Cruel and unimaginable: South Bay students, universities react to policy changes for international students
San Jose State University is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Ramona Giwargis.

An abrupt change this week to the policies governing international students in the United States has sent students and universities in Silicon Valley scrambling to make sense of the new rules.

“It’s almost unimaginable; the cruelty of this decision,” said Susan Popko, the associate provost for international programs at Santa Clara University. “We are outraged at this current guideline change and have been voicing our dissatisfaction with it and voicing our support of international students.”

The federal Student and Exchange Visitor Program last week issued a statement announcing that some international students will no longer be permitted to study in the U.S. if their universities switch to an online format due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States,” it states. “Active students currently in the United States enrolled in such programs must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status.”

The statement further clarifies that students who fail to comply with these rules may face deportation.

Rohit Shekhar was scrolling his Twitter feed when he first learned about the announcement. As an incoming sophomore at San José State University, Shekhar said he was immediately worried for his future. The 19-year old, who previously studied at a college in Ohio, is slated to transfer to SJSU this fall.

Shekhar, a native of India, said he had always dreamed of studying software engineering in Silicon Valley.

“The valley is where the most exciting developments happen, and I wanted to study my passion in the center of it,” he said.

But now all his plans are up in the air. Shekhar, who is baffled by the new policy, said it feels as though students are being used as political pawns. He added that many of his friends who hoped to one day study in the United States are changing their minds as they watch him grapple with rapidly changing restrictions.

“The Trump administration has become exceedingly unfriendly to international students and they really don’t feel that it is worth paying exorbitant amounts to just be treated like this,” he said.

In a Tuesday news release, SJSU President Mary Papazian acknowledged that the sudden policy changes were causing stress and uncertainty throughout the school’s community. She wrote that SJSU — which is planning to offer a mix of online and in-person classes this fall — cares deeply about its international students and is searching for solutions to help them meet SEVP’s new criteria.

Santa Clara University is also working to find a solution that will protect its international students while still following public health guidelines to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Popko said SCU intended to move all its graduate courses online this fall so undergraduate students would have more space to social distance while attending some classes on campus. But that plan has now been nixed because school administrators don’t want any graduate students to be forced to leave the country, she said, especially not during a deadly pandemic that’s made travel riskier and more complex.

“They were issued a visa that gave them the right to an education in America; They have a right to finish their degree here,” Popko said.

The school administrator is also concerned about the policy’s long-term effects. She said universities may struggle to attract future international applicants if these students feel that the U.S. is an unwelcoming and unpredictable environment.

Although it’s been a challenging year for universities nationwide, Popko said she’s found a small silver lining.

“It is a crisis but everyone (at SCU) has voiced support for international students loud and clear,” she said. “The outpouring from students, faculty and staff across the university asking how they can help has been really heartening to see.”

Contact Katie King at [email protected] or follow @KatieKingCST on Twitter.

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