Since the initial outbreak of COVID-19 was first reported on December 31st, 2019, numerous measures have been taken by governments around the world to aggressively contain the spread of the disease. In addition to national lockdowns and a near halt on global travel, one of the most impactful measures implemented was the cancellation of in-person classes in colleges and universities, most of which were replaced by online and distance learning. As a result, students were sent home with little time to prepare. Among those impacted by this transition, international students faced some of the most difficult choices and processes, with increased levels of racially motivated discrimination, difficulty securing flights back home, and inconsistent messaging from their institutions.

Seven months after the start of this global pandemic, international students are once again facing an uncertain future as they navigate their plans for the 2020 fall semester and whether they will be able to attend in-person classes, should they be offered. Yet despite the complexity of the issue facing international students, , most institutions have offered little information to ease their worries, even as they prepare for a modified in-person semester offered on campus this fall for those who are able to arrive.

As of late June, most US embassies and consulates remain closed for routine visa processes due to the ongoing pandemic. As a result, many international students who have been admitted to US universities remain unable to complete the interview process necessary to receive their student visas (F-1, J-1). This has forced many international students to reevaluate their travel plans for university and consider the possibility of deferral or taking online courses, neither of which is ideal for many students whose families have spent years preparing to send their children abroad both financially and academically.

J. Jiang is one international student whose travel plans have become uncertain as the pandemic continues. As an incoming university freshman from Canada, Jiang says that the continued uncertainties of the pandemic “create a lot of inconvenience in my family to try to organise my travel plan. If my mom travels with me, my ten-year-old sister will be left home alone for more than 14 days while my mom and I are quarantined in the States”, per her university’s most updated policy in accordance with CDC guidelines. Jiang is currently waiting for more information to make a more definite plan for the fall semester.

Though deferral and taking online courses have become an increasingly popular option for international students unable to arrive on campus, there are significant consequences that come with either decision. Many colleges and universities wary of financial losses are not considering making any changes to their deferral policies at the moment, meaning that the number of students they approve for deferrals is not increasing in spite of these exceptional circumstances caused by the pandemic. Furthermore, international students who may be convinced to give in to a completely online first semester experience are faced with the difficulty of scheduling their classes according to their own time zones, forcing many to severely alter their daily routines in order to attend classes late at night or early in the morning.

G.Chen, an incoming international student from Malaysia, is one student who has been forced to make changes to his fall semester plans, and subsequently, his daily routine. Originally intended to attend in-person classes this upcoming semester, Chen says he recognises now that he has “no chance of leaving [Malaysia] due to the pandemic” and has now been “forced to take online classes”. This, however, is less than ideal for Chen, whose time zone at home is ten hours ahead of his university, creating additional stress as he completes his class registration process.

In addition to the logistical difficulties of planning for this upcoming fall semester, semester deferrals and virtual classes will exacerbate the inequalities between domestic and international students which have long existed in the US university system. With most financial aid opportunities limited to domestic students who are US citizens or permanent residents, international students often pay full tuition for their college experience. In recent years, as the demand for large and attractive financial aid packages has increased, many colleges and universities have looked to international students and the full tuition they pay to counterbalance this demand. As the pandemic continues, however, it’s becoming increasingly likely that many international students and their families will be forced to pay full tuition for a vastly different university experience, only to find their money being used to subsidise the mostly in-person educational experience of domestic students at the same institution. With most colleges and universities dismissing the possibility of tuition reduction for students impacted by the pandemic, international students and their families especially must now spend time considering if the investment will be worth it in the end, knowing that there are domestic students paying a lower price for an experience they will likely not receive.

Furthermore, students who are physically unable to attend in-person classes at universities that are offering them may find themselves isolated from the limited, but still crucial social scene that domestic students may be able to enjoy this fall. This would not only further the self-segregation that already exists in universities, but it would also force international students to adapt and assimilate to the campus culture more quickly than usual in order to fit in with their classmates, many of whom may have spent freshman year familiarising themselves with the campus.

International students provide unique insights and knowledge for universities across the globe, allowing students and staff to learn more about different cultural perspectives and broaden their scope of the world. However, the effects of this pandemic on higher education institutions have been particularly stressful for current and incoming international students. As reopening plans continue to be developed and discussed by government institutions and universities, it is important to incorporate international students and their perspectives into the conversation and continue to make progress towards welcoming them to campus. This may include a structured and safe opening of US embassies and consulates for international students committed to attending classes on campus this fall; a coordinated effort from colleges and universities to subsidise travel and quarantine costs; a tuition freeze or cap for the year; or the establishment of a committee or working group at each university dedicated to facilitating the international student fall semester 2020 experience.

The semester that follows will be a difficult time for all students. However, as universities continue to navigate careful and safe reopening, it is crucial that concerns from international students are heard and addressed clearly, in order to strengthen higher education going forward.

Todd Lu is a Next Generation Politics contributor for International News and Economics & Business and an incoming freshman at the University of Southern California, majoring in Communication. Todd’s passion for storytelling and fostering a global perspective on critical issues of our time is at the centre of his written work, theatre performances, and leadership of his high school’s ambassadors programme for international and exchange students.