The arrival of many international students on to campus this spring was filled with obstacles, largely due to the closure of consulates abroad last year, which blocked first-year students' ability to obtain a student visa necessary to enter the country.
The United States Department of State announced a temporary suspension of routine visa services at all U.S. embassies and consulates in March 2020, without providing information on when these services would resume. For members of the Class of 2024, this regulation meant that those who had not yet applied for their student visa would not be able to enter the country until consulates reopened.
While some U.S. consulates reopened in time for the fall semester, others reopened in early 2021 — but in many cases too late for students to make it to Philadelphia in time for the spring semester.
This was the case for College first year Bekezela Mbofana from Zimbabwe, who is currently in the process of applying for her student visa after the U.S consulate in Zimbabwe reopened earlier this month.
Forced to wait for her visa appointment, Mbofana remained at home for the fall semester and is still in Zimbabwe as she continues her second semester at Penn.
“It wasn’t difficult for me to be at home during the fall, but now that so many [first years] are back, it is definitely taking more of a toll on me," Mbofana said. "I feel like I am missing out."
Mbofana said she plans on moving to campus as soon as she is issued the visa.
College first year Clara Braga, who lives in Brazil, similarly felt she was missing out when she was not able to come to campus for the start of the spring semester. Because the U.S consulate in Brazil has yet to reopen, she flew to Panama in January 2021, where the consulate had already reopened in August 2020. Braga said she felt nervous because she did not know how long she would have to wait in Panama until her visa was issued.
“I booked a one-way ticket to Panama with the intention of staying there until my visa had been issued," Braga said. "They said it could take up to six weeks."
Classes had already begun by the time she was issued the visa, so Braga flew directly from Panama to Philadelphia.
Wharton first year Alexandra Vlasenkova, who is from Russia, also had to travel outside her home country in order to get her student visa.
Vlasenkova had originally planned to wait for the U.S. embassy in Moscow to open, but after being denied an emergency visa appointment in November, she decided to travel to Kazakhstan’s capital to get her visa there. This was the only viable option for Vlasenkova if she wanted to get to Philadelphia in time for the spring semester, but it was still a 15-hour flight through Turkey and Belarus.
Vlasenkova emphasized that it was hard to travel internationally during the middle of the semester and adjust to a new time zone, but added that she was also scared to wait until winter break to travel, for fear that the U.S consulate in Kazakhstan would stop issuing visas to nonresidents.
In fact, two weeks after issuing Vlasenkova a visa, the embassy in Kazakhstan halted appointments for nonresidents. Had she not traveled there when she did, she would not have been able to get a visa in Kazakhstan in time.
“It is ridiculous that you have to travel half of the world to satisfy somebody’s idea of preventing the spread of the virus," Vlasenkova said. “We shouldn’t blame Penn — Penn probably couldn’t do anything about it. We apparently love Penn so much that we did all this to be here today — to go through Locust Walk like ordinary Penn students, although there is no way we should consider ourselves ordinary after all that.”
Students who were able to get their visa issued before the start of the spring semester still said that the experience was stressful.
Wharton first year Malca Harrouche, who is from Panama, said she spent July and August emailing the U.S. consulate in Panama everyday, waiting to hear about when it would reopen.
“Every time I received the same response: They didn’t know. It was frustrating because, at the time, I had planned on coming to campus during the fall semester," Harrouche said. "If I could not get my student visa on time, my plan was to come into the United States on a tourist visa and try to get my student visa from within the country."
Harrouche was eventually notified on August 21, 2020 that she could come in on the next day and apply for her visa, which was issued to her the following week. She spent the fall semester in Panama, but was able to arrive on campus in time for the spring.
Like Mbofana and Vlasenkova, College first year Emre Güler, who is from Turkey, was relieved to have his visa issued in January 2021 after six months of correspondence with the U.S. consulate in Turkey and a four-hour drive in order to arrive at the appointment. Güler said he is happy to be on campus now.
“Even though everything is online, I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to be among the beautiful buildings and hang out with people," he said. “It’s revolutionary to be in the right time zone."
Güler added that he thinks more people should know about the issues that international students have confronted in order to arrive on campus this year.
“Dealing with the ever-changing regulations around travel and visa applications is not easy,” he said.