared with a pandemic. I miss the place I grew up in.” 

“If I get kicked out, I will be able to enter Indonesia. But not every international student is able to go home to their country because of the added lockdown, or maybe their country is closed,” Indrajaya cited.

International students are not just one group, she continued. “I feel we are grouped together and we are assumed to be in the same position. But we came from different countries, and every country has different immigration rules.” 

A ray of hope finally rose, when it was reported by the AP News on July 14th that the regulation by ICE has been “rescind” after a lawsuit against the Trump Administration was filed by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston federal court. It is supported by more than 200 higher education institutions as they signed the court briefs.   

Soon after,  AP News reported that, “ICE did not immediately comment on the decision.” 

The reports were valid and were confirmed by an email sent out by De Anza College to their students. The email, which was obtained exclusively by Emerald, stated that, “This policy was rescinded in court on July 14 during a hearing for a lawsuit filed by Harvard and MIT and there is still no official guidance released by SEVP/ICE for colleges and universities.” 

As for now, there is still no clear direction on the new regulation or future changes to it. In the meantime, international students do not have to fear deportation.

“Relieved. One less burden,” Indrajaya mentioned in a follow-up interview after she became aware that the regulations had changed. 

Thankfully, De Anza College will have a hybrid model — a mix of online and in-person classes starting Fall 2020, Indrajaya said. Which means that she is able to stay in the U.S., given that she follows the condition that she takes at least three classes on campus, and one class online.

As we wrapped up the interview,  Indrajaya mentioned that she has not seen her family for nearly a year. And if given the chance to see her family now,  I asked, “what would you say to them?”

“I hope I’m making you proud,” she answered.

Emerald contributor since July 2020
Journalist and contributor for Emerald; covering the social, cultural, political and medical side of cannabis and other (mostly sensitive) issues. For any collaborations or tips, email me at [laura@emeraldmg.com].

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