Last week Irem Sevindik could barely sleep.
“It was so stressful,” Sevindik, an international student from Turkey, said. “For two days, I slept for eight hours in total.”
On Monday, July 6, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that there would be changes to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). International students with M-1 or F-1 visas can no longer stay in the United States if their university offers only online coursework.
Can’t catch a break
International students at UNR have already been facing unique challenges recently. Because of COVID-19, many have had to deal with pandemic-related financial issues, which then affected their housing and employment situations. Some even had to return to their home countries.
But now, the new ICE decision could act as another obstacle to overcome. Under these guidelines, international students across the U.S. are depending on their schools to have in-person or hybrid courses available in order to stay.
This has made the past few days “overwhelming” for international students like Sevindik. Because of the initial uncertainty surrounding how foreign students at UNR would be affected, she was emotional when she first got the news.
She explained that the sudden change made her situation even more complicated. If she must go back home, she could potentially expose herself and her family to the coronavirus. If she is forced to attend in-person classes just to stay in the country, she also runs the risk of getting infected.
“I was so angry,” she said. “No one understands, you know? I have to choose between my health or education.”
Risking the future
Other international students shared different concerns. Ingrid Kaiser, a student from Brazil, said she and her family have invested a lot of money into funding her life in America. She has been in the U.S. studying for five years, but for the past two years she has been studying at UNR. If she had to leave due to the ICE decision, it could jeopardize her ability to graduate on time, as well as future opportunities.
“I have an internship coming up next year,” Kaiser said. “I actually got a scholarship for the internship, and I have another year that I could work for them after I graduate…that can simply be cancelled.”
Kaiser also mentioned that each international student faces different situations based on their country of origin and unique situation. In her case, returning home means she possibly couldn’t return due to a U.S. ban on visitors from Brazil.
Also, like many other international students, there are a lot of negatives of taking the same coursework online from her home country. On top of paying the same tuition fees for remote education, Kaiser would have to deal with things like time differences. She mentioned that other students could have difficulty with reliable internet access and a multitude of other obstacles.
Overall, Kaiser said what frightened her the most about the ICE decision was the possibility that she would have to give up everything she’s worked so long for.
“In these two years I’ve been here in Reno…I was able to save money to get a car, I was able to make friends–you get into relationships, it becomes your life. You have a house that you’re renting, you have all these things,” she said. “Knowing that I would have to get rid of all these things in a month or a couple days just because of [the ICE decision] is very frustrating.”
A waiting game
Yuki Hida, a Japanese international student, has also been affected by the recent news.
Before ICE announced the changes to SVEP, Hida signed a lease agreement for an apartment. Since there is so much uncertainty about the future of international students, she recently decided to cancel that lease.
“I feel like it’s high risk to keep my apartment…so I’m going to move to my friend’s house,” she said. “If something happens, it’s [easier] to move [within 10 days].”
If she is forced to go home, she’ll have even more things to worry about. In addition to moving, she would have to quickly sell her car, all without knowing when or if she would be able to come back to the states.
Sevindik said that despite all of the uncertainty right now, she is trying to remain optimistic–but it’s still hard.
“It feels so overwhelming, to feel that you are something, but you cannot do anything about it,” she said. “I’m following the rules, and I [still] can do nothing about it.”
The University’s response
On Tuesday evening, Dominique Hall, the Associated Students of the University of Nevada, Reno (ASUN) President, held an impromptu Zoom meeting where UNR students could voice their concerns about the ICE decision, reopening plans, or anything else. Kaiser attended the meeting, and said that this was a good effort on behalf of ASUN, but there is still more that can be done.
“I do wish that [the University] would speak more and listen more to international students in particular,” she said. “I think we cannot advocate for something that we don’t truly understand.”
After the meeting, Hall presented the concerns from the attendees to University administration, and compiled the administration’s responses here.
On Wednesday, the University sent out a campus-wide email confirming that they would be using the HyFlex model of teaching for the upcoming fall semester. According to the statement, this is a type of teaching that would include “a hybrid instructional model incorporating a mixture of in-person…and fully online instruction.”
With HyFlex, international students will be able to take more than one online class under the ICE guidelines. This means that international students at UNR would have more freedom to take the classes they need, and can more easily fulfill the requirements to remain in the United States.
Although, there’s always the possibility of the school going back to only online operations. The email also advised that “international graduate students enroll in at least one thesis, dissertation, independent study or other research/studio-based course for the Fall 2020 semester in case the University is required to operate under the more restrictive Phase 1 guidelines.”
Nevada is also one of the states to challenge the ICE decision in federal court. In a legal complaint filed July 13, Nevada is named as one of the 17 states suing to “challenge the federal government’s cruel, abrupt, and unlawful action to expel international students or force campuses to be less safe.”
The staff of the Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS) has also been working to find solutions for international students ever since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic.
Maritza Machado-Williams, executive director of OISS, explained that there are still so many unknowns about the future, making a difficult time even more difficult for faculty and students alike.
“There are so many things that are uncertain…it could be that [our situation] improves and [international students] will be okay,” she said. “It could be that things go bad…we don’t know.”
Regardless, Machado-Williams said that any future decisions about class models have to keep in mind international students.
Adilia Ross, the international student advisor at OISS, added that they are also working on putting together events to further support international students. This week, they plan on having three online forums: one for international graduate students, one for international undergraduates, and another for UNR faculty.
For students, the meeting will be about explaining the current situation and the HyFlex model. For faculty and staff, it will be an opportunity to learn more about the new rule and how it will affect their international students.
Machado-Williams and Ross also mentioned that they are in the process of coordinating with the Counseling Services on campus as well.
“All of these changes create a lot of stress on the students, who have to deal with their own status here, education, the virus,” Machado-Williams said. “But they also have family facing situations at home.”
During times like these, Machado-Williams expressed that awareness and action are crucial to ensuring the protection of international students. Both she and Ross encouraged the community to write to state representatives to advocate for the international student population–not only on this issue, but also the other challenges international students face.
“There are many things that seem to be unfair and not make sense about the way our students are treated,” Machado-Williams said. “The community has a stronger voice than any voice that we can have.”
Update, July 14, 1:30 p.m.:
The New York Times and Washington Post report that the Trump administration said in federal court that it will not follow through with the plan to force international students to leave the country if they are not enrolled in in-person classes in the fall. According to the Times, “The agreement reinstates a policy implemented in March amid the pandemic that gave international students flexibility to take all their classes online and remain legally in the country with student visas.”
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