The OU College of International Studies organized an International Student Town Hall on Wednesday after the announcement of classes moving online after Thanksgiving and winter break being extended.
At the town hall, speakers addressed topics like the new visa policies proposed by the Trump administration and their potential effects on international students; the impact of the 2020 elections on international students; accommodations for international students after Thanksgiving break, fundraising and socially-distanced and virtual programming events to help students stay connected.
Director of International Faculty & Staff Services Nima Zecavati talked about the new immigration rules proposed by the Trump administration.
The current visa policy is that the I-20— a document international students must obtain in order to be eligible to study in the United States— of an international student is only valid for three or four years. If students want to make changes on their documentation, they can call the student advisor listed with a number on their I-20, who can access their SEVIS and make sure the students have the right documents to add an extension or issue an updated visa, Zecavati said.
“This (new visa rule) will change that, so you can’t do that anymore,” Zecavati said. “So, instead of going to your advisor, who has access to the federal system, to extend your status, you would have to complete a I-539 extension of status form to send to the USCIS, and pay the $500 or $600 fee to get that done. That process right now takes anywhere from six to 18 months. So, it’s not a very workable or convenient solution for anybody.”
Zecavati said the university is working hard to submit comments to the Department of Homeland and Security before the deadline of Oct. 26. He said the OU Health Sciences Center will also be affected, as OU has international medical residents in training there.
“There’s already thousands and thousands of comments that have been submitted. The way the rule-making process works is that the government has to go through all of those comments and review them,” Zecavati said. “I think it would be very, very strange if they were able to go through all of those comments before the start of next semester.
“But we don’t know. They could very well just not review the comments and push that a little through, but if that did happen then that would be a good reason for a lawsuit to be successful and an injunction to be placed on that rule.”
Director of International Student Services Robyn Rojas said if the new visa policies go into effect, students who are currently in the U.S. can stay and won’t need to call an extension until the end of their current documentation (I-20 or DS-2019). However, if the policy goes into effect before spring break, students who leave and return will already be subject to the new immigration rule, she said.
Rojas also mentioned there are a lot of new and returning students who are still waiting for the U.S. consulate in their country to open so they can get a visa. She said students must take into account the rules of both the U.S. and their country’s governments.
Zecavati also talked about the impact of the 2020 elections on the new visa policies.
“The elections are coming up, and depending on the outcome, this proposed rule may never actually make it. That’s something else to keep in mind,” Zavati said.
Associate Dean of Student Services Rebecca Cruise said it is difficult to know when the outcome of the 2020 elections will even be decided.
“With the pandemic and so much voting that’s taking place via mail and other ways, already the concerns about voter fraud, it is potential that it will take awhile to count those votes,” Cruise said. “It’s not out of the question there will be a legal action regarding (the new visa policy).”
Assistant Dean of Students Doctor ShaRhonda Maclin announced OU will still be able to offer students housing and food after classes go online.
“You do not have to take any action at all. You are free to go in and out of your housing and have meals — (Housing and Food Services) is actually considering starting the market again like we did when we shut down over the Spring because of (COVID-19),” Maclin said at the town hall. “Please, do not check out if you don't need to check out.You are free to come and go. We will make sure the meal plan is there”
Maclin said a spring COVID-19 testing strategy will be implemented for the students who are on campus. There will also be other testing options available for students who wish to leave campus when they come back. Director of Student Engagement & Experience Monique Ramirez Lemus said ISS, in collaboration with Student Affairs and the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, is working together on socially-distanced and virtual programming events to help students stay connected.
Dean of the College of International Studies Scott Fritzen said the International Student Response Task Force is working on a student pandemic fund. Fritzen said he believes the application will be going live this week.
“If you are experiencing any hardship financially related to the pandemic, we do have some funding available,” Fritzen said. “We’re trying to raise more funds as we speak for that. It is capped at $1,200 as it was in the spring. We encourage you to contact us and put in an application.”
Fritzen also talked about students worrying about losing their jobs after classes go online.
“We’ve been working on this issue and it appears to be the case that far fewer students will lose their jobs because of the pivot online in post-Thanksgiving as compared with the Spring,” Fritzen said, “(but) that’s not an absolute guarantee because employment is in many different areas.”
Fritzen encouraged students who are employed on campus to reach out to their supervisors to find out the plans for continuity and if they will be affected. He said if students believe they will lose their jobs, ISS can try to find alternate positions.
Director of International Admissions & Recruitment, and UWC Scholars Programs Craig Hayes talked about freshmen who are currently abroad taking online classes and students who took a gap semester.
“It’s been a difficult transition. It’s always a hard transition for everyone coming to OU for the first time, and so we want to help and support and make that as seamless as possible,” Hayes said.
Zecavati said one big issue right now is that there are COVID bans in many countries, such as Iran, China and Brazil, which makes it very difficult for students from those countries to get to the U.S.
Hayes said there are challenges for international students on many fronts, but there is also a compounded problem for students from travel restricted countries.
“We had some students who were able to return. Unfortunately, they had to quarantine in a third country before travelling to the U.S,” Hayes said. “I think it’s important for us to make sure the university is even more aware of this across the board, so we can support students who have these compounding problems on top of other challenges faced by our international population.”
The panelists expressed concern about how the new visa policies will affect OU international students. Although it’s a time of uncertainty, they are willing to help and support international students with the information they hold at the moment.
“(The new visa policy) is pretty arbitrary and potentially downright discriminatory, and we are quite opposed to that in every sense of the word,” Fritzen said.