Should I stay or should I go? International students deliberate the fall

By Florence Wu

International orientation leaders welcome new students in August 2019. International students are facing tough decisions with regards to the fall semester. (Benjy Renton)

As the college unveils its fall semester plans, anxieties about making a decision with limited information and a pressing deadline are overshadowing previous uncertainties related to the fall. 

While most international students would like to return and reunite with friends, they are also concerned about whether the dramatically altered college experience is worth the long trek back.

Many expressed that their decision would be easier if the college could provide more details on the course schedule, specifying the modes of teaching for individual courses and social distancing protocols. 

“I feel the announcement seems more like a guideline instead of a practical plan with enough details,” said Steven Zheng ’23 from China, who is leaning towards taking another remote semester. 

The long trek back

With major travel bans in effect and many airlines cancelling their overseas routes, international flights are very limited. While trying to get home in March, some students even faced cancellations after they had booked and paid for their flights.

The cost of travel poses yet another challenge. International tickets are likely to be more expensive, according to a BBC article, so returning to campus is financially impossible for some students. An economy ticket from the United States to Europe in early June cost $2,126 with Delta, according to Forbes. The normal price for this flight would be around $700, according to the same source. 

There are also strict border restrictions in place. 

According to the CDC, foreign nationals that have been in China, Iran, the European Schengen area, the United Kingdom, Ireland or Brazil during the 14 days before their arrival at the U.S. border may not enter. This means students from these countries would have to quarantine in another country for 14 days before entering the United States.

“I find this process exhausting and not worthwhile,” Zheng said.

International students are currently scheduled to arrive at Middlebury on Aug. 26. Although the college has not specified procedures for international arrival, they will likely have to undergo testing and quarantine on campus until all students complete the arrival testing process. 

Despite all these challenges, some students see many benefits of returning to campus.

Many students expressed that in-person learning is likely to be more rewarding. They also value the opportunity to reunite with the community, engage in some extracurricular activities and have a larger selection of courses to choose from, since students can pick between online, in-person and hybrid-style courses.

Some students expressed that they would feel more comfortable given Vermont’s relatively low number of Covid-19 cases. They also hope its low population density would act as a natural defense against the virus. 

Students will have to weigh these on campus benefits against the possibility that their classes of choice might be offered strictly online anyway, in addition to stringent quarantine and social distancing measures. The cost and risk of traveling to and from Middlebury, as well as the possibility of a second wave interrupting the fall semester, are also reasons for concern. 

“The experience of evacuating as an international student in March was borderline traumatic. I can’t imagine doing that again if a second wave hits,” said Elsa Korpi ’22, who has been in Finland since March. “Daily cases in Finland are down to the tens, while the United States is now starting to hit new records. Voluntarily leaving Europe feels silly.”

She still has not yet decided her next semester plans.

Another remote semester?

For some, remote classes remain the only option given travel difficulties, family situations and challenges with maintaining a student visa during a gap semester. 

“As I have high-risk family members back home, it would be painful if I couldn’t support or be with them, especially since the health system isn’t the best,” said Smith Muhuri ’23 from Kenya, the incoming co-president of the International Student Organization. He still hasn’t decided on his plans but is leaning towards staying on campus, as he has been there since March. 

Others, most of whom live in urban settings, believe that staying at home will be a richer experience. They hope to take up internships, part-time jobs and other extracurricular activities in their hometowns while taking online classes. 

According to International Student & Scholar Services (ISSS), it is still unclear if students can maintain F-1 student records if they attend classes remotely in the fall. Current regulations restrict F-1 students to taking only 1 course online that counts towards their enrollment requirement to maintain their visa status. 

However, ISSS anticipates changes to the requirements that will allow students outside of the United States “to take more than one online course.”

The college will be charging full tuition for students who choose to take a remote semester from home. 

The downsides of this choice include a smaller course selection, as many classes will not be offered online because the college discourages professors from “teaching simultaneously in multiple modalities,” according to the Fall 2020 FAQ page

Muhuri believes that the college should encourage professors to offer both remote and in-person options in order to give international students more choices. Zheng and Korpi would also like to see more online courses and career related-resources for students taking a remote semester. 

Muhuri and Zheng expect the remote learning experience to be less fulfilling and more difficult.

“It was just a tiring experience that I had to get up at 4 a.m. in China for my political philosophy classes this semester,” Zheng said.

A semester off

Reluctant to start another remote semester or travel back to the United States for a limited college experience, some have opted for a leave of absence instead. 

However, according to ISSS, an interruption in student status can impede a student’s ability to apply for a work visa for jobs and internships in the United States. Reapplication for a student visa may even be necessary, depending on the individual case.

For many, Optional/Curricular Practical Training (OPT/CPT) and student visa complications are major reasons for deciding against a semester off. 

“I would really appreciate it if schools push the government to loosen the qualification for OPT,” said Zheng. “I will be more likely to gap [a semester] if so.”

Scott Li ’23 from China is taking a semester off. He plans to do an internship and spend one to two months road tripping to Western China. 

Despite his decision, Li supports the college’s plan for the fall semester and looks forward to returning next spring.

“I’m sure [the college] carefully balanced everything and tried their best to come up with what’s best for everyone,” Li said. “It’s just that this is really a tough time, and it’s nobody’s fault. Everybody should keep staying positive.”

The deadline to apply for a fall leave of absence is July 6.

However, students will get a full tuition refund if they withdraw before the semester starts according to the college’s refund policy

How can the college help?

“There really is no good option. A remote semester feels like a missed learning opportunity, but I also have plans after undergrad that I wouldn’t want to delay,” Korpi said.

International students such as Muhuri and Zheng believe more details on the modalities of courses offered will help them make the best decision for next fall. According to the FAQ page, the college is planning to announce its course scheduling details in late July after professors plan their courses.

The college should also provide more details on how clubs would run and whether athletic facilities would remain open, according to Li.

Muhuri and Zheng also have concerns regarding how the pandemic would worsen the inequality on campus affecting international minorities. 

“I don’t want to be left behind simply because I cannot be physically present on campus as an international student,” said Zheng. 

ISSS plans to offer Zoom meet-ups or webinars this summer. It is also collaborating with the Admissions Office on virtual events with incoming international students to discuss their transition to campus.

“There are no guarantees regarding how this will all work out,” said Kathy Foley, associate dean and director of ISSS. “Fortunately, there are many dedicated faculty and staff colleagues on our campus who are doing everything they can to create a positive and workable experience for students to resume their studies in the fall.”

Editor’s Note: Elsa Korpi ’22 is an Arts and Culture editor for The Campus.