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International students face increased difficulties as OU adjusts to spread of coronavirus

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Youssef Kamel, like many OU students, anxiously awaited any news on the university’s plans on March 18. The university had yet to announce it would remain online-only for the rest of the semester.

The email from interim OU President Joseph Harroz would arrive around 10 p.m. the same day, confirming students would not return to campus for classes this semester. For many, the change meant they would return or stay home to finish their classes online, eliciting mixed emotions from the OU community — grief from seniors realizing they may not walk at graduation or see friends again, joy from some who may be thankful to remain home with their families.

For some international students like Kamel, an international area and religious studies senior and president of the International Advisory Committee — whose home lies thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean, in Egypt — the announcement brought anxiety and concern. 

For Kamel, the option to return home has been eliminated thanks to extensive travel restrictions or outright bans from the governments of both the U.S. and their home countries. Egypt’s ban on airline travel is currently set to last until March 31.

“If this statement was made 24 hours earlier I could have potentially been on a flight home,” Youssef wrote in a March 18 tweet. “Now Egypt closed airline travel and I’m stuck.”

Now forced to remain in the United States for at least several weeks or months, depending on future government decisions and the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak, Kamel says international students are preparing to face the financial challenges associated with healthcare in the US and what will be covered by OU’s student healthcare plan.

Many of OU’s international students come from nations with established national health care, Kamel said, and have not had the time required to become fully familiar with the U.S. health care systems.

“(International students) are a lot less familiar with the system than our domestic peers, which is a huge problem — not only are we kind of scared of what we already know,” Kamel said, “there's also quite a bit of uncertainty in how helpful that (student health care) plan may be in the face of something like a global pandemic.”

Amer Begović, entrepreneurship and venture management junior from Bosnia and special events chair for IAC, said international students remain extremely concerned about the cost of treatment — which can still rack up thousands in medical fees, despite the COVID-19 test being free thanks to federal legislation.

“Many are asking ‘Are we going to be able to afford to get this treatment,’” Begović, said. “That is kind of a scary situation because if I get infected by the virus, I think my main concern should be getting treated and surviving, rather than if I will be able to afford it.”

Despite uncertainty around medical expenses, Kamel said he is grateful OU has allowed limited on-campus food options to remain open and let students with no other options for housing stay in their dorms.

“Not having campus shut down like many other universities is a really huge step, a lot of international students are able to stay in their dorms and in their housing,” Kamel said. “I'm personally very thankful that it hasn't been dealt with in the same way that lots of other universities have — like Harvard or any university in Massachusetts, basically.”

Kamel also said for the moment, the shift to online-only classes will not affect foreign student visa statuses. However, Begović there has been little official word on how international students who are already overseas will participate in online classes and adjust assignment due dates from different time zones.

“That this is something that people have been dealing with with their professors, and like each of their professors and on an individual basis,” Begović said. “I do know a student that is going home, and she has to talk to her professors and figure out study plans with them and how she would be able to continue this semester while being home.”

If the pandemic continues into the summer months and travel restrictions do not slacken to allow students out, Begović said he hopes the university will allow international students summer housing options.

“Students that are going to stay in the U.S. would like to see free summer housing provided by housing and food,” Begović said. “That would help us out a lot because of the fact that we cannot afford to pay for summer housing.”

Begović said beyond medical and housing costs, many international students could struggle to pay for everyday necessities as the pandemic continues. Since all international students that work are only able to work at the university, job security is a significant issue with many students and university employees seeing greatly reduced hours.

Kamel said the impact of reduced or completely eliminated hours will be felt more strongly as the weeks go on.

“This is going to be hitting a lot harder now that a lot of people are more or less out of a job or their hours have been reduced greatly,” Kamel said. “It is going to be hitting a lot harder soon when the last paychecks for most people come in by next week.”

For international students facing financial uncertainty, options exist and are being expanded upon.

The College of International Studies offers an emergency relief scholarship for international students, and requires students to complete an application for relief funds which “typically do not exceed $1,000.” The Daily reached out to International Student Services to learn if this scholarship has been expanded as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, but the university had not responded at time of publication.

“When it comes to the emergency fund scholarship, the biggest issue with that is, all of us can apply for it. There are too many of us so it's obvious that not everyone will get it,” Begović said. “I can't just sit down for two weeks expecting to get a scholarship that I might not get, when I should be working at my job and earning the money that I need.”

On Friday, the university announced in an email it would work to continue student employment despite campus closure, providing “at least a two-week transition pay” for students negatively impacted. The email also announced the “Sooners Helping Sooners” program, which provides financial assistance to students in need. Begović said these measures, while available to all students, will positively impact internationals.

Kamel said OU’s International Advisory Committee has also organized a GoFundMe to support international students and an IAC “community bank” to help connect international students who need certain resources to providers who have extra to spare.

Despite facing difficulties acquiring tangible things like food and housing, Begović said one of the bigger and most difficult to address fears international students now have is being stuck in the U.S., hoping their families remain safe at home.

“My parents are pretty old. … I'm concerned about my parents, I'm more concerned about them than I am about myself,” Begović said. “You literally never know what's going to happen, especially with the situation escalating so quickly. We want to be with our families just like anyone else.”

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