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Coronavirus Leaves Kansas’ International Students With Tough Choice: Stay Or Go

Ming Chang Chay
For Wichita State University
International students at Wichita State University attend a welcome party.

WICHITA, Kansas — The coronavirus has left Kansas’ international college students with a choice: stay in the United States, even if it hurts them financially, or leave and risk not being allowed back into the United States.

Either choice is tough for some of the more than 9,000 students, because nobody knows what campus life and global travel will look like come August when the next academic year starts up.

“If students have to find a way to fend themselves for a couple months, that’s one thing,” said Dick Startz, a professor of economics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “But they don’t know if it’s a couple months or through the end of the summer or what’s going to happen in the fall.”

Those that stay in the U.S. face strict restrictions when it comes to getting a job to pay for an unplanned, expensive summer. Plus, they don’t have the same financial lifeline, like stimulus and unemployment checks, that domestic students do. Leaving means dealing with closed borders, canceled flights and the possibility of not being able to re-enter the U.S. in the fall.

Credit Ming Chang Chay / Wichita State University
International students attend orientation at Wichita State University.

Leave at your own risk

Jinwen Liu’s family wants him back in China. The liberal arts student at Wichita State University might not get another chance to see his grandfather, whose health has worsened after a car accident in March.

But Liu worries about leaving the United States in the middle of a global pandemic.

“I don’t know what to do because family matters,” Liu said. “But now it seems like it is not a smart move to go back.”

Wichita State and Fort Hays State recommended students stay for several reasons: Students could get stuck overseas with expired visas as long as U.S. consulates remain closed. Travel restrictions may keep international students from returning to the United States. There’s also the health risk of flying during a pandemic and exposing family members to the virus.

“We really advised them against travel,” said Carol Solko-Olliff, director of international student services at Fort Hays State. “We tried to outline all of those reasons for students.”

But many students had no choice between staying and going. India closed its borders. Many airlines stopped flights to China. Students say flights to other countries have been canceled, too.

Hana Shahin is a Ph.D. candidate at Wichita State. She said the coronavirus forced her to change her plans to fly home to Egypt over the summer.

It’s exhausting being far from her family, she said, and the culture she described as more communal than the United States — where cooking meals for a stressed friend is common and not met with confusion.

“I’m all alone here and going home is really the only rejuvenating time of the year when I can get some energy,” Shahin said. “Not being able to go back home — it’s heartbreaking.”

She recently bought a plane ticket home for December; she did not want to deal with the stress of worrying about whether her flight would get canceled.

International students don’t have to tell their university when they leave the country, leaving schools with a vague idea of what choices they made. Wichita State University estimates that the majority of its nearly 1,200 international students have stayed in the country. Kansas State said most of its more than 1,400 students had stayed as of April 24.

Colleges are also still deciding whether it’s practical to open in the fall. If classes stay online instead of in-person, spotty internet service in some countries would make remote learning difficult — not to mention the 13-hour time difference for students in Malaysia. And returning for in-person lessons could mean students would have to quarantine and miss at least two weeks of classes.

Credit Ming Chang Chay / For Wichita State University
International students attend orientation at Wichita State University.

What it costs to stay

Nizam Uddin was a few months away from graduating with a doctorate in mechanical engineering from Wichita State. But the university closed campus and its labs, which made conducting the experiment he needs to finish impossible.

He’ll have to wait until the fall semester to earn his Ph.D. That’s an additional six months in the country with extra expenses he wasn’t counting on —and not just tuition. The U.S. is more expensive than life in his home country of Bangladesh.

“Staying six months more is a huge cost,” Uddin said.

International students won’t receive the $1,200 federal stimulus checks. And stimulus grants specifically directed to in-need college students must go to domestic students.

“I don’t qualify for that support,” Uddin said, “but I need that, to be honest.”

Kansas universities, including Wichita State, have been using their own emergency funds to help international students, but those grants usually cap out at a few hundred dollars. Uddin called the help insufficient.

Some families have sent their international students money, but the economic toll of the coronavirus shutdown is apparent in other countries as well. And a strong U.S. dollar makes exchanging currency costly.

“Even if our parents have to send us money it’s way expensive,” said Avantika Ramekar, a student from India enrolled at K-State. “So that has added a little bit to our stress.”

While getting a job could help, that’s not an option for most international students. Their visas restrict them from working off-campus, and many lost on-campus jobs when things shut down. K-State will pay student workers who were laid off until May 16.

And like many domestic students, international students are concerned about social isolation and the quality of online lessons. Many already had plans to stay in the United States over the summer and are disappointed that their American excursions may now be restricted to their dorm rooms.

Doris Udenze, a Fort Hays State student from Nigeria, says she’s the only person in her residence hall. But she’s enjoying the quiet and taking the time to learn the piano without any judgmental ears nearby.

“That’s the fun part,” Udenze said. “I can play as loud as I want without anyone complaining.”

Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @stevebisaha.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.