Foreign students question future in U.S. after pandemic, visa uncertainties

“This is just revealing to me more clearly that the U.S. doesn’t care about me,” one student from Vietnam said of the events of 2020.

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Jonic Zhehao Zhu, 21, at Northwestern University. Zhu, who is from Shanghai, is a chemistry major and a junior at Northwestern University’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

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.”

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Laurisa Sastoque, 18, who is a rising sophomore at Northwestern from Colombia.

Provided by Laurisa Sastoque

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.

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. healthcare 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 and 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 two-week 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 in-person 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.

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