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Students across campus were shocked by Harvard’s unprecedented decision to transition to virtual instruction and require students to leave campus by Sunday, March 15 as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. But for international students, the news was particularly worrisome, with concerns ranging from securing visas and immigration statuses to coordinating housing and travel plans.
An open letter from Harvard Undergraduates for Decent and Urgent Accommodations — a newly formed student group — said the news sparked “raging” questions from international students at the College and University.
“As of now, questions are raging about international students on this campus, and how the aforementioned 5-day deadline will affect them,” the petition read.
Chin-I “Teddy” Lin ’23, who is from Taiwan, called Tuesday's news “surreal."
“Today is a little bit surreal for me. I was sleeping in bed. My roommate woke me up and he was like, ‘Teddy, you need to see this email.’”
The Harvard International Office sent an email to international students Tuesday assuring them that their immigration status would not be impacted, as long as they kept up with their online course work.
“Government guidance issued yesterday assures us that international students can participate in online classes without concern for their immigration status, provided they continue to make normal progress in a full course of study as required by federal regulations,” the email read.
But some students are still concerned about visas for future internships. David A. Paffenholz ’22, who is from Germany, said that despite the guidance from the University, there were “a lot of unanswered questions.”
“In one international group chat, some things that were being asked about how things such as like visa permission are going to be handled, whether we still count as full time students while the college goes on pause, whether our like visas for summer internships are still open, whether we can still apply for them,” he said.
Michael D. Conner, a spokesperson for Campus Services, said students with concerns about working in the U.S. this summer should contact their advisor at the International Office.
Paffenholz said the International Office was a “chaotic scene” earlier Tuesday. Still, he applauded their efforts.
“The International Office staff was really trying their best and handling it quite well,” he said.
Students can request an exception to campus closure through an online portal application, which is due at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, March. 11.
The application notes that “there will be no automatically pre-approved category of exception,” though exceptions will be considered for students who “reside in countries where a travel ban has been announced” and “who reside in countries currently at a Level 3 coronavirus threat level.”
Doh Hyoung “Daniel” Kim ’21, who is from South Korea, said that he has concerns about staying on campus, given increasing numbers of coronavirus cases in the United States.
“In countries like Korea or China, the epidemic seems to have reached its peak already, although we're not too sure, and it's starting to wind down and the number of new cases are decreasing. But here in the U.S., it seems like the government isn't really feeling the urgency,” Kim said.
“There is the kind of worry that like, even if I stay here, what if the epidemic blows up here while back in my home, things are getting better?” he added.
Noah N. Furlonge-Walker ’23, who lives in Trinidad and Tobago, said that he was worried that the island nation would not be “well equipped” to handle a potential outbreak of COVID-19.
“I'm just kind of battling that now, over what is really the safest decision to make — whether to stay or to go back home,” Furlonge-Walker said.
Satoshi Yanaizu ’23 said he believes that by requiring him to return to Japan, which the Centers for Disease Control has rated a Level Two in risk, the University is increasing risks to his health.
“It might be even more given that, like, the town I'm from, we have like 70 cases already, the same as the entire state of Massachusetts,” he said. “Even if I go back, I have no guarantee I will be in a safer environment. It might be even worse.”
College spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in an email that the College will review applications to remain on campus “as soon as possible.”
“The College will review all applications and announce decisions as soon as possible, which will include information on the length of stay for students,” Dane wrote. “We are committed to ensuring that each case receives the full attention it deserves, while also remaining mindful of students' need to get an answer quickly.”
After the University’s announcement, international students also raised concerns about their ability to take their belongings home.
Paffenholz said he was worried about the potential cost of shipping his belongings back to his home in Germany. The College is not providing any on-campus storage, according to faculty dean emails.
“I'm not quite sure on why that's the case, particularly given that we have to take out everything and are able to store it here,” he said. “For people who live nearby, it's easy to put it in a car, but shipping it back to Germany really isn't quite flexible.”
Students also voiced apprehension about completing their virtual classes given time differences.
Yanaizu said that he is concerned about his ability to complete coursework online if sent back home to Japan.
“Let's say I have to go back to Japan. That means its a 13 hour time difference. When you guys are taking the actual session, I should be sleeping,” he said. “My worry is, if the class takes attendance, will it still take attendance into account? I can't be physically present at the same time so how do they deal with it?”
Paffenholz echoed these worries, particularly for his tutorial, “where participation is quite critical.”
Conner wrote in an email that individual faculty will communicate “expectations, formats, and necessary modalities to the students in their courses.”
“Faculty have received guidance about planning for remote teaching and are being supported in the different forms that may take,” he said. “Many courses can move to an online modality through existing tools, like Canvas and Zoom, without significant disruption.”
Correction: March 11, 2020
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that housing exemption forms were due Wednesday, March 10. In fact, Wednesday was March 11.
—Staff writer Ellen M. Burstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ellenburstein.
—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.
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