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Fate of Drexel’s international students hangs in the balance following recent SEVP ruling | The Triangle
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Fate of Drexel’s international students hangs in the balance following recent SEVP ruling

A recent announcement by the Student Exchange Visitor Program has many of Drexel’s international students uncertain of and worried about their future. (Photograph courtesy of Gulbenk at Wikimedia Commons.)

The Student Exchange Visitor Program — a unit within The Department of Homeland Security — issued a temporary procedural guidance July 6 establishing that international students on F-1 and M-1 Visas would have to transfer to an in-person college or face deportation if their universities go fully-online for the fall 2020 term.

However an email sent by Drexel’s Division of Enrollment Management and Student Success on July 7 explained that the new SEVP legislation says international students on F-1 and M-1 visas will be allowed to attend schools adopting a hybrid model — that is, schools operating partially in-person and permitting students to take more than one remote class (or three credits) with certification from their school.

Under normal circumstances, immigration regulations do not allow international students in the U.S. to take more than one online class per term. Therefore, since President John Fry announced in an email on June 10 that Drexel is planning to operate this upcoming fall term on a “hybrid approach to learning” until Thanksgiving, all international students with these visas fall into this category and will be permitted to remain in the country.

While the SEVP continues to provide some flexibility to schools and international students during the global pandemic, this newly issued fall guidance provides less flexibility than the accommodations instituted in March 2020, which applied to the spring and summer terms.

International students on F-1 visas attending schools that will operate in-person are bound by existing federal regulations and can take no more than one remote class (three credits) per term.

Additionally, if a school changes its operational stance mid-term — and, as a result of that change, international students switch to only remote classes — those students must then depart the U.S. immediately or take other steps (such as transferring to another school) to ensure the continuation of their immigration status.

As a response to these measures being released so close to the beginning of some semester schools, universities like Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology have decided to sue the Trump Administration.

According to Drexel’s International Students and Scholars Services director Mladenka Tomasevic, international students participating in co-op programs should not be affected by the most recent SEVP guidance. In addition, their ability to apply for co-ops outside the U.S. will depend on issues unrelated to U.S. immigration regulations, such as worldwide inbound and outbound restrictions.

The Triangle had additional questions for Tomasevic but, at the time, ISSS was still processing the legislation and did not have answers to many of the questions international students may have, like what might happen if classes return to remote-only after Thanksgiving as Fry originally planned.

The President of the International Students Union, Mrigna Gupta, has also reached out to the office of ISSS to get answers to their members but has not received any concrete updates besides the email sent on June 7.

COVID-19 has already caused a number of troubles on international students, Gupta said. From travel bans, to scheduling returns to home countries, to taking classes in a different timezone or spending quarantine completely alone in a foreign country.

“We had a case of three freshmen students from Mauritius who were told they had to leave their dorms with very few days in advance,” the ISU president said. “They packed everything and, with whatever money they had left, they bought a ticket back home, but when they were at the airport, they found out that Mauritius had just closed its borders. It was very difficult. Thankfully, we were able to fundraise a little, and they later were able to stay at the dorms for some time.”

On top of these issues, Gupta said, international students are presented with an additional financial burden on top of the financial recession of COVID. They also have to worry about whether or not they can stay in the U.S. or buy a ticket to their home countries with the risk of deportation. This also includes the fear of passing the risks of possible infection or even not being accepted in their countries due to bans.

International students do not know how many times they might have to fly back and forth, and those plane tickets stack onto the financial, physical and mental burdens a student already has. Additionally, international students face other dilemmas, like debating whether or not to sign a housing lease for the fall term, because of the uncertainty of staying in or leaving the country.

As Gupta elaborated, “I feel like colleges also do not want this federal restriction to happen because, if you look at it from a business perspective, they do not want to lose their international students. I was reading a lot about this and I found that international students contribute around $45 billion to the U.S. economy.”

Carla Pierini, a rising sophomore student from Maracaibo, Venezuela who is majoring in Fashion Design, says that it is impossible for her to go home.

“Venezuela has borders and airports closed. If they deport me, I have nowhere to go. Even if there was a way for me to go back, I would not choose it. I came to the United States because my country has an extreme economic and humanitarian crisis, and with the pandemic, the sanitary situation is even more deplorable.”

Pierini says going back would not only be a risk for her — due to the few repatriation flights back to Venezuela being the incubation site for more cases of the virus inside the country — but also a risk to her family.

“Crime rates in Venezuela are among the highest in the continent and there is also extreme corruption. I could put my family at risk of being robbed or kidnapped because when people there see that someone has returned from abroad, they assume they have money, and that is not our case. I worked really hard to be able to get into a university in the U.S. I had to learn the language and I had to learn the culture,” Pierini explained.

Additionally, Pierini would have to take her classes in a city that cannot guarantee consistent digital connection. After the country entered complete darkness during a nationwide blackout in March 2019, Pierini’s native Maracaibo was without electricity for a whole month and has suffered frequent blackouts ever since.

The country also suffers from one of the slowest internet speeds worldwide, running on 1.2 Mbps. In comparison, the worldwide average ranges between 12 and 25 Mbps, according to data by the Institute of Press and Society.

“Sometimes there are weeks when I am not able to talk with my family because they do not have internet or electricity, and also now this has caused people to steal the electricity cables from the houses. My family has changed their cables due to thefts three times, and the last one was in the last month,” Pierini said. “I understand that the U.S. Government might want to eliminate illegal immigration, but we are not here unlawfully, and if they deport me they would not only ruin my school year, but they would also ruin my future.”

Nikhil Parakh is a rising pre-junior from Kathmandu, Nepal majoring in Software Engineering, and there are also no international flights allowed into his country. Even if he finds a repatriation flight, he will have to stay in a quarantine facility there, which is cataloged as a hotspot for COVID-19 to spread because they are not properly maintained. The facilities have a lot of people packed in one place, not allowing social distancing to be practiced whatsoever.

“This means we cannot stay in the U.S. and we cannot go home. If we make it back to our homes, we don’t know when we will be allowed to come back to the U.S.,” Parakh said. “What people aren’t talking about is the fact that if you stay out of the U.S. for more than five months, your F-1 visa is terminated and the consequences follow.”

The only other option proposed by the SEVP legislation is to transfer schools, but Parakh says this is not feasible at this point.

“If I leave Drexel, I will also lose my scholarship and transfer students are usually not provided with financial aid,” Parakh explained. “Also, how many students can a college take in for in-person classes when the situation clearly says that any type of crowd is a catalyst for the spread of this virus? If the schools reopen, the cases are going to spike up, which is really bad for the administration, students and teachers.”

And yet, ISU’s Gupta still has faith.

“Despite this all, I have faith in Drexel that they will somehow adjust to their international students. They’ve said that we contribute a lot to campus and that they want to be globally engaged, so I hope they stick to these values and respect us,” Gupta said.

As Drexel’s international students hang in the balance, the only option left for Pierini, Parakh and the rest of over 5,000 international students at Drexel University is to wait and see what other measures ISSS, the University and the federal government will take in the coming weeks.