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OU International Student Response Task Force answers questions regarding visas, housing, more in virtual town hall

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International Student Town Hall flyer

Flyer for the International Student Town Hall held virtually July 22.

OU organized a virtual International Student Town Hall Wednesday to answer questions from OU’s international community regarding their legal status in the U.S. for the upcoming fall semester.

The panel was moderated by Rebecca Cruise, OU associate dean of students for the College of International Studies, and Craig Hayes, director of International Admissions and Recruitment and the United World College Scholars Program at OU. Among the panelists were Scott Fritzen, dean of the College of International Studies; Robyn Rojas, director of International Student Services; Nima Zecavati, OU’s immigration attorney; Josh Davis, executive director of OU-Tulsa Student Affairs; David Surratt, vice president of Student Affairs and dean of students; and Randall Hewes, dean of the Graduate College. 

The moderators prepared a list of questions sent by OU international students in advance. Students also wrote their concerns on a Q&A box at the bottom of the screen to be answered by the panelists or handled later via video call by Cruise or Hayes. 

Rojas explained how enrollment has been addressed by OU since the spring semester when the university switched to online-only, and when the university announced it would move to a hybrid model in the fall. After the reversal of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement decision to bar international students from attending all-online universities from within the U.S., Rojas said her office is waiting on clarification from the Student and Exchange Visitor Program “to help schools who are in that hybrid model to know what exactly is going to be permitted.”

As part of OU’s Safe and Resilient Plan, OU is welcoming freshman students starting Aug. 11. Fritzen said OU’s current policy is to also extend the arrival period until Sept. 14 for international students who might have trouble regarding their visa status and or whose country may have travel bans. 

“We recognize that it's going to be a bit late, (but) if you show up here until that date you should be able to have a successful semester and professors will make accommodations for you,” Fritzen said. 

Although the ICE decision is no longer in effect, international students were worried about whether they needed to update their I-20 forms — the certificate of eligibility international students must have to attend a U.S. university — to reflect that OU was on a hybrid model in order to enter the country.

“Students should not need those remarks,” Rojas said. “However, some consulates and embassies are requiring (indication of the university’s hybrid status) at these appointments. (OU's International Student Services is) updating all of (the I-20s) with that remark just to be safe, and we'll be sending electronic copies of those updated I-20s to students who are having these appointments.”

In terms of COVID-19 testing, Davis said returning international students will be provided temporary housing for individuals for 7 to 14 days to take the test before they can move to their permanent housing. For international students already in the U.S., along with new OU residents, they will be mailed a test kit. In addition, students must complete OU’s online health screening five days before arriving on campus. 

International students also asked about the possibility of enrolling abroad if their countries currently have a travel ban by the U.S. — as is the case with the Schengen Area including the U.K. and Ireland — or if they don’t get a U.S. visa on time. 

Rojas said new students “don't have to have an F-1 visa (to) start their program; they just wouldn't have an activated (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System) record until they arrived in the U.S.”

SEVIS is a web-based system for maintaining information on international nonimmigrant students and exchange visitors in the U.S.

“For continuing students (who) have left (the U.S. and are) at home, the spring guidance does allow for us to keep these records active, as long as you're enrolled in the minimum number of hours from abroad,” Rojas said. 

On the same topic, Hayes talked specifically to incoming freshman, transfer and continuing students who are on merit-based scholarships about the possibility of freezing their scholarships in case they can’t enroll for the fall semester.  

“We are able to work with students to help them ensure that they don't lose the scholarship and that it doesn't limit the duration of their scholarship as (we) walk them through the process of an official request,” Hayes said. 

Surratt answered questions related to housing, food and financial assistance for international students who were not able to return home during the spring 2020 semester and cannot travel outside the U.S. He said he guarantees OU is committed to supporting international students in terms of food access and housing security.

“One of the challenges that will come up is additional expenses beyond room and board,” Surratt said. “We were able to fundraise for private donations last spring for different types of financial challenges related to other extenuating circumstances (and) I will guarantee that we will do the same fundraising efforts.” 

Rojas also answered questions related to the Optional Practical Training program for senior international students — a period in which students under a F-1 visa status pursuing their degree for more than nine months are permitted to work in the U.S. to complement their field of studies. She said students would have to be studying at a SEVIS-certified school for two semesters in order to be eligible for OPT and are not eligible to apply if they are not physically in the U.S. 

“If the student did their last semester abroad (and) we were keeping their SEVIS record active, that wouldn't be a problem of eligibility to apply for them,” Rojas said. “(International students) can apply for OPT, even if their visa and their passport has expired, as long as (their) I-20s (have not).” 

Graduate students also expressed their concerns about graduate assistantships. Hewes said it is based on employment laws in that specific country, and he invites students who have had an offer of an assistantship but can't get to the U.S. to contact him, and he will facilitate communication with the department, the Office of Legal Counsel and ISS.

Lastly, Fritzen talked about the three most important missions of the International Students Task Force that OU established after the ICE decision. He said the task force is primarily working on clarifying concerns related to the visa status of international students, COVID-19 testing and housing accommodations. Moreover, they are “making sure that (they are answering) individuals, or students’ circumstances as best as possible”. 

The panelists said they insisted OU international students contact their ISS advisor for further details on their specific situation related to the starting of the fall semester. More information will be uploaded to the ISS website as they receive clarification from the Student and Exchange Visitor Program. The ISS office has provided a phone number for students in emergencies while traveling, as well as an emergency email address. 

“Do not be afraid to contact us if you're dealing with significant insecurities,” Cruise said. “Please let us know and we will try to find a way to assist you and to advocate for you. That's the important piece.” 

Marien López-Medina is an international student and United World Colleges alumna from Nicaragua. She is majoring in journalism with a minor in public and nonprofit administration and works as a news reporter for The Daily.

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