FOR­EIGN STU­DENTS QUES­TION FU­TURE IN U.S. AF­TER PAN­DEMIC, VISA UN­CER­TAIN­TIES

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - BY JADE YAN, STAFF RE­PORTER jyan@sun­times.com | @jadelu­ci­ayan

Grow­ing up in Viet­nam, Seth learned English with hopes of some­day study­ing — and even­tu­ally set­tling — in the United States.

“My whole life has been in the tra­jec­tory that I would ... ul­ti­mately find my life here,” said Seth, who now at­tends school at the Univer­sity of Chicago.

But re­cent events in the U.S. have made Seth and other in­ter­na­tional stu­dents in Chicago ques­tion whether those types of dreams can be re­al­ized. First, the COVID-19 pan­demic hit, forc­ing some for­eign stu­dents to race home to be with their fam­i­lies when cam­puses closed and strand­ing oth­ers who faced travel re­stric­tions. Still other stu­dents, es­pe­cially from China, faced xeno­pho­bia.

Then ear­lier this month, af­ter stu­dents made plans to re­turn to col­lege in the fall, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment an­nounced it was halt­ing COVID-19 ex­emp­tions that had al­lowed in­ter­na­tional stu­dents to take more on­line classes than nor­mal and keep their visas dur­ing the spring and sum­mer.

Seth, who asked that their last name not be in­cluded, be­came at risk of sud­denly be­ing sent back to Viet­nam.

“My folks don’t know at all that I’m trans … [or] that I’m tran­si­tion­ing med­i­cally,” Seth said.

Although the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has since backed down from the plan to drop the ex­emp­tion, Seth said it was an­other in­di­ca­tion that not ev­ery­one here val­ues in­ter­na­tional stu­dents.

“This is just re­veal­ing to me more clearly that the U.S. doesn’t care about me,” Seth said. “I’ve had the inkling, I sup­pose, that life in the U.S. is not as fea­si­ble as I thought it to be, but this is re­ally just bring­ing that home.”

Colom­bian stu­dent chooses to stay home this term

Lau­risa Sas­toque, a stu­dent from Colom­bia who will be a sopho­more at North­west­ern, said while her univer­sity has “made me feel like I mat­ter,” re­cent events gave her “a lot of doubts” — and led her to con­sider whether she would have been bet­ter off stay­ing in her na­tive coun­try and study­ing medicine.

Sas­toque orig­i­nally came to the U.S. to study cre­ative writ­ing, and North­west­ern be­came her dream school af­ter she read NU writ­ing stu­dent Veron­ica Roth’s “Di­ver­gent” se­ries of nov­els.

Sas­toque had to rush back to Colom­bia when the pan­demic forced North­west­ern to move classes on­line in the spring. She was quar­an­tin­ing there when ICE an­nounced its de­ci­sion to end its COVID-19 ex­emp­tions re­gard­ing in­ter­na­tional stu­dent visas, threat­en­ing her re­turn for fall se­mes­ter. If she lost her visa, reap­ply­ing would be tough since the U.S. em­bassy in Colom­bia was closed.

Af­ter the ICE re­stric­tions were lifted, her big­gest worry is COVID-19 — catch­ing it through trav­el­ing in­ter­na­tion­ally or while back in the U.S., where cases have surged. Hav­ing to nav­i­gate the un­fa­mil­iar U.S. health care sys­tem with­out rel­a­tives in close prox­im­ity could take a phys­i­cal and men­tal toll, she said.

“Be­ing alone while sick, and prob­a­bly with med­i­cal bills, that’s not a great sit­u­a­tion to be in,” she said.

In the end, Sas­toque de­cided to stay in

Colom­bia and take her cour­ses re­motely this term.

Scape­goat­ing, xeno­pho­bia ‘in­fu­ri­at­ing’

For Jonic Zhe­hao Zhu, a ris­ing North­west­ern ju­nior from China, ICE’s sud­den an­nounce­ment ear­lier this month of the visa re­stric­tions was mad­den­ing, es­pe­cially be­cause many stu­dents had al­ready made plans for the school year such as hous­ing.

Zhu chose to stay in his dorm and then an apart­ment in Chicago when the pan­demic wors­ened in the U.S., due to the lack of flights home and their cost and the manda­tory twoweek quar­an­tine he would have faced go­ing back to Shang­hai.

When the visa de­ci­sion oc­curred, Zhu spent his time read­ing through ICE web pages and talk­ing to his peers, try­ing to un­der­stand the rules. He de­cided not to dis­cuss the sit­u­a­tion with his fam­ily, who are un­fa­mil­iar with the po­lit­i­cal and im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem here.

“Dis­cussing [it] with my fam­ily would just freak them out,” said Zhu.

What’s more, Zhu says it’s been up­set­ting to see con­cerns raised about for­eign stu­dents as the out­break spread from China across the globe ear­lier this year.

China did not do “a good job dis­clos­ing its cases at the start of the year, yet Trump’s fail­ure of man­ag­ing the is­sue in the U.S. is even more ob­nox­ious,” he said. “Scape­goat­ing and con­tin­ued acts of xeno­pho­bia such as the ICE guid­ance are in­fu­ri­at­ing.”

But he hopes to con­tinue his ed­u­ca­tion in the U.S., say­ing that he came here “for the ro­bust­ness of the higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, not for the po­lit­i­cal at­mos­phere.”

Ris­ing North­west­ern sopho­more Tan­isha Tekri­wal, who is from In­dia, said the un­cer­tainty caused by the ICE an­nounce­ment stopped in­ter­na­tional stu­dents from “mak­ing big, per­sonal de­ci­sions” like avoid­ing in­per­son classes out of con­cern for their health.

She noted that de­bates around the value of for­eign stu­dents felt “de­hu­man­iz­ing,” with many schools dis­cussing in­ter­na­tional stu­dents in fi­nan­cial terms based on how much money they bring in tu­ition rev­enues to U.S. col­leges.

To Tekri­wal, be­ing an in­ter­na­tional stu­dent of­ten feels like be­ing “a last-minute ad­di­tion.”

“A lot of things just aren’t de­signed for us,” she said.

Jonic Zhe­hao Zhu, who is from China, is a ju­nior at North­west­ern Univer­sity. PAT NABONG/SUN-TIMES

Lau­risa Sas­toque

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