Even in a pandemic, UJ Bhowmik was elated to become a “double Gopher” this fall. The 20-year-old international student from India just finished her undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota and will start law school there in September.
She signed a new lease on an apartment near campus and has been waiting to hear whether her classes will be taught online or in person. But the excitement she felt for the start of a new chapter in her college career turned to fear this week when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced strict new rules that could force some foreign students to leave the country.
Under the ICE guidelines, visas will not be issued to international students enrolled in colleges that are only operating online this fall, forcing them to either leave the country or transfer to another school. At universities that plan to offer a blend of online and in-person classes — like most Minnesota colleges — international students will be prohibited from taking all their classes online.
Bhowmik and other international students in Minnesota are frantically seeking assurances from their schools that they will be able to take some classes in person, despite the fear that doing so could further spread the virus that causes COVID-19. Minnesota colleges are scrambling to revise their fall semester offerings to make sure their students won’t be at risk of deportation.
“The fear of deportation is so real,” said Bhowmik, who would have to return to India — where her family no longer lives — if she does not have access to in-person classes. “They’re not only interrupting people’s education but their lives.”
The federal rules affect some 1 million international students attending U.S. colleges and universities, many of whom pay higher tuition rates that their institutions depend on. Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Ken Cuccinelli told CNN on Tuesday the new rules “encourage schools to reopen.”
Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a lawsuit Wednesday attempting to block the Trump administration’s new immigration guidelines. The University of Minnesota announced Thursday that it would join an amicus brief in support of the lawsuit.
“We cannot stand by in good conscience as international students are forced out of the country through no fault of their own,” U President Joan Gabel said in a statement.
The U is planning a hybrid teaching model this fall that includes in-person and online classes, which Gabel said should reduce the impact of the ICE rules on the nearly 6,200 international students who attend the university’s five campuses.
Meredith McQuaid, the U’s associate vice president and dean of international programs, said staff will review every international student’s course registration to make sure they enroll in some hybrid or in-person classes. Faculty members have reached out to U leadership in recent days offering to teach more in-person classes for international students, she said.
A key component of the university’s fall semester plan calls for in-person classes to conclude by Thanksgiving and switch to distance learning thereafter for any remaining assignments. But under the ICE guidance, international students could be subject to deportation if their schools shift online in the middle of the semester.
McQuaid said Thursday that the U will offer hybrid courses after Thanksgiving so international students can continue to take classes on campus. The school would also make this accommodation if a surge in COVID-19 cases were to shut down the campus, she said.
“We will find a way to accommodate international students in that situation, because that’s our responsibility,” McQuaid said. “They should not face deportation as a result of a pandemic that takes another surge forward.”
The Minnesota State colleges and universities system is exploring options for the roughly 4,300 international students it serves. The system’s 30 colleges and seven universities are slated to offer a mix of online, hybrid and in-person classes and will provide options that will allow international students to continue their education under the new federal rules, said Ron Anderson, Minnesota State’s senior vice chancellor of academic and student affairs.
At St. Cloud State University, which serves the most international students among schools in the Minnesota State system, administrators are already engaging students on their course of action. President Robbyn Wacker held a Zoom town hall with about 200 international students Wednesday night, during which she discussed what their course loads should look like under the new requirements and pledged to accommodate their needs.
“The students were really, I think, turned upside down,” Wacker said. “The tone and the tenor is they are scared, they don’t understand, they’re trying to sort it out.”
Shahzad Ahmad, associate vice president of St. Cloud State’s Center for International Studies, said the school will also be ready to accommodate international students from colleges that are only offering online classes this fall. St. Cloud State has a rolling admissions process, and staff have already fielded some inquiries from potential transfer students since the federal rules were released Monday.
“I think the students are trying to figure out what their options are,” Ahmad said.
To Priscilla Mayowa, an international student from Nigeria who attends North Hennepin Community College, the most jarring aspect of the new federal ruling is that it came amid a global pandemic. The federal government has forced international students to choose between learning on campus — where they could get infected — and facing deportation, she said.
Foreign students have struggled during the pandemic due to the closure of campus housing and food shelves and job loss, said Mayowa, president of the student association LeadMN, which represents 165,000 community and technical college students. The latest challenge only piles on.
“There are so many good people who come here and do good things, and it feels like the country isolates us or gives us a reputation that’s not ours to bear,” Mayowa said. “I have been able to contribute to the society that I’ve come to appreciate and love. … Losing all of that would be completely devastating for me.”