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Credit: Ava Cruz

Visa expiration, limited airlines, no government-sponsored healthcare —international students are especially hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. As if these students didn’t have enough trouble, the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently exacerbated their predicament by reversing its previous exemptions for Fall 2020. 

According to the July 6 ICE memo, international students under Penn’s hybrid model must take at least one class in-person to maintain their nonimmigrant student status — also known as F-1 status. When Penn reverts to online learning after Thanksgiving, international students will be forced to leave the US to take a full course of study. 

The new guidance also has career impacts. A valid F-1 status is a prerequisite to Curricular Practical Training (CPT), a license for foreign students’ internship in the US. As a result, upperclassmen are especially anxious that they might lose eligibility to work in the US next summer. 

In response, Penn International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) promised in an email that “Penn is currently assessing which classes will be offered in-person during the fall 2020 semester” to help students fulfill the requirements of valid immigration status. But this statement only shows that the Penn administration misunderstands students’ predicament. Many foreign students can barely travel to the US, much less attend in-person classes. Notably, students from over 30 countries must go through a two-week quarantine in a third country before entering the US, only to be made to leave again in November. 

Equally prohibitive is the suspension of routine Visa services abroad. In Beijing, for example, no visa appointment is available until October — in other cities, only emergency appointments can be made. This, along with skyrocketing air ticket rates, makes coming to the US nearly impossible for many international students. While expanding on-campus class capacity, Penn should also explore off-campus options for international students. 

One possible solution is to “Go Local,” meaning that students would attend local universities in their country or region. Cornell University, for example, partnered with a dozen institutions worldwide. Usually, students live together in designated residence halls or shared apartments outside campus. While keeping up with Cornell’s coursework through online learning, students would take one to two courses on a local campus, often with access to campus facilities and extracurricular activities.

Go Local has gained traction among universities with a strong international presence. Penn State, UConn, and Wake Forest have announced their Fall 2020 partners. Berkeley’s Chancellor, Carol Christ, said in an email to parents that Berkeley is “working on this very idea [of going local].” 

With over 1,500 international undergraduates enrolled, Penn should make Go Local available. This is feasible, given that Penn Abroad has over 50 exchange partners in 17 countries. Such an initiative would benefit international students on many levels. For sophomores and juniors seeking internships in the US, going local would potentially fulfill the “one in-person class” ICE requirement and ensure their eligibility for CPT. For first years, going local would provide them with a semblance of a first-year experience, be it living with a roommate, joining a club, or engaging in social events. 

A sizable number of Chinese students are in favor of going local, according to incoming first-year Jesse Zhang from Shenzhen. “We reached out to the Penn Global office and are looking for a collaboration in order to render this vision reality,” he said. “Meanwhile, we are also looking to survey the Chinese student community and gain a better understanding of everyone’s needs before potentially drafting up a petition to navigate this change.” 

Uncertainties loom over international students, who are haplessly stranded at the epicenter of a pandemic and its politics. As home to the largest number of international students in the Ivy League, Penn must continue its commitment to their inclusion and education. Go Local seems like a good first step. 

BRUCE SHEN is an incoming College first-year from Shanghai, China. His email address is xshen01@sas.upenn.edu.

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