When Tommaso Babucci, a recent Duke University graduate from Italy, sat down to take his first-ever college exam—an economics class—he could barely understand a single word. He had been educated in his native Italian all his life. “I did my best,” he said, “and got 10 percent.”
On May 11, Babucci graduated with distinctions in his major, economics, and celebrated with mojitos on his professor’s porch—the same professor who had administered the indecipherable exam four years ago. His time in the United States “changed the person I am,” he said.
As an international student in the United States myself, I deeply felt Tommaso’s story; within it, I could hear echoes of my own. Yet despite the good news, neither of us could escape the heaviness of the circumstances we shared. While the coronavirus forced me back home to South Korea, it had left Babucci on a campus that resembled something from “a post-apocalyptic movie.” He graduated alone, his classmates and family watching on a screen. He’s still living on Duke’s near-emptied campus. He couldn’t return home in March when several of his family members had contracted the virus, and with the knowledge that leaving—with two uncertain job offers on the line—meant taking the risk of not returning to a country he has grown to love, and where he hopes to stay.
“I really can’t look back and say I didn’t want any of this,” Babucci said.“But depending on how all of this goes, I don’t know if it was worth all the pain.”
Ever since the pandemic hit, colleges have faced one difficult reckoning after another. First, there was the reality check of inequalities among student bodies, as moving online demonstrated stark contrasts in students’ home lives. Then, there was the debate on whether an online education was worth the price of full tuition. Discussions about the fall semester have followed, joining the ever-growing chorus on how the pandemic has upended long-held perceptions of higher education in the United States.
Yet as the nation now broils with protests that concern—among a multitude of issues—notions of inclusion and acceptance, there is another pertinent reckoning at stake: that of the future of over a million international students in the United States, whose relationships with the country, as a consequence of the pandemic, have shifted in unforeseen ways.
“The coronavirus is waking everybody up in the international community,” said Babucci. “We’re realizing that this is not the best country in which to be an international student.”
For students like Babucci, the sudden need to return home back in March—or rather, their inability to do so—highlighted unique challenges as airlines limited flights, countries closed their borders, and, for those who were able to return, class times were thrown into disarray.
Anay Mehta, a UCLA freshman from Dubai, flew home a week after the school announced that it would virtualize the spring quarter. The same day, flights to Dubai were suspended indefinitely. “If my flight was on the next day,” he told me from his family home, “I wouldn’t have been able to come back.”
Given the time difference between Dubai and California, Mehta’s classes now start at 7 pm one day and end at 5 am the next. While he attends some of his classes live to enjoy “the benefit of the chat,” which allows him to ask questions in real-time, he watches others as recordings during more reasonable hours.
Meanwhile, in Illinois, Northwestern University freshman Jack Ke from Guangzhou, China, has been on the opposite end of the bind: with flights home costing up to $4,000, and a travel ban in place for foreign nationals entering the United States from China, his family decided it’d be best for him to stay put. “You’re all by yourself if you don’t go back,” he told me. Through the small window of the Zoom chat, I could see him sitting alone in his dorm room. His building, usually home to 70 students, now houses two.
Neither Mehta nor Ke had imagined this was how their freshman years would end. But despite the dissimilarities in their circumstances, they were united in their resignation over the fall. Many students have decided to take time off, in the hopes of enjoying a “normal” academic year. For Mehta, and other international students, the decision is much more complicated. “We don’t know how that would affect our visas,” he said.
Taking a leave can be a convoluted process for international students, who are required to update their student visas should they change the duration of their studies. Yet given the indefinite suspension of routine visa services at all US embassies and consulates as a result of the pandemic, doing so could risk their ability to return to school anytime soon.
“We hope that the university is not going to abandon us but make ways for us to study with the other students on campus,” said Ke. He had sacrificed a visit home to be one of those on-campus students; I found it striking that he kept using the first-person plural.
Stuck in Illinois, he drifts between his view of Michigan Lake and scenes from China he vicariously experiences through his friends’ social media feeds, sometimes finding himself, despite his physical location, where he wishes to be.
For incoming freshmen and new graduate students, visa concerns are already acute. Hannah Guo, a recently graduated high school senior in Hong Kong, planned on starting at Pomona College in August. Today the Hong Kong consulate remains closed, and Guo is faced with a tough decision: to choose between a possibly virtual semester and a gap year, which may end up—due to there being no guarantee of a spot in 2021—becoming two.
“I feel like it’s important to meet new people in person, and really get that college experience,” said Guo. Yet she recognizes the risks of a prematurely repopulated campus, and the possibility she might not get her visa in time. “Right now, I just have to wait and see,” she added. “But if I want to take a gap year, I don’t have that much time to wait and see. I need to be making my decision pretty soon.”
A thousand miles away, You Jin Kim—who was planning to start her doctoral degree at Princeton University this fall—is facing a similar dilemma. When she applied for a visa interview at the US consulate in South Korea, where she lives, the earliest date available was in October, two months after the start of her program.
Yet Kim is eager to try to make things work. “In the United States, everything is, in my opinion, the best,” she told me. Kim, a theater fan, studies literature from the Spanish Golden Age—the “most fluorescent age for theater,” she explained—which, especially among South Korean graduate students, isn’t a typical academic path. In the United States, however, “there are many more people to share opinions with and much more interest regarding the backgrounds that people have. I want to put myself in a situation where there is more diversity.”
As a fellow international student, I understood how Kim felt. Despite what popular memes and stereotypes suggest, the international student community in the United States is far from a uniform monolith: We represent a kaleidoscope of socioeconomic, racial, and national identities that we carry with us into the country, harboring varied hopes in our hearts.
But from conversations with friends and reflections on my own experiences, I’ve come to realize that one of our shared identities, beyond our legal status, is a desire to experience this principle of diversity so celebrated in the United States. In the United States, many of us feel like we can be and achieve anything, even as foreigners. On Princeton’s campus alone, I’ve witnessed international students become activists, valedictorians, and even a university trustee.
There is no doubt that the vibrant symbiosis between international and domestic enriches the nation’s campus communities. This dynamic has become especially salient when we are at risk of losing it.
As the pandemic wreaks havoc on the economy, President Trump announced on Twitter back in April that he would “temporarily suspend” immigration to the United States to protect jobs for US citizens. As part of this initiative, there is speculation that the Trump administration might place restrictions on the Optional Practical Training program, which allows students on academic visas to remain in the country for up to three years after graduation.
Babucci, despite having graduated in the nick of time, was devastated to see the news. “It makes no sense to be here anymore,” he said, “because it’s so hard to succeed as an international student. We are getting opportunities, but we’re not getting a system that supports us in achieving what we want to achieve.”
Being an economics major, he emphasized the significance of international students to the US economy. In 2018, the United States Department of Commerce found that foreign students—many of whom pay higher tuition fees and pay in full—contributed close to $45 billion to the US economy. It’s no secret that many colleges rely on revenue made from international students who can afford rising tuition bills, which means that a drop in their enrollment could potentially have long-lasting impacts on the higher education system.
Ke had always intended to return to China after graduation. But he had also hoped to gain some work experience in the United States, a prospect that now—given both the pandemic and the recent diplomatic spats between the United States and China—seems unlikely. In late May, the Trump administration barred entry to thousands of Chinese graduate students with ties to universities affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army.
Although Ke, as an undergraduate, has not been affected, “it’s devastating for a lot of people,” he said. He used a Chinese saying to describe how he felt, roughly translating, into English: “A grain of ash from an era, when falling on an individual’s head, can feel like a mountain.”
The pandemic has ushered in an era unforeseen and overwhelming to the nation’s college students. Its corollaries may seem inevitable to some, even necessary for others. Yet when I logged off from Zoom after my call with Ke, as I did when I said goodbye to Mehta, Guo, Kim, and Babucci, I could feel the weight of their mountains upon my own.
The question now is how we’ll approach the climb.