Immigration and Customs Enforcement had announced that international students must take some of their classes in-person. If not, they could be deported from the United States. The Trump Administration just rescinded that decision. But many international students continue to face uncertainty during COVID-19.
When he first saw the news from ICE, Sina Tayebati thought he might be getting deported back to Iran. He’s a graduate student studying mechanical engineering at Northern Illinois University.
“It was so terrifying for all of us, for me and for my family, because we have spent a lot of money and we have invested a lot for me to come here,” he said.
Amin Roostaee felt the same way, he was shocked. He’s a graduate student in the same department.
“I'm in the middle of my research. And when I saw this news, I wondered, ‘Oh, what are we doing here? What would come to my research here?’ And if you believe it or not, I barely slept because of this news. It’s really embarrassing.”
They were told their classes would be online this fall. But, with the sudden ICE announcement,
departments are scrambling to convert courses to be partially in-person.
Ashiqur Rahman is from Bangladesh. He says his fellow computer science students were told to prepare for online classes. But he’s still concerned because a lot of people in his department are from India.
“I know many of them went back home. And they can't really come back in right now because there are no flights or anything.”
During the spring semester, Northern Illinois University had about 800 international students, mostly in graduate programs. Only 20% of them went home during the pandemic, according to the International Student & Scholar Services office.
Many couldn’t go home due to travel restrictions. Others couldn’t find a plane ticket. Stephanie Brown, the director of the international student office, said Chinese students couldn’t get tickets for less than $5,000.
Iranian students, like Amin and Sina, didn’t have much choice. They’re on F-1 single-entry visas. And now they’re scared if they were deported, that there’s no way for them to get back and finish school.
International students stuck in the U.S during COVID-19 have faced a host of other issues.
Some NIU international students are struggling just to pay for rent and groceries. They’ve had help from the university: mostly through a $500 emergency fund, and some tuition reimbursement.
There are students who say the university and international student office should be more responsive. Pheanusa Ty is an undergrad student from Cambodia. “If I were to be honest, they haven't responded to me since I sent them an email a month ago,” he said.
It’s stressful to be stranded in a foreign country during a pandemic. Amin Roostaee said some haven’t seen their families in a long time.
“I have been here for two years without seeing my father and my family,’’ he said. “Yeah, it's a very sad story. But, you know, we have to overcome these hardships to get our degree here.”
So, he said, a weekly email from the university would be nice.
International students depend on their universities for more than just education -- work, too.
“A local student can have a job in McDonald's or Starbucks, we can't have that,” Rahman said.
They have to work at their university. Many are graduate researchers and teaching assistants.
Most grad assistant contracts ended in the spring and jobs are sparse in the summer.
Amin Roostaee has a contract and has been working, but said he still hasn’t been paid. He was told his payment could be processed in mid-July, but he’s not sure of it.
In the meantime, students are dipping into already slim savings. And, because of sanctions on Iran, Amin’s family can’t even send him money.
Sina Tayebati has no contract, but has still been working over 20 hours, handling meetings and
working on his thesis research.
“It is totally okay because it is my project, it’s going to be my thesis and I want to work on that. I don't want to waste any time, but at least we expect our advisors or generally the university to support us when we are working for the university without getting paid,” he said.
He’s hoping to get a teaching assistant position to make money in the fall, but there’s no guarantee. Even if he does, he’ll work for more than a month before he gets his first check.
COVID-19 has also made life very difficult for international students who just graduated. Normally, they’ll have 60 to 90 days to find a job. But, with many being laid off or unable to find work, time is running out and their immigration status can be put in jeopardy.
Lisa Dietrich is the executive director of Network of Nations. It’s a nonprofit assisting international students. She says some of them are concerned about housing and are running out of money.
“They have gone back to live with friends because that is their community, NIU is their community....Give them grace,’’ she said. “The stress on them is huge.”
Dietrich is calling on Illinois lawmakers to help extend that time, called Optional Practical Training. She said, in a perfect world, they’d give students until the end of the year.
Sina Tayebati said the whole situation, especially the ICE deportation threat, is tragic for international students who can already feel a little isolated in the U.S.
“We were smart enough to be able to get the opportunity to come to this great country and have this opportunity to continue our studies. So, we are all in the same situation, and I believe that we should be treated as the same,” he said.
It’s uncertain how many new international students will make it to U.S. universities when they reopen next month.