Hurdles, Worries Remain For International Students At NC Universities

Jul 21, 2020

Credit Ildar Sagdejev

The Trump administration backed down last week from a policy that would have kicked international students out of the country, if their college went all-online this fall. But, there's still plenty of hurdles ahead.  

The decision was a triumph for the more than 10,000 international students that attend universities in central North Carolina alone. But the coming semester still presents unique challenges for students from other countries.

The pandemic forced Caroline Coelho, a rising junior at UNC-Chapel Hill, to head back home to Brazil. Now, she’s planning to take the fall semester off, citing widespread travel bans and exorbitant air fares.

“Those risks, for me, were way too big,” Coelho said. “Staying was the better option. I’m leaning towards a gap semester, but I don’t know for sure.”

That means Coelho will lose her F-1 student visa, at least temporarily.

Every major university in the state is planning on some form of hybrid instruction this fall, and all rely on international students to fill classes. Those students are often some of the brightest and hardest working, and the vast majority of undergraduates also pay full, out-of-state tuition.

International students say the crisis created by the now-rescinded ICE directive underscored the need for transparent communication from university administrators.

Lucy Herrero is from Costa Rica, and is a rising senior in biomedical engineering at UNC-Chapel HIll. She says much of the university’s pandemic-related email correspondence about the fall semester has not been applicable to international students.

“The university just loves to advertise how diverse it is and wants to use international students and study abroad to advertise that,” Herrero said. “But when it comes to making decisions that are going to help us, they don’t really have us at the front of their minds.”

Beyond that, international students have all the same concerns as domestic students about the pandemic, including what would happen if a campus suffers an outbreak. And their family support network is thousands of miles away.

Larry Lai, a master’s student in computer science at NC State, isn’t optimistic about the months ahead.

“Even now, we’ve seen the number of cases is still very high and it’s not been going down for several months now,” Lai said. “So, I can’t really say I’m confident that (the pandemic) will get better and not worse.”