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'An Entirely Different Universe’: International Students Anticipate Challenges in Returning to Campus in the Fall

Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana sent a survey to international students Friday to gauge the challenges they expect to face in the fall.
Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana sent a survey to international students Friday to gauge the challenges they expect to face in the fall. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Juliet E. Isselbacher and Amanda Y. Su, Crimson Staff Writers

As Harvard undergraduates anticipate the format of the fall semester, international students say they will likely have to navigate shifting border restrictions and visa delays.

Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana sent a survey to international students Friday to gauge the challenges they expect to face in the fall.

The short survey first asks students to mark both their current place of residence and the country or jurisdiction where they expect to live should they be unable to return to campus.

The survey also asks whether students would wish to return to campus if Harvard continues online learning in the fall but allows a small number of individual students to return. Students could cite personal reasons, such as their living situation making it difficult to study, and academic reasons, such as their research requiring on-campus resources.

Finally, the survey asks if there are factors “outside of Harvard’s control” that students anticipate will prevent them from returning to campus this fall. The options include travel restrictions, visa issues, health issues, and other challenges.

David A. Paffenholz ’22, an international student from Germany, said he worries that if the United States maintains its ban on travel from nearly all European countries next semester, he would be unable to return to campus in the fall.

“There's a lot of students in this situation, a lot of F1 visa holders. I expect the government to hopefully realize that it’s a common problem and allow students to come in,” he said. “In Germany, if you have a student visa, you are allowed to enter the country right now. Something similar for the U.S. would be nice.”

Barbara A. Oedayrajsingh Varma ’21, a student from the Netherlands, and Justas Jasevicius ’21, a student from Lithuania, said they have similar concerns about the European travel ban.

Other students face the opposite problem: their home country has restricted travel to and from the U.S.

Noah N. Furlonge-Walker ’23, who hails from Trinidad and Tobago, said the country’s borders are currently closed to the U.S.

“There are no commercial flights running. So even if I wanted to leave now, I don't think I could,” he said.

Furlonge-Walker added he is hopeful flights will start in time for the fall semester, should undergraduates be invited to return to campus.

“They've made it very clear that if you would like to leave the country in the next couple of months, they won’t stop you from leaving,” he said. “It's just people coming in that they have more of a problem with.”

Aside from fluctuating border restrictions and flight schedules, international students said they also have to contend with visa issues. Even under normal circumstances, students have to navigate long bureaucratic processes in order to come to Cambridge.

Ran Bi ’22, who is currently living at home in China, said his F1 student visa will expire if he lives outside the U.S. for more than five months. Though he would technically exceed this 5-month period by the start of the fall semester, he said he feels confident the University will work with the federal government to be flexible about this technicality if undergraduates return to campus.

However, if the fall classes resume online, Bi said international students may be forced to exceed the five-month period out of the U.S.

“If the classes were to be online the entire year, next year, I think probably us international students would be running into some visa issues,” he said.

Fabrizio Serafini ’23, who currently lives at home in Italy, said it was imperative for international students to be back on campus in the fall, not just logistically but also emotionally.

International students can feel especially “lonely” and alienated off-campus, he explained.

“If you're American, maybe university life is different from your life at home, but it's not that different,” he said. “I live in Italy, where it’s an entirely different universe.”

Serafini said that though he believes the University is working hard on behalf of international students, some governmental policies are beyond its reach.

“There are certain things such as immigration which are totally out of their control,” he said.

Oedayrajsingh Varma, who is co-president of the Woodbridge International Society, said the organization is working on communicating international students’ concerns about the fall term to administrators.

Tuzo Mulunda ’23, an international student from Kenya, said she hopes Harvard will lobby the State Department to facilitate students’ visa renewals and loosen travel restrictions.

Earlier this month, University President Lawrence S. Bacow wrote to Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad F. Wolf urging the federal government to enact “forward-thinking immigration policies.”

Bacow also appealed for a number of changes — such as waiving in-person interviews — as the government gears up to resume visa processing and work through backlogs that have accrued during the coronavirus pandemic.

The letter anticipated an Executive Order from President Donald J. Trump that would temporarily bar certain nonimmigrant categories from entering the United States, and then alter work authorization policies for students, scholars, and H1-B visa holders, according to the Harvard International Office.

Correction: July 8, 2020

A previous version of this article misstated the middle name of Barbara A. Oedayrajsingh Varma ’21.

—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at juliet.isselbacher@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.

—Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at amanda.su@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.

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