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Unwanted: The dilemma of international students in the COVID-19 crisis

| Thursday, October 22, 2020

I was supposed to be a senior at Notre Dame this semester. Having spent my junior year studying abroad, I cannot describe how much I yearned for the return to campus — having enlightening conversations with professors in and outside the classroom, cooking and celebrating reunions with friends, paying visits to the little ducks at the Saint Mary’s Lake — despite all the messes brought by the pandemic.

Now, I am taking a gap semester in Shanghai, my hometown. It is October already, and I still have no idea whether I will be able to return in spring, or more precisely, when I will be able to continue my study at Notre Dame.

My studies were disrupted because I am an international student coming from China holding an F-1 visa, having returned home from my study abroad during the COVID-19 crisis. 

When Notre Dame suspended all study-abroad programs in mid-March, including the Oxford program I participated in, I chose to return home instead of flying to Notre Dame because I wanted to be with my family and because I was not sure if I would have a place to stay in the U.S. In addition, as the situation in China improved significantly in March, I expected the international students’ travel restrictions to loosen when the new semester began. 

However, that did not happen, and I was stuck in Shanghai while Notre Dame reopened. According to the CDC, travelers from several countries including Iran, China, the United Kingdom, the European Schengen area, Ireland and Brazil are prohibited from entry into the U.S. As a result, tens of thousands of international students like me, who have studied in the U.S. for years, faced the same situation of not being allowed to come back and finish their studies.

Rationally speaking, China’s current numbers do not warrant a travel ban from the U.S. To give you an idea, since April, mainland China has around 22 new cases on average every day, almost all of which are passengers coming from abroad and are strictly quarantined. Indiana alone had 1,962 new cases Oct. 15. In comparison, another country under the travel ban, the U.K., had 18,978 new cases Oct. 15. No one would question the U.S. government’s preventive measure to prohibit travelers from China in January and February. However, given the rapidly declining number of cases, the decision of continuing the travel ban on China into today is unwarranted and highly politicized. Even if it is understandable that the U.S. did not want to admit a lot of international travelers given its domestic situation, it could have made exemptions for international students who contribute significantly to the U.S. economy and to the diversity of thought in American colleges. Yet the current administration chose to be tough toward the wrong targets, making Chinese students studying in the U.S. victims of its campaign against China.

An unwarranted travel ban is not the only U.S. policy that has made the year 2020 a nightmare for international students. In July, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that international students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities who switch to online-only courses will have to leave the country or risk deportation, which was part of the administration’s strategy to force schools to reopen in person. Although the new regulations were revoked under the pressure of U.S. universities, international students could not help but continue worrying about their safety in a country that would deport them any time in a pandemic. What’s worse, in September, the Department of Homeland and Security proposed new regulations that require international students to reapply for visa after fixed terms of two to four years. Four years is shorter than the lengths of most Ph.D. programs and of some undergraduate programs, so those students will need to go back to their home country to reapply in the middle of a program which adds to the already complicated and burdensome visa application process. This feels like the U.S. yelling “We don’t want you!” to foreign talents because who would want to risk being booted out of the country before finishing his or her study? The new rules will also largely reduce the possibility of international students getting nonimmigrant work visas in the U.S. after graduation.

Aside from all these, the Chinese students and scholars as a group are faced with special accusations and hostility. Since President Donald Trump discovered in March that COVID-19 was not “well under control” as he had claimed earlier, he has insisted in calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” and “Kung Flu,” practically attacking not only the Chinese government but also the ethnic group as a whole. Simultaneously, racist attacks towards Asian Americans have increased. At the beginning, Asians wearing masks were ridiculed and stared at in a strange way. Later, at some universities, such as UW-Madison, domestic students posted signs with slogans like: “#Chinese virus,” signs which Chinese students who remained on campus had to walk past every day. As tensions between the two countries increased, Chinese students without any government affiliations have been compelled to hand over all electronic devices at U.S. customs and treated in a way as if they were all spies.

Recently, the Trump administration proposed to ban the social media app WeChat, the major means of communication between Chinese students and their family members in China, following its ban of TikTok. In contrast to Tiktok, which had over more than 100 million users in the U.S., WeChat is used primarily by Chinese people in the U.S. to chat with friends in China. A judge blocked the order against WeChat in a preliminary injunction because of the lack of evidence that WeChat threatens the U.S. national security, but had the order been passed, Chinese students and people currently residing in the U.S. would be cut off from all their social connections overseas. 

It is hard not to feel targeted under these conditions, even if I am currently staying in China, shielded from the direct impact. The international students who chose to stay in the U.S. during the pandemic bear more pressure than I do.

To understand their situation, imagine you are studying in a foreign country, having not returned home for almost one year. On the morning of a normal summer day, you woke up to discover several new COVID-19 cases within your apartment building. After lunch, you heard the explosion of tear gas with purple smoke rising at the window. At night, you fell asleep amidst the noise of protests. … At least you had a stable place to stay, which was not available to some of your peers. Yet you still felt lonely and depressed after a long time of isolation in your apartment. You wanted to call your parents, who are an ocean apart from you, but they would only tell you to stay at home in a worried voice.

The pangs of homesickness of international students in America are augmented by the expensive costs of returning home. With restrictions of flights, tickets can be 10 times expensive as the pre-COVID ones. Moreover, after flying back to their home country, international students, like me, may not be able to return to the U.S.; if they want to finish their studies, they have to take remote classes from midnight to 7 a.m. due to time difference. Sadly, students returning from abroad are also stigmatized by people in their home countries. Back in April, when China just got through the crisis, some citizens condemned students coming back from Europe and America as dangerous “poison carriers” and protested their return, despite the fact that many students volunteered to organize donations to fight the virus three months ago. During those days, I could not help feeling that we are a group of people unwanted anywhere. 

With all this said, I don’t mean to complain. I only want to show you what international students studying in the U.S. went through. However, media reports on this topic are less than rare, which makes our difficult situation invisible to the U.S. public. I do think American college students and people in higher education have a responsibility to care because the international students have both benefited from and contributed to the academic improvements, scientific innovations and diversity of ideas in U.S. colleges. While the whole world is turning to nationalism, my wish is that empathy in academia can be, to some extent, borderless. 

During my study in the U.S., I received incredible help from many kind Americans, and I deeply appreciate this country for what she has taught me, especially the values of openness, liberty, equality and respect for individuals. The education I received here has shaped my mind at the most important stage of my life. However, the series of actions by the Trump administration this year exhibit blatant xenophobia and stand in opposition to the above values and give me legitimate concern that international students are no longer welcome here. If so, it would be bad not only for students like me who want to study or pursue a career in the U.S. but also for the future of America. International scholars are cultural ambassadors between countries. Excluding them demonstrates an unwillingness to connect with the rest of the world as well as signifies a loss of opportunities to communicate American culture and values to us.

I hope my letter makes my American peers and professors understand a bit more of international students’ and Chinese students’ situations, as well as directs some of your attention to the policies that affect the lives of people around you. As the election is approaching a finale, I do not mean to “interfere” as a foreigner. But when you vote, this time or next, I ask that you keep in mind those who cannot vote but will be deeply influenced by your decision. 

Yanlin “Elaine” Chen


Oct. 21

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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