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OU international students fear housing, job insecurity amid uncertainty over travel restrictions as summer approaches

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Traditions West

OU Traditions Square West on Sept. 11.

OU International Students Services is continuing to work on summer financial assistance for international students despite the initial uncertainty caused by OU Housing checkout emails sent April 26.

In the email, OU Housing announced express or in-person checkouts from May 2 to 15 for OU students living in Traditions East and Traditions West. Several members of the OU international community said this message was anxiety inducing, as they expected to get OU summer housing for free due to the difficulty of traveling back to their home countries and their inability to pay three months of living expenses in the U.S. 

Rabiea Abo Taha, an OU sophomore international student majoring in computer science, wrote in an email to The Daily he and other international students are concerned about how the lack of a university decision on free summer housing might limit their off-campus housing options.

“I wish we got a result already in early April so that we at least have time to figure things out regarding summer plans in the U.S.,” Abo Taha wrote. “Now, it feels very late to even find a solution. If we don't get OU summer housing, some of us will be seeking cheaper options off campus but planning for that is harder now that it is already late, and especially because we are about to be in a final examination period leaving us with barely any time to figure out what to do.”

OU Director of International Student Services Robyn Rojas and OU Associate Dean of Student Services Rebecca Cruise wrote in an email to The Daily that ISS is working with the International Student Task Force to address the needs of OU international students over the summer break.

“Housing has announced reduced rates for the summer,”  Rojas and Cruise said. “However, we know many international students anticipate needing financial assistance with housing and other expenses over the summer. We will work to do what we are able to support those students.”

According to a Daily article from Feb. 17, OU international students faced several challenges traveling from their home countries to OU for the 2020-21 semesters due to COVID-19. Abo Taha said OU should be mindful of those students who arrived in the spring semester and haven’t had enough work hours to save money for housing options over the summer.

“For many of us, it is hard to afford summer housing and for those who can manage to afford it, there might have been some emergency that no one knows about,” Abo Taha said. “Some of us came this semester and did not even have time to save enough money to take care of this. I don't think that OU is obligated to give us free summer housing, but I think it should do it because it has been supportive with international students in the past years during the summer.”

OU international students holding F-1 visas are allowed to work 20 hours per week on campus during fall and spring semesters, and full time during holidays and vacation periods as long as they are enrolled in their next academic year, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website. Abo Taha said even working the maximum hours, the pay isn’t enough to cover summer housing, food, personal expenses and emergencies such as the renewal of his passport.

“I booked a ticket to go home to renew my passport as I cannot do that here due to the U.S sanctions on Syria leading to not having an embassy,” Abo Taha said. “With that being said, due to some other struggles, I will only be home for the period of renewal (around 2 weeks) then I will be on my way back. The (flight) changed once already because of COVID-19 and I am not sure if another change will be happening or not.”

Rojas and Cruise said 570 individuals out of 1,307 international students responded to a survey first sent out by ISS in March 2021 regarding their needs for summer break. Because the survey didn’t inform students that data would be publicly shared, Rojas and Cruise said they cannot reveal detailed information on the survey’s results.

The survey revealed on-campus employment to be many students' greatest need for the summer. Another “key finding” is the anticipation of financial struggles, including the ability to pay for summer housing, lack of sufficient hours at on-campus jobs and food insecurity. 

Rojas and Cruise wrote that the International Student Task Force is currently working on replenishing the International Student Pandemic Fund to assist OU international students with finding jobs on campus. The International Student Task Force was created in July 2020 as a university response to a now-defunct U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy.

ISS posted a list of part-time jobs April 26 offering open positions for OU international students during the summer break on its Facebook and Instagram pages as part of its plan to offer them financial assistance.

About 75 percent of OU international students remained in the United States and 58 students reported they enrolled for the Fall 2020 semester from abroad, according to a pre-summer survey sent out by ISS during the summer of 2020. Rojas and Cruise said it was challenging to determine how to “best support and advocate for international students” and advise them on summer traveling or fall enrollment while working from home during COVID-19. 

OU international students received an email from ISS on April 26 advising them to plan their summer travel with “caution” as “the pandemic situation, travel restrictions, and vaccine requirements can change quickly.” For those traveling during the summer, ISS suggested checking for updates on travel restrictions of the countries and areas they will travel to including layover locations and to have a backup plan for returning to the U.S.

“We know there will be some students who have to travel home over the summer,” Rojas and Cruise said in the email to The Daily. “If they’re unable to return to the U.S. in August for reasons beyond their control, it will be difficult for them to stay on schedule with their coursework since most courses are returning to in-person instruction this fall.”

ISS wrote in the email reminders regarding travel documents for OU international students including a valid passport for 6 months and beyond, renewing their U.S visa in case of expiration and getting an I-20 or DS-2019 with a valid travel signature to reenter the U.S. — students can choose to receive an electronic I-20 by email or a physical I-20 by courier service.

OU international students in their last semester should apply for Optional Practical Training — a temporary work authorization for international students under F-1 visas — while in the U.S. If they are authorized for OPT or STEM, they can travel outside the U.S. but might face “additional scrutiny” at a visa appointment or the U.S. border.

Lastly, ISS said that OU international students traveling outside the U.S. should carry a copy of the email and call the ISS office in case of problems at the U.S. border. For emergencies, the College of International Studies has enabled a special phone line available during nights and weekends. 

“We know this is a continued time of great anxiety and stress, and that there are often no easy choices or good options as you make important decisions,” ISS said in the email. “We are here to do whatever we can to help you navigate this difficult time.”

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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