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As the fall semester will be conducted in a hybrid format, international students will be able to still keep up with courses virtually from their home countries.

Credit: Kylie Cooper

International students are struggling to decide whether to return to campus or not in the fall, weighing complications of global travel restrictions, visas, and increasing coronavirus cases in the United States.

University administration laid out the plan for a hybrid model of instruction in the fall to include a mixture of in-person and virtual classes, in an announcement sent to the Penn community on June 25.

Shortly afterwards, the Assembly of International Students announced an International Student Fall Semester Survey to better understand the fall plans of international students and how they believe Penn can better accommodate their needs related to returning to campus.  

Although the group was unable to share the full survey data with The Daily Pennsylvanian, rising College senior and AIS President Justine de Jesus said that responses to the survey so far suggest “no clear majority” among the three options — going back, staying home, or unsure — for what international students plan to do in the upcoming semester. 

Rising College junior Nat Nichanun Puapattanakajorn, who is from Bangkok, Thailand, said that she and her family do not think it is a good idea to return to campus in August, as several U.S. states are reporting their highest count of daily coronavirus hospitalizations to date. Due to the threat of rising cases, she said the hybrid scenario with the ability to take all classes online is a helpful option because pre-recorded lectures may be available asynchronously.  

“We don't think that going back would be a wise decision, not just because of the travel but because the situation in the U.S. isn't necessarily getting any better,” she said. “The hybrid thing is going to really help me to be able to catch up in school because a lot of it is online.” 

When Puapattanakajorn registered for classes this spring, she purposefully registered for lectures knowing that she may not be able to return to campus in the fall.

“The style of learning that's most appropriate for learning online would be lecture style instead of class discussions —  I wouldn't be able to do those to any degree really because I would have to wake up in the middle of the night to do so,” Puapattanakajorn said.

Rising College sophomore Navmi Sharma from Mumbai, India, said she also chose to register for large lectures for the fall semester for like reasons.

Sharma is currently waiting to decide if she will return to campus in Philadelphia, citing safety concerns due to the increase in coronavirus cases in both India and the United States as reasons for postponing her decision.

Sharma believes Penn can do more to help international students facing travel restrictions in returning to the U.S., although she said she understands the University is doing the best it can. 

“I think it would be important that [Penn] have some system in place for dealing with the fact that some countries might have travel restrictions,” she said. “And if the students from those countries can’t return to campus, it’s not by choice but by compulsion.”

Earlier this month, President Trump issued an executive order that prevents those who hold H-1B, H-2B, J, and L visas, which are issued to foreign nationals who wish to work in the United States, from entering the country until Dec. 31, 2020. Although professors, scholars, and college students are exempt from the order, Penn international students remain worried about obtaining visas in time to return to the U.S. in the fall, due to struggles of obtaining and holding onto appointments for visa issuances and renewals. 

Credit: Isabella Cossu Some international students are concerned about returning to campus because of the risks associated with traveling through multiple airports.

Rising Engineering sophomore Arjun Shukla, also from Mumbai, India, said his ability to return to campus depends on global travel restrictions. The unpredictability surrounding the U.S. and Indian government’s travel decisions feels defeating, he said.

“Honestly, I’ve kind of given up,” Shukla said. “I remember being super stressed when Penn shut down and not knowing what was gonna happen, and I think it’s not been good at all, mentally for anyone to be completely stressed about this stuff.”

Despite the possibility that he may not be able to return to campus, Shukla said he does not think it is practical to take a gap semester because he wants to graduate with his peers and on regular schedule, as job openings are fewer in the winter compared to the spring, he said. If he has to stay in India for the upcoming semester, he intends to take all his classes online.

Rising College senior Linda Zou from Auckland, New Zealand said that even if she is able to get a flight to Philadelphia, she thinks it is unlikely she will go back to Penn in the fall. The 30-hour flight, which would take Zou through three to four international airports, concerns Zou and her parents due to a risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

Because she will have a maximum of two classes held in person, Zou said she does not feel that she will be missing out on the academic benefits of being on campus. She said, however, that she does worry about missing out on the social experience.

“I'm sad that this is even happening at all because I miss my friends a lot,” Zou said. “I love Penn, so it’s upsetting I might not be able to go back.”

Unlike other international students, Rising College junior Michelle Ma from Zhuhai, China said she is planning on returning to campus in the fall as she is already living in the U.S. 

Ma, who is currently living in Los Angeles with a friend, said that if she were to leave the U.S., she would likely not be able to return. Though her student visa expires in August, Ma said she will be able to stay in the country for longer due to the U.S. government's allowing her to remain.

After receiving the University's decision to reopen campus in the fall, Ma said she remains confused about the lack of information and resources provided for Penn's international students who have an increased difficulty traveling back to school.

“It just put international students in such an awkward position because it's not that easy for them to travel abroad to come back to school,” Ma said. “It's just not considerate for international students, but I know it's so hard for them to make any decision right now because it's such a weird situation.”

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