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Photo by the New York Public Library (via Unsplash) Credit: Ava Cruz

Incoming College first-year Terhi Nurminen does not know where she will be living this fall, not even which country she will be in.  

Nurminen, a Finland native who has not lived with her parents since 2015, currently resides in Sweden with a rental contract that ends next month. She planned to move to Penn, where her room and board will be covered by her financial aid package, in August.

Now, it is unclear if she will be able to enter the United States due to a new federal immigration policy targeting first-year international students.

On July 24, United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement released guidelines barring international first-year students pursuing “a full course of study that is 100 percent online” from entering the country this fall. Although Penn is adopting a hybrid model this fall, incoming first-year students are still deciphering whether any of their classes will contain in-person instruction after receiving their schedules on Monday.

New or initial international students who are registered for a hybrid course of study, including in-person and online components, will likely be able to acquire F-1 status, International Students and Scholarship Services Director Rodolfo Altamirano wrote in a July 24 email to The Daily Pennsylvanian. Students can get a letter of support from their academic school or department to confirm they are attending a hybrid program in the fall, Altamirano wrote. 

Nurminen said her current schedule does not have any in-person classes. 

“I feel like giving [ISSS] a couple of days to sort this out, but also, I'm running out of time,” Nurminen said.

The guidelines come after a bumpy month for America’s international students. 

On July 6, ICE  published guidelines that barred all nonimmigrant F-1 and M-1 students taking an online-only course load from entering or remaining in the country, which were ultimately revoked 10 days later. The U.S. government instead reestablished the guidelines issued in March that allow nonimmigrant students to take a fully online course load and remain in the country.

On Friday, ICE confirmed that the March 2020 guidance only applies to students who were actively enrolled at a U.S. school on March 9, jeopardizing the fall semester for many incoming international first years. 

“This has been such a roller coaster month,” Nurminen said. “I don’t think I’ve yet truly accepted that there’s another obstacle.”

Incoming Engineering first-year Mohammed Al-nasir, who is from Sudan, said he was shocked and confused by the ICE policy — especially by its lack of clarity.

Incoming College first-year Lis Zandbergen, who is from the Netherlands, said she feels flustered by ICE’s most recent announcement. 

“It was like first okay I can come. Then I can’t come. Then again, I can go. Can I or can I not come?” Zandbergen said. “Nobody’s sure about the situation, and I’m also not entirely sure yet.” 

For Nurminem, her biggest concern is where she will live in the fall if she cannot obtain a visa to come to Penn next month.

“I can’t afford just renting an apartment somewhere,” Nurminen said. “I’m really reliant on Penn financial aid on this one.” 

Although students must accept their on-campus housing assignments by the end of July, international first years forced to cancel their assignments due to the new policy will not be charged a cancelation fee, Business Services Director of Communications and External Relations Barbara Lea-Kruger wrote in an email to the DP on July 27. Non-international students who cancel their housing between Aug. 1 and Aug. 20 will be charged $500 and those who cancel their housing between Aug. 21 and Sept. 21 will be charged $1000.

Nurminen emailed Student Registration and Financial Services asking if she will be able to receive a grant from Penn to cover rent if she cannot come to campus due to ICE’s restrictions, to which SRFS responded that there is no policy for housing assistance, and that situations will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

SRFS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“It doesn't help that all policies and procedures seem to be changing constantly. Quite on the contrary actually; it's very stressful to not know what you can trust and having to hunt for new information in scattered FAQs and by emailing offices like this,” Nurminen wrote to the DP on July 27 regarding her correspondence with SRFS.

Al-nasir is also in an unusual living situation. He is still living on his high school campus in Costa Rica with 15 other international students, all of whom could not return home this spring due to various travel restrictions caused by the pandemic.

If he cannot obtain F-1 sponsorship to arrive at Penn in the fall, Al-nasir is considering staying in Costa Rica where he said the internet service is better than in his home country of Sudan. Al-nasir said it is unlikely he will be able to return to Sudan due to current travel restrictions.  

Al-nasir and Zandbergen both said they are rushing to get paperwork from Penn that affirms they will be attending a hybrid fall program before their visa appointments in early August.

Nurminen does not yet have a visa appointment scheduled as she waits for ISSS to process her I-20 form request that is necessary to schedule the appointment.

After first-year students received their schedules two days ago, the three students remain unsure if the classes they received will incorporate in-person instruction. 

“I'm still most of all just really looking forward to being there,” Zandbergen, who has never before visited campus, said. “I don’t think it can get much worse, so it can only go up from here.”

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