As Monday's deadline looms ahead for undergraduate students to pick between online or in-person courses, international students say they feel ill-equipped to choose what their fall semester will look like.
All Purdue students must make the choice between online or in-person courses in the fall by next Monday for undergraduates or July 15 for graduate students, according to Purdue policies. This is the updated deadline, after the previous deadline of Wednesday was moved back to “give students additional time to make this decision.” per the Protect Purdue FAQ.
The Protect Purdue webpage states that students who choose the in-person option by the deadline will not be able to switch to the online option after the deadline, specifically even if travel restrictions arise between then and the fall semester. So if students pick the in-person option but then aren’t able to enter the U.S., they still can’t change to online courses.
This deadline has produced more challenges for international students, the students say. By Monday, students have to decide if they want to risk taking the online option and possibly losing their visa status, or find a way to get back to campus and risk their health flying and attending in-person courses.
When the pandemic began, the federal Student and Exchange Visitor Program in coordination with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement adjusted its policies to allow international students to take courses online, while maintaining their full-time status as a student.
Previously, international students were allowed to only apply three credits worth of online courses to their full-time student status.
The agency still hasn’t released guidance for schools on whether or not the change allowing international students to take online courses will remain in the fall, according to an email from the SEVP.
“SEVP has not issued guidance to international students and schools for the fall semester,” the email stated. “We understand international students and schools have questions, and SEVP is actively working to issue guidance. In the meantime, the temporary procedural adaptions that permit international students to engage in remote learning are still in place through the summer session.”
Keshav Agarwal, an international student from India who had planned to enter his sophomore year in the College of Engineering, said he is worried about his options for the fall.
Agarwal said he was leaning toward the in-person option, and felt excited to be back at Purdue. Now though he fears that flights may not allow for him to come back in time for the fall, since India has an international flight ban until at least July 15.
Depending on what is released by the Indian government, he said he may have to defer another semester, risking issues with his visa status and delaying his time to graduation.
He has also reached out to Purdue’s ISS three times over the past three weeks and has yet to get a response regarding his concerns, according to emails provided to The Exponent.
“Until the 15th of July international flights are suspended, and they haven’t really released any guidelines about opening it back up again,” Agarwal said.
He studies aerospace engineering, and he said that while most of his classes were offered in the online course catalog, he doubts the policy which was especially adjusted for online courses by the SEVP following the pandemic will continue in the fall, and he would prefer to attend in-person if possible anyway.
Agarwal said that moving the deadline back again, even just a week, would help him because he is hopeful he will hear something soon on restrictions lifting to allow him to get back to West Lafayette.
“The July 6 deadline is fast approaching and I am no closer to making a decision than I was three weeks ago,” Agarwal said in his most recent email to ISS Wednesday morning.
Purdue ISS held an Instagram Q&A session in June to discuss some of students’ concerns.
“If you would like to maintain your F-1 visa status you would be required to be on campus taking classes,” the account said in a post to its Instagram story.
The account for ISS further reiterated how international students are allowed to take only three credits of online courses out of their full-time course load.
“Currently there is no exception. This is why ISS sent an email in the spring that recommended students not leave,” the account said in response to one student’s concerns, who provided screenshots to The Exponent.
The Instagram Q&A was not highlighted on the page, so all of the account's answers disappeared after 24 hours.
The ISS office currently does not have enough information to respond to any questions related to Fall 2020 international student enrollment, Director Christine Collins said in an email.
Purdue isn’t the only university that’s expressed uncertainty in its fall plans for international students.
The Ohio State University’s office of international affairs has released multiple statements and FAQs about the fall semester. On its international student affairs website, the statements said that the university isn’t sure what will be announced by SEVP, but is willing to work with students who would prefer the online option.
OSU said on its website that it will send out an announcement to students via email as soon as it receives further guidance from SEVP.
Indiana University responded similarly. Marah Yankey, senior news and media specialist for IU, said that currently there is no university credit limit for international students taking online courses.
“For the spring and summer the government provided flexibility on that rule,” Yankey said. “They haven’t released an official announcement about the fall yet, but OIS anticipates that it will be the same.”
The International Services at IU provided “emotional support with advising appointments on Zoom or by phone call,” Yankey said, keeping international students there connected with the university so they can talk about concerns with visa status and other anxieties students may have.
“(The Office of International Students) has continued to communicate regularly with both current and incoming international students by sharing messages of support, letting them know advisers are available for meetings to answer their questions, updating them on changes to our admission processes and reinforcing broader messaging about the new academic calendar.”
The ISS office at Purdue explained possible consequences for international students who left the country in an announcement from Collins on March 17.
“If you do or do not choose to relocate, you must continue to pursue your degree objectives full-time for the remainder of the spring semester to maintain your student visa status,” the announcement reads. “If you relocate from your current on- or off-campus residence, you must update your address via the myISS portal; If you choose to exit the United States, please keep in mind that you may be restricted from reentering to resume your educational objectives during the summer or fall semester.
“If you are unable to return for the fall semester, our office would be required to end your current visa status. If this happens, we will be prepared to assist you in regaining your status when you are able to return to campus,” the announcement said.
Collins also shared some advice for international students who were finding the situation stressful.
“During this time of planned self-isolation, it is important to stay virtually connected to friends, family, fellow students and your university resources. Stay focused on your educational objectives; limit your exposure to news related to the negative impact of the current environment; make a point to fit regular physical activity into your daily schedule; engage with your affinity groups remotely; seek out mental health resources, if needed; call your health care provider if you exhibit any of the COVID-19 symptoms; reach out to others if you have food insecurity; and do your best to maintain a positive state of mind,” the announcement continued.
“This is an unprecedented time, but it is not insurmountable. Self-care first, then care for others.”