When UE resumed in-person classes this fall, most students’ return depended solely on a reopened campus. But for a number of international students, travel restrictions and other obstacles related to COVID meant another year learning from the other side of the world.
Sama Matkari, a senior majoring in studio art, visual design and communication, has been taking UE classes from her home in Mumbai, India since August. “When COVID hit, I had to go stay with my aunt in San Francisco because there was no way for me to get back home–no flights or anything–and I couldn’t stay in Evansville anymore. But after the summer, because I have asthma, I decided I would come back home,” Matkari said. Although she intended to be back on campus this spring and had even purchased plane tickets, an international treaty was passed banning multi-stop flights, keeping her in Mumbai for another semester.
For Matkari, the most challenging part of distance learning has been the time difference between the U.S and India, a factor domestic UE students didn’t have to consider even while learning from home last spring. For instance, one of Matkari’s classes meets at 6 p.m. Central Daylight Time, which is 4:30 a.m. India Standard Time.
Flight restrictions haven’t been the only COVID precaution to prevent international students from returning to Evansville. Certain student visas need to be renewed every two years for holders to enter the U.S., but because embassies have been closed in many countries, some students were unable to schedule the visa appointments required for reentry.
For other international students, embassy closures caused more pressing concerns. Some of those students with a clock ticking on their visa opted to stay in the U.S. through the spring lockdown and into the summer rather than risk visa complications going home. But for students without friends or family in the U.S. willing to take them in for the summer, COVID was an unplanned expense.
“We had those who could not leave, who could not get flights home, and perhaps they lived off campus and their lease was expiring. We were working as an institution to help find places for these students to stay…Also, feeding themselves. International students can’t generally work without authorization,” Kate Hogan, Director of Cultural Engagement and International Student Services, said.
Fortunately, the university was able to tap into the Student Emergency Fund to partially or fully assist students through their pandemic-induced financial crises. “The Student Emergency Fund was one of the projects highlighted during Pep and Vim this year and is funded entirely by philanthropy–it truly is a saving grace for students experiencing unexpected hardship or tragedy,” Hogan said. This funding is available to both international and domestic students.
Travel restrictions and visa barriers have also impacted international student admissions. Kaylyn McCallister, International Admission and Program Specialist, said that while the number of international applicants wasn’t significantly lower than in other recent years, many decided to defer their admission when they realized they couldn’t travel to the U.S. Others spent the first semester or year of their American college experience in their home country.
But in spite of these challenges, distance learning has also opened up new opportunities. While Matkari said that she would rather be on campus, she also appreciates the individualized instruction she has received in her painting classes, where she is the only virtual student. McCallister said that hosting SOAR and other information sessions online has allowed more international students to participate in pre-semester events that are usually only accessible to domestic students. Although the pandemic created unique obstacles for international students, the staff who work with them were committed to helping clear the way for their education and wellbeing.