Internationalization, Interrupted

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has rocked international education. Here’s a look at how some institutions are responding.
In a time of great uncertainty, institutions are navigating a new reality for internationalization on campus. Photo: Shutterstock

At the beginning of March, officials at Wayne State University made what was at the time a difficult decision. They canceled all short-term study abroad programs for the spring semester and almost immediately received pushback, says Ahmad M. Ezzeddine, associate vice president of educational outreach and international programs. 

“None of the programs were in high-risk areas—no one was going to Italy or China,” he says. “People were asking, ‘Why? There’s nothing going on in Paris, nothing going on in Brazil.’” But, Ezzeddine adds, “things started escalating very quickly.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic exploded globally through March, the weeks that followed were a blur for most international offices. Institutions across the country—and across the globe—canceled in-person classes, sent many domestic and international students home, and sought to bring back those in study abroad programs. 

“Our usual tools of predicting the directionality [of the outbreak] have broken down,” says Jeffrey M. Riedinger, vice provost for global affairs at the University of Washington (UW), which canceled all outbound programs for the spring quarter and strongly encouraged students studying abroad in semester-long programs to return home. 

At New York University (NYU), located in what has since become the global epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, as many as 15,000 of the institution’s nearly 20,000 international students and scholars returned to their home countries, according to Sherif Barsoum, assistant vice president for global services.

“We had to update our contingency plans to fit the COVID-19 reality,” he says. “Every day there was something new—one country closing their borders, the next day we were closing our borders. We had to make sure we were nimble.”

With instruction now shifted online at virtually every U.S. institution, international programs and their staff are focusing on supporting students at home and abroad while trying to map a course forward—all at a time when anything from the fall timetable to student immigration procedures remain unclear. 

“Every day there was something new—one country closing their borders, the next day we were closing our borders. We had to make sure we were nimble.” —Sherif Barsoum

But the international education leaders interviewed for this article remain positive, if realistic, about the challenges to come.

“We’ve been through crises before—from the Libyan crisis to the Asian economic downturn to SARS to 9/11—and now this,” Barsoum says. “We just have to be prepared and keep going.”

Support for International Students, Here and There

International students studying in the United States as the pandemic first exploded faced—and some still face—a difficult decision: Should they stay or go?

Those who returned to their home countries have had many questions, like how they will be able to participate in online classes given time zone differences and issues with internet accessibility, and whether shifting to online instruction impacts scholarships from their home governments or their U.S. immigration status. (Access NAFSA resources around this topic.)

The majority of NYU’s 15,000 international students who returned to their home countries have longer visas or multiple entry visas that will remain valid for the next several years, Barsoum says. The bigger question for most is how the U.S. government will interpret the larger shift to online education. 

International offices are closely monitoring regulations around online and distance learning in the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SVEP) and reporting in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). (See list of resources at the bottom of this article for the latest guidance from NAFSA and federal agencies.) 

In preparation, as UW shifted to online instruction during the final 2 weeks of its winter quarter, all students, domestic and international, were encouraged to confirm before leaving that they would have access to adequate broadband and virtual private networks (VPNs) to avoid exacerbating digital divide issues, says Riedinger. The goal of due diligence was to make sure students “understood the advantages and disadvantages of going home, whether in the United States or overseas,” he says. 

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Students who returned to their home countries have had many questions, including concerns about participating in online classes across time zones and internet access—and whether shifting to online instruction impacts their U.S. immigration status. Photo: Shutterstock

International students who have chosen to remain face other complications, including housing and, in some cases, similar questions about accessing online instruction. Some who stayed did so because they have Optional Practical Training (OPT) or internship opportunities. Others had little choice due to conditions in their home countries, or because they cannot afford to jeopardize their immigration status. 

Wayne State University made the decision to keep university housing open for all students who chose to stay. More than 1,000 domestic and international students remain in campus housing, requiring the institution to constantly adjust support and staffing for everything from custodial and food services to resident advisers.

NYU closed all undergraduate housing but had a committee of faculty and staff members review appeals from students who lacked better options. More than 700 domestic and international students remain on campus, according to Barsoum. At UW, efforts are being made to ensure that all students who remain in college housing practice social distancing, says Riedinger.

Beyond housing, ongoing support for international students involves “dealing with students on a case-by-case basis because they have different needs,” says Ezzeddine. 

“We have to take it one day at a time and give our students accurate information—and explain that sometimes we’re waiting on information.” —Sara Thurston

For this reason, international students and scholars at Kansas State University are encouraged to have their specific advisers serve as their point of contact, says Sara Thurston, director of international student and scholar services. Virtual meetings have made students feel more connected than email exchanges.

“The biggest piece I’ve been trying to instill in my staff and my own communication with students is a sense of calm,” Thurston says. “We have to take it one day at a time and give our students accurate information—and explain that sometimes we’re waiting on information.”

The Outlook for Outbound

With a campus of more than 300 people in Florence, Italy, NYU was the first university to pull out of the country. “We had to say, ‘You have 72 hours to leave,’” Barsoum says. Many other institutions have since done the same, with international staff helping support the logistics of abrupt returns home. 

UW’s existing policies require students overseas to submit waivers explaining what they will do to remain safe after the U.S. State Department issues travel advisories for their locale, should they choose to remain in the country. However, that process was suspended in recent weeks, says Riedinger, and while all students were strongly urged to leave, evacuation insurance remains in place for remaining outbound students. 

For now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued guidance strongly discouraging international travel and study abroad programs; subsequent clarifications sparked by a NAFSA request ask institutions to consider their ability “to support students in settings affected by COVID-19.” 

“[We have] strong hope they’ll remain keen on study abroad as an important part of their academic and personal development.” —Jeff Riedinger

Now, institutions are thinking about how to encourage students whose programs were cut short or canceled to participate in study abroad opportunities once the pandemic subsides. Additionally, international offices are strategizing about what the future holds for planned summer and fall programs.

At UW, students receiving scholarships for canceled programs have been told those funds are portable and can be used for future programs through summer 2021, says Riedinger, “in the strong hope they’ll remain keen on study abroad as an important part of their academic and personal development.” 

Effects on Admissions and Recruiting

Spring is the heart of the international student recruiting season, so the timing of the coronavirus outbreak has been particularly challenging for admissions. Even so, Ezzeddine points out one bright spot about remaining in contact with prospective students. 

“Everyone has time,” he says. “They’re home in different countries around the globe, we’re reaching out, and they’re glad that we are. This is their future. They want to know what’s going to happen.”

In similar fashion, NYU’s international staff added 120 15-minute Zoom advising slots in recent weeks, which filled up almost immediately, Barsoum says.

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As international office staff move into what is at least a temporary new normal, they are faced with maintaining operations while remaining socially distant or in locations with stay-at-home orders.  Photo: Shutterstock

In conversations with prospective students, Ezzeddine says he and others are being candid about two things. First, “We don’t have all the answers—we’re admitting that up front,” he says. Second, “The university is open and will remain open, and we will get this under control.”

An unanswered question for incoming students and scholars involves obtaining visas when embassies and consulates across the globe are closed for business. The availability of English language testing also may be a problem in some places. 

In light of the current closures, Thurston says the earliest a scholar from China could get a confirmed appointment is November 29; another from India secured an October 5 appointment, although those dates could change as embassies and consulates reopen.

At the moment, “there’s no credible information” about the timing of when that will happen, Barsoum says. If embassies and consulates do not reopen until July or August, however, “it’s going to be cutting it close for the beginning of the fall semester,” he cautions.

At NYU, staff continue to issue I-20s and other immigration paperwork to ensure that students “have all their ducks in a row,” Barsoum says.

“If we do this ahead of time and the student already has an I-20 in their hands, they have a better chance of getting an early appointment once consulates abroad open back up,” he explains. “We’re saying, ‘Contact your embassies, and if you get a chance to get an appointment for May, June, or July, do it right away.’”

International education leaders stress the importance of not letting up on recruiting efforts in the face of the pandemic. 

“This might be a different year for all of us,” Riedinger says. “Part of it is about our business model, but a lot of it is about having a rich, diverse international population that matches the diversity of the domestic population on campus and creates some extraordinary cross-cultural learning opportunities.”

Adapted Approaches

As international office staff move into what is at least a temporary new normal, they are faced with maintaining operations while remaining socially distant or in locations with stay-at-home orders. 

One particular challenge is the nature of much of the paperwork involving international students. At Kansas State, where the international student and scholar (ISS) office works with about 1,400 international students and scholars, staff processed more than 900 pieces of hard-copy documentation between March and May last year, according to Thurston. It is particularly important to communicate the scope of these issues to administrators and senior leaders, Thurston says. 

“We’re not talking about a couple of students needing this or that—we’re talking about 900 documents, not to mention advising appointments,” she says. 

“It took us 3 years to have the entire staff cross-trained. In emergencies like this, this is really our strength.” —Sherif Barsoum

As NYU’s international office staff transitioned to remote work, they took home paperwork and bought printers for those who did not have them at home. “We’re UPSing I-20s from home,” Barsoum says. So far, they have completed more than 520 I-20s for students for the summer and fall, but they will need to process as many as 5,000 in the coming months. 

That is where efforts to cross-train international staff have paid off, he says, with advisers and study abroad staff helping address the paper crush. “It took us 3 years to have the entire staff cross-trained,” Barsoum says. “In emergencies like this, this is really our strength.”

Collaborating across departments has also become crucial. At Kansas State, the ISS office now holds weekly virtual meetings with counterparts in admissions and other international programs “to share the challenges all are facing,” Thurston says. At UW, a standing advisory committee on communicable diseases, formed in the 1980s in response to the HIV/AIDS crisis, meets virtually every day to coordinate the campuswide response to COVID-19, as does another long-standing committee focused on environmental health and safety. 

A new leadership team also meets at the end of each day to address shared issues and elevate them to senior leadership. “We’re 24/7 on conference calls,” Riedinger says. 

Active and ongoing communication with peers across institutions is critical to coordinate advocacy efforts, address immigration issues, and give professionals a bigger-picture view of trends on the horizon. 

Continuity of Operations

There is also the financial question of maintaining operations as international programs, like much of the economy itself, remain frozen for the foreseeable future. 

During his tenure at Michigan State University, Riedinger created a self-insurance fund to preserve international program staffing in the wake of the SARS epidemic, and it was “one of the first things I set up at UW,” he says. Even so, the university faces a good news/bad news proposition: the self-insurance fund can cover staff salaries, but expenses associated with UW’s center in Rome mean that leaders will have to reevaluate at year’s end if closures continue.

Beyond finances, there is the emotional toll of the current situation on staff. “Take a deep breath,” Ezzeddine advises. “We’re all in reaction mode.” 

“We have to figure things out day by day. There’s no reason to worry about May or September when we haven’t figured out April yet.” —Ahmad Ezzeddine

At a time when social distancing is keeping most international staff members at home, it is important to focus on one’s own health and families, he says. He would know, having grown up in Lebanon during that country’s civil war, when he was stuck at home without water or electricity, much less internet connectivity, for prolonged periods of time.  

“We have to figure things out day by day,” he says. “There’s no reason to worry about May or September when we haven’t figured out April yet.”

A Look Forward into Uncharted Territory

Even so, the difficult conversations that remain involve summer and—as unthinkable as it may be to consider at the moment—fall programming. As with so many other things, uncertainty is the key challenge leaders must navigate.

“This situation has forced all of us to step up into uncharted territories,” says Ezzeddine. Even so, he adds, “we’re starting to think about what happens after the crisis is over.”

Summer seems to be an easier call, with many institutions already canceling programs. At Kansas State, Thurston says she is uncomfortable issuing DS-2019s for international scholars for the summer term given current embassy closures. Although those dates could change as embassies and consulates reopen, “we know that just like us, the consulates just don’t know either,” she says. “But it’s important to be realistic. When scholars tell us they’re trying to get an appointment and reporting dates of October and November, it’s not looking good for summer programming. Fall, I’m more optimistic about.”

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“This situation has forced all of us to step up into uncharted territories,” says Ahmad Ezzeddine at Wayne State University. Photo: Shutterstock

Anticipating delays on visa approvals, Barsoum’s office is advocating with NYU academic departments to extend the typical weeklong grace period for late-arriving international students to 2 or 3 weeks this fall, he says. 

UW canceled all international programs for the summer, a period that is one of the institution’s two largest waves of outbound students, says Riedinger. The other is an abbreviated early fall term in late August featuring a range of popular three-week faculty-led programs.  

“We’ve made no judgment yet on the early fall programs, but my team is grappling with the notion that whatever decision we make about [them] will presumably be synonymous with partnership and exchange programs that are semester-length,” he says. “But we have not yet made the decision.”

In the meantime, the lack of immediate work represents a drawback—and an opportunity—for program staff, Riedinger argues. 

“Now that they’re processing the depressing news that we’re canceling programs over the summer, this is a moment where we’re beginning to dialogue that we’re turning to major challenges in the future,” he says. 

Facing a spring and summer without many of the typical roles and responsibilities, UW staff are being asked to focus on two things: rethinking administrative processes in hopes of finding “things we wanted to fix but never had the time or energy to do,” and identifying strategies to encourage “record numbers of students abroad” when activities do resume, Riedinger says.

“It’s an open invitation for all members of the team,” Riedinger says. “It’s important on multiple levels—it reminds my professional staff that this too will pass, and there is something to look forward to and work toward.” 

“Also, we’re disappointing the dreams of a couple of thousands of students. Giving them options before they graduate….will make them actively sensitive to global interconnectedness coming out of this experience,” he says. “We want to think boldly before we get caught up in the logistics.”

A Dose of Optimism

Although the timetable for a return to normal activities remains uncertain, there is reason to believe that international education will rebound from the pandemic. According to an analysis of Open Doors data conducted by the Institute of International Education, study abroad numbers returned to normal levels after previous crises, including SARS, the swine flu, Ebola, and Zika, within 2 years.

Ezzeddine points to institutions’ rapid transition to online learning as a reason for optimism that they are capable of adapting and responding to challenges. Even the constant Zoom meetings for program staff are helping prepare them for virtual learning and conferencing, Riedinger adds.

“It’s a perfect example of how everything we’re dealing with has a global nature. It’s why we need to continue to invest in study abroad and the international experience.” —Ahmad Ezzeddine

“Over the last 2 to 3 weeks, we were able to switch infrastructure across the globe online at the flip of a switch, and we managed it decently,” Ezzeddine says. “We’re taking stock of the lessons we are learning in this process, and we will be able to provide different learning experiences for our students that include more online interaction and engagement moving forward in ways we have not paid attention to.”

Even prior to the global pandemic, Wayne State had already been developing virtual international exchanges and learning initiatives to help more students get exposure to international education, Ezzeddine says. Now, the silver lining of the pandemic may be that it reinforces exactly why it is so important.

“It’s a perfect example of how everything we’re dealing with has a global nature,” he says. “It’s why we need to continue to invest in study abroad and the international experience.”  •

About International Educator

International Educator is NAFSA’s flagship publication and has been published continually since 1990. As a record of the association and the field of international education, IE includes articles on a variety of topics, trends, and issues facing NAFSA members and their work. 

From in-depth features to interviews with thought leaders and columns tailored to NAFSA’s knowledge communities, IE provides must-read context and analysis to those working around the globe to advance international education and exchange.


NAFSA: Association of International Educators is the world's largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. NAFSA's 10,000 members are located at more than 3,500 institutions worldwide, in over 150 countries.