CALDWELL — Lindo Gama, 25, graduated from The College of Idaho this spring with a degree in international political economy. She was an international student in Caldwell for four years from the Kingdom of Eswatini, formerly Swaziland, a country in southern Africa.
Gama remains in Idaho as she awaits a flight to travel back through South Africa to Eswatini. She had hoped to be home by May, but the coronavirus has put a halt on her travel. As she awaits her flight home, she has learned of the Trump administration’s Monday announcement that it would remove U.S. visas from international college students who plan on taking classes completely online. The decision could impact many of her friends who are also international students enrolled in U.S. colleges.
Gama said many of her international student friends are worried about the recent visa developments.
“If you think about how hard we have had to work and how we have been required to figure out how to get here and get scholarships, it is daunting, to say the least, to think about having to go home where the infrastructure is not good and there is a drastic time difference,” Gama said. “It is something that is so hard to think about.”
The College of Idaho plans to open completely with in-person classes in the fall. Other Idaho colleges and universities, such as Boise State University and University of Idaho that have announced some remote learning options are making moves to ensure international students are protected from the visa removal.
University of Idaho and BSU announced they would open in the fall with in-person, hybrid and online classes. Both universities have said they will ensure international students with the F-1 or M-1 student visa take at least one in-person or hybrid class to protect them from deportation. Northwest Nazarene University did not respond to a request for comment on what it planned to do for international students following the Trump administration’s immigration order.
The administration’s move to revoke F-1 and M-1 student visas has been criticized by universities and colleges as a way of pressuring higher education institutions to reopen in the fall, despite coronavirus concerns.
Gama said her initial reaction to the news was shock for her friends, but she said she was also not surprised.
“I was shocked at the news, but also not, because this administration has been making us feel unwelcome,” she said.
The College of Idaho emailed a letter to students Tuesday saying, “We understand there is the possibility that an outbreak could force a change in the mode of delivery for classes. The College is currently reviewing all possible options for international students to maintain immigration status.”
The letter, signed by Co-Presidents Doug Brigham and Jim Everett, said,”While these regulations sadden us, we will do everything in our power to advocate on your behalf. We have already taken initial steps in this process by contacting our Congressional Delegation and (Student and Exchange Visitor Program) Field Representative. We are grateful every day that you chose to come to The College of Idaho.”
The College of Idaho’s student body is made up of 17% international students, representing nearly 90 countries, the college’s statement said.
Christian Garcia, a current C of I student studying international political economy, told Bloomberg News he is considering seeking political asylum or an internship in order to stay in the U.S. if he can’t keep his student visa.
“Going back is not an option for me,” Garcia, a native of Venezuela, told Bloomberg.
Dean Kahler, University of Idaho vice provost of strategic enrollment management, said the university is also in a more comfortable position with international students because it is not committing to be completely online.
“For universities going fully online, this makes something very difficult, that means all their international students will not be able to study while being in the U.S.,” Kahler said. “We are planning face-to-face, hybrid and online classes, so we just need to make sure our international students have some face-to-face component in their studies.”
U of I has a student population made up of about 6% international students, a percentage Kahler said has been declining.
“The international student population at a university is such an important component of our holistic education process,” he said. “Those students bring great perspective and diverse views and experiences. All of our domestic U.S. students learn from them, and international students come here and learn about American culture and politics and policy. It is a wonderful, needed experimental exchange between domestic students, teachers and international students.”
Kahler also mentioned the economic contributions of international students.
“With fewer international students we struggle economically because that is a revenue stream for the university and the community,” he said.
A representative from BSU did not respond to a request for comment, but the International Student Services department on campus updated its COVID-19 informational website to include updates to the university policy to address the visa changes.
The website says BSU classes will be offered in-person, in hybrid form, remotely and online. For F-1 student visa students, the website says hybrid and in-person classes will count toward the in-person requirement to maintain student visa status.
The student services website says, “U.S. Immigration has not set a minimum number of on-campus credits, other than you must be in at least one on-campus course. If you can’t meet these requirements then you should talk to an academic advisor to see if you can find alternative courses that do meet the requirements and still move forward with your degree. If it’s still not possible then you will need to make plans to take your courses from outside the U.S.”
The website suggests that students “be in the maximum on-campus or hybrid courses as possible to make progress towards your degree. That means that if you have the choice of taking the course on-campus or online, then you should be selecting the on-campus option.”