International students face academic, career dilemmas as COVID-19 leaves future plans uncertain

Tuesday, June 9, 2020 - 7:49pm

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Design by Hibah Chughtai

The challenges that international students face in attending American universities are plentiful, ranging from intense culture shock to rising tuition fees. Add the COVID-19 pandemic, which comes with strict travel restrictions, troublesome flights home and visa issues, and those challenges double.

The University’s International Center Director Judith Pennywell told the Daily that over the past few months, the center has received numerous requests for help regarding the pandemic and uncertainty for the fall semester. 

“Students are wondering about the availability of remote learning opportunities for fall and whether there are visa or immigration related implications,” Pennywell said. “Some students have expressed concerns about internship offers being revoked in light of COVID-19.”

Second-year Information student Chengyue Qiu, an international student from China and the secretary for Graduate Rackham International (GRIN), a student-run organization at the University meant to support graduate students on campus, mentioned how since the pandemic hit, her peers have faced both academic and career obstacles.

“I have a lot of friends who had their internships canceled because of COVID,” Qiu said. “That’s a really common thing.”

Engineering alum Mohammed Majid had his offer as an upcoming software engineer at Uber rescinded due to the pandemic. Majid, an international student from India, shared his story on a LinkedIn post that spread widely throughout the University community.

“Hi Everyone!” the post begins. “Yesterday, I received a phone call from my recruiter: my new grad SWE offer from Uber was rescinded due to COVID-19, with 90 days left to find employment or risk deportation.”

Upon graduation, international students who do not want to return home usually apply for Optional Practice Training, which allows students to stay in the U.S. for a maximum of 12 months for employment-related training in their field of study. But not all companies choose to sponsor international students and some organizations related to defense or national security seldom hire or interview non-U.S. citizens. Students who are granted OPT are only allotted 90 days of unemployment. 

In an interview with The Daily, Majid spoke about the grueling fall job recruitment process and how difficult it was to do it all over again last month. Back in September, he said he applied to as many as 100 jobs and by November had a couple of offers — three months of applications, phone calls and interviews. 

When his offer at Uber was rescinded, he said he knew he would have to do the same process over again, but much quicker, as his OPT started in June and he wanted to avoid unemployment days.

“(Since November) I have had no recruiting practice, so I’m not in that zone,” Majid said. “I’m getting back into that space, practicing my interview skills and at the same time talking to recruiters and getting any form of referrals, circling back on them.”

Majid said that having to redo the recruitment process in such a tight time frame made the past month challenging, but that he learned valuable lessons about working under pressure.

“Your life completely gets derailed from what you had planned for at least a year or two ahead,” Majid said. “It kind of gives you perspective about how temporary your goals could be, and how you need to be flexible about them.”

Qiu, who has a year left before graduation, expressed her concern about a potentially remote fall semester. She said the learning format in the School of Information, one with many team-based projects, means online classes wouldn’t be too valuable.

“If we are taking classes and we are paying the same amount of tuition and don’t get the most efficient way to take classes — I would love to take a gap year,” Qiu said.

But it’s not that simple: International students only get five months off from school unless they reapply for an American visa. Qiu has required fall courses, so she would need to reapply for a student visa if she were to take a gap year.

Along with the financial burdens borne from class fees, Qiu cited her criticism toward a $500 fee established by the University last fall.

“It’s so hard for us,” Qiu said. She and GRIN have been actively opposing the fee.

Qiu said that while many people assume that all international students are rich, it’s not always true. 

LSA sophomore Yueyao Zhou is from China and told The Daily in an email she is more concerned about public health than tuition costs.

“I am very worried about the (University) community's safety and health,” Zhou said. “I hope we can go fully online.”

But while Zhou is worried about returning to campus due to health reasons, she equally hesitates about taking a gap year.

“Reapplying for a visa can be very risky during this time of turbulent international relations and political flip-flops,” Zhou said. “However, if (international students) can maintain full-time status while being overseas, we won't have to lose our visa and apply for a new one. That's why it will be really helpful to have the choice of doing fully online.”

All three students echoed that one of the greatest causes of stress over the last few months has been the uncertainty: What will happen to their visa status, to their health, to their wallets. However, they all told The Daily they’re determined to face these challenges.

“It was a tough experience,” Zhou said of the challenges she faced over the last few months. “But unique and unforgettable.

Daily Staff Reporter Magdalena Mihaylova can be reached at mmihaylo@umich.edu