Struggling to Thrive: SAIS International Students in the COVID-19 Era

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By Qianrong Ding

After a month of distance learning in this new semester, people seem to have been used to the particular circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic– and they may start enjoying the benefits it brings. But problems are not solved yet. With so much uncertainty, international students – a significant component of the SAIS community – face complications.

Made a cup of coffee, clicked the zoom link, opened up the webcam and microphone. Faces showed up on the screen. With her neat appearance and bright lights in the room, no one would have known that Sheryl just got up before the class at 2:50 a.m. Beijing time.

In March, students realized that SAIS canceled in-person classes for all students after spring break, anxious uncertainty spread among SAIS students. Sheryl Liu, a second-year IPE student, was one of those worrying about whether SAIS would continue to operate online this fall. After careful considerations, Sheryl flew to China during the summer vacation, and, despite the 12-hour time difference, she decided to take virtual classes at home. 

Indeed, things are not as easy as they seem. Far and away, taking virtual classes with a 12-hour time difference represents the first challenge students face. Taking the course from 3:00 to 5:30 p.m. EST, Sheryl once chose to turn off the webcam and go to sleep – “I was too sleepy to understand the things the professor said, and I went to bed at 4:00 a.m.. The good thing is that I can review the recording of the class” she said. 

While many international students have issues with the time difference, those in mainland China face a unique challenge: the country’s firewall has restricted internet access to certain websites, including widely-used Google products and services. To get around the firewall, students have to use virtual private networks (VPNs) – most of them are paid services. Although SAIS has provided a VPN for accessing online materials, it is unstable in China. “Problems come with the unreliable internet,” Sheryl said, “I also have problems gaining access to Blackboard and downloading materials.” 

Go back home or remain in the United States? This tradeoff is haunting international students. For those who stay in the United States, the problem is how to maximize the study abroad experience. Most international students will try to find a job or internship, yet this becomes increasingly challenging in several aspects.

Due to the unexpected COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations canceled their internship programs, throwing international students applying for those opportunities into chaos.“I was one of the students trying to get an internship for this summer,” Yubin Huh said, a second-year IPE concentrator, “but many internships I have applied to abruptly got canceled, and considering the limited availability of internships, that was a challenge for my case.”

While many international students struggle to get a job or internship, some students encounter another problem. Chenyu Wu, a second-year Southeast Asia Studies concentrator, is now a research intern with the BowerGroupAsia. As an international student, he needed to apply for a social security number (SSN) by submitting materials in-person once offered the off-campus internship position. However, federal offices had been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic since March, and they have reopened in late July for limited appointments and dire need situations only.

“I got this internship in March, and I found that there was no way to apply for SSN like before the pandemic. Facing for the first time this issue, the Johns Hopkins Office of International Services (OIS) could not provide any help. And the SSN office did not respond to this particular difficulty international students had but suggested me to keep waiting.” Chenyu said.

At the end of July, Chenyu successfully contacted a local office, which made an exception to allow him to visit and submit materials. But soon, Chenyu found another issue,  “because of the pandemic, the capacity of the SSA office was weakened, and I was told that my documents were lost.” Fortunately, Chenyu was allowed to keep the position for three months, and he finally got his SSN at almost the last moment.

Yet, getting an internship in the United States seems not the last challenge for international students to handle. On September 24, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced a proposed rule to establish a fixed period of stay for international students, exchange visitors, and foreign information media representatives. This has spurred extensive discussion among SAIS international students. Under the proposed rule, international students holding F-1 or J-1 Visa could only stay in the United States for a period up to their program’s end date, not to exceed four years. Once it takes effect, this rule will destroy international students’ dreams of pursuing a doctoral degree or finding jobs in the United States. “This decision to prevent international students from staying in the US brought further confusion as I thought of immediately selling my furniture right away and leave.” Yubin Huh said.

Compared to staying in the United States, international students seem to have quite a few advantages at the Bologna campus. Regarding study experience, Hayden Hubbard, the SGA Bologna Representative for this year, said: “Italy has opened up more than the US in some ways. And there are students there and live events, so they actually get the full student experience!”

However, international students in the Bologna campus also face challenges finding a job in this challenging time. Although SAIS provides various job opportunities, they are inside the United States and thus require Optional Practical Training (OPT), a 12-month work authorization available to F-1 international students. To qualify for OPT, students must have been full-time students for at least two consecutive semesters in the United States. This poses problems for international students who may not be physically inside the United States due to COVID-19. “For second-year students, the focus shifts to start looking for employment,” said a second-year international student who has been stuck at the Bologna campus due to COVID-19. “Considering that international students won’t be eligible for the OPT anymore, career services can help in finding opportunities outside the US too.”

With the anxious uncertainty, it is understandable that SAIS may not make any promises in dealing with these problems international students are facing. Nevertheless, SAIS still has some choices to improve the learning experience for international students. Some students suggested that SAIS faculty could have more coffee hours with international students to hear from their stories. And above all, the SAIS career center could provide more career options for international students. SAIS cannot tackle challenges all at once, and they even will persist in this COVID-19 pandemic, but we should not take them for granted.

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