Indian students in the US are leaving behind their campuses and dreams amid coronavirus

Nowhere to go.
Nowhere to go.
Image: Reuters/Brian Snyder
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As coronavirus rips through the US, it may have ended the “American dream” for thousands of Indian students forever.

In March, several universities in the US moved classes online as cases of Covid-19 rose in many parts of the country. These colleges also asked students to vacate campus housing, often on short notice, leaving them disoriented, distressed, and disappointed.

Many Indian students, who spoke to Quartz, said they had missed their chance to return home before India sealed its borders, and had struggled to find affordable housing in the US. Those who made it home in time are worried they may never get to go back because of visa technicalities.

“As a college senior, the impact of the outbreak and the closing of the campus was especially heartbreaking due to the unprecedented cancellations of final classes, senior events and potentially graduation, as well as unsaid goodbyes,” a 22-year-old Indian-origin student at New York University, who left the epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak in the US, to fly home to Singapore with no definitive return date, told Quartz. She did not wish to be identified fearing it could create problems with her prospects of getting a long-term US visa, or a chance to return to colleges.

Indians, are the second-largest group of international students in the US after China. During the current academic year, there were an estimated 250,000 Indian students studying in the US.

Should I stay or should I go?

News of campus closures started reaching students sporadically in mid-March as universities made room to accommodate healthcare professionals rent-free and house patients if need be. In most cases, the request was to move out with immediate effect. “Many of my friends who live on campus were asked to leave dorms within 48 hours, scrambling to find accommodation or make arrangements for their belongings and long-term stay,” a student, who stayed in an off-campus accommodation in New York city, said.

Making a choice between staying back in the US or flying back home was particularly hard for international students in their senior years as this meant they were risking their career opportunities.

In mid-March, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the US immigration authority in charge of student visa programmes, said it intends to be flexible but that’s not enough as “promises of flexibility are imprecise and leave students no real parameter as to what changes would be permissible,” Leon Rodriguez,  partner in the Washington, DC office of law firm Seyfarth, told Quartz.

Several university departments servicing international students encouraged them to stay back in the US so they did not risk losing their optional practical training (OPT). Under the OPT, a student can stay back and work in the US for a year after completing their course, and also look for long-term employment. However, during the OPT period, a student cannot leave the country between applying for and receiving their employment authorisation.

“In the past week, I have booked and cancelled flights twice, considered bunking with friends for months on end and considered risking staying in New York City—currently the United States’ biggest Covid-19 hub—due to fear of losing my OPT status and four years of hard work to start my career in the United States,” a senior at New York University told Quartz on March 20.

She eventually decided to leave but not everyone did. An international student from Vietnam, for instance, chose not to return and instead moved to a relative’s house in Oregon to not risk losing her chances of getting the OPT. But her risk may not pay off.

In the absence of campus networking events this year, and with coronavirus hitting the global economy badly, fresh graduates will find it hard to get placement. Even before the pandemic broke out, most of these students were aware that finding a job wouldn’t be a piece of cake with the Donald Trump administration’s hardline approach to immigrant workers.

The Covid-19 outbreak has “caused a lot of freezes in the hiring pool,” a media, culture, and communication major in New York said. “Companies that would be able to afford a new hire tend not to hire international students or those on non-immigrant visas.”

Buffering learning

Classes over video conferencing apps such as Zoom have become the new normal. But, they’re far from the real experience. For instance, for arts students who are pursuing drama or dance, remote instructions can be confusing. “Moving experiential learning online is unsustainable,” a graduating senior said. “For instance, a film festival got cancelled and our final project for a class was to comment on the festival itself. I don’t know what’ll happen.”

Soft-skills courses such as leadership, which benefit from group work or classes based on case discussions, pose a similar issue, said Aditi Chadha, who is enrolled in MIT’s Sloan MBA programme.

In addition, for students who are now spread across different countries, timing can be a serious problem. For instance, if classes run at the regular hours as on-campus, students in India will have to stay up through the nights to attend them.

Indian students also face an added challenge due to the country’s abysmal internet connectivity and speeds. India ranked 130th in the world for mobile speeds and 71st for fixed broadband speeds during March 2020.

Immigration experts suggest there are ways students can mitigate this risk. ”Where universities have announced their transition to virtual instructions and asked all students to move out, students can file an online application to request an exception to the campus closure, particularly those who reside in countries with a travel ban or high coronavirus threat level,” Poorvi Chothani, managing partner at immigration law firm LawQuest, said.

Universities are trying to take some pressure off by allowing students to switch their classes from graded ones to pass/fail ones so their GPA doesn’t take a hit. But the lines remain blurred for many as they feel they’re not getting their money’s worth.

What’s more, schools don’t seem to be letting up for incoming classes either. A New York-based finance professional, originally from Mumbai, got admission into two top business schools in the US and the UK for Fall 2020. She said neither school was allowing deferrals for instruction starting in September this year despite all the uncertainty stemming from coronavirus. Exceptions would only be made if students were not able to receive visas in time due to the ongoing crisis.