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‘The planning is exhausting’: International students discuss challenges of arriving on College Hill during pandemic

International students, University administrators reflect on challenges posed by travel restrictions, student visas

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2021

When Xinyu Yan ’24 realized that the U.S. Embassy in China was not going to open in time for her to obtain a visa for the summer semester, she decided to take an unconventional route. Along with other students from China, Yan flew to Singapore to apply for a student visa and quarantined there for 14 days before entering the United States. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the journey to College Hill became immensely more challenging for many international students. Appointments for F-1 and J-1 visas — those typically held by international students — were scarce as many embassies closed or limited their operations. A series of travel bans also put a halt on international travel.

At the end of January 2020, the Trump administration imposed a travel ban for all non-citizens physically present in China in the preceding 14 days. This ban — which remains intact, but with new exceptions for international students put in place just this month — is what prompted Yan and Neal Yin ’24, as well as other international students, to go to third countries like Singapore to quarantine this spring.

Because the U.S. embassies in China were all closed, Yin explained, visa appointments were constantly being postponed. As such, it was unwise to assume that it would be possible to get a visa in China before the summer term began. 

Since other Chinese students shared similar visa-related issues, they decided to work together, forming an “alliance” and creating group chats to exchange information, Yin said.

To leave enough time for traveling, quarantining and applying for visas, the only way they could make it to Providence before summer semester move-in was to leave home during final exams week of the spring semester. 

“The planning is exhausting,” Yin said, adding that even in Singapore, visa appointment spots were limited. “You (had) to basically wake up every morning and go on the website and just stare for one hour to see if there are any spots left.”

Yan said that choosing to come to Providence “was definitely a very tough decision to make.” Her parents could not accompany her to Singapore, given that they would be required to undergo another 21-day quarantine once they returned to China. 

For Yan, the experience became particularly stressful when her laptop broke down while she was trying to take her exams in Singapore. “Staying in this country where there’s absolutely no one … I have to figure everything out by myself,” she said. 

“It definitely builds character,” Yan said of her experience making the trip independently. “Living with my parents, I can always expect some help,” she said, but without her parents nearby, the trip was tough. 

But while Yin and Yan successfully obtained visas, not all international students were able to do so.

Abdulla Aldhaheri ’24 is spending the summer semester at home in the United Arab Emirates after his visa application was denied. 

Like other students, Aldhaheri’s first hurdle was securing a visa appointment. The U.S. Embassy in U.A.E. was only giving out “imaginary appointments,” he said, in which students who signed up for an appointment were not actually granted time slots until the embassy reached out again. 

The embassy then told Aldhaheri that he would need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 before being considered for an appointment slot. But Aldhaheri’s history of allergic reactions in response to vaccines kept him from receiving the shot promptly. It was not until after Aldhaheri went through several medical tests that he was able to receive the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. 

He was finally granted an appointment last week, but still was not able to secure his visa. 

The embassy denied his visa application and told him that he had to mail his passport to Washington D.C. and work directly with officials in the United States, requiring him to fill out numerous forms permitting the government to conduct background checks on him. Despite the official timeline for visa approval being two months, Aldhaheri said that it often takes much longer, making it uncertain whether he will be able to arrive on campus for the fall semester. 

“Right now, I’m feeling left out,” Aldhaheri said. “I feel like I’m part of the University, but at the same time … I’m not getting to interact with (students) the way that I want.” 

Moreover, the constraints on travel and the short break between the summer and fall semesters this year make it difficult, if not infeasible, for many international students to return home during the break. Yan and Yin plan to stay at their friends’ homes in the United States once the summer term concludes. 

Administrators who work with international students have shared in their frustration.

“We had to work with state and federal guidelines that we often didn’t know,” said Panetha Ott, director of admission and international recruitment. “We had no insider knowledge of what was going to happen … we did not know what course the pandemic was going to take.”

Because the start date for incoming first-years was moved from September to January as a result of the three-semester model, I-20 forms, a certificate of eligibility for an F-1 visa, had to be reproduced several times, creating even more difficulties for students trying to get visas. 

Although communication via email was at times long and exhaustive, Yin said that he does not blame the University for the uncertainty or challenges of the process.

“We were just pouring out questions to the administration,” he said. “Things are out of (the University’s) control … it’s just frustrating both on our part, and on the school’s part.” 

“To support students during this difficult time, we have done our best despite limited staffing to be available by email and Zoom,” Kelsey Dennis, assistant director of International Student Services at the Office of International Student and Scholar Services, wrote in an email to The Herald. 

Dennis echoed Ott and other students, adding that the “pervasive uncertainty” has been the greatest challenge during the pandemic.

“Many students have had visa appointments or flights booked only to have them cancelled and have to adjust enrollment plans last minute, sometimes more than once,” Dennis wrote.

While pandemic-related travel restrictions may persist for the foreseeable future, the Biden administration has recently created exemptions for students on F-1 and M-1 visas starting in the fall. 

According to an announcement on the State Department website, students applying for new visas still need to visit their local consulate, but they are exempt from other travel restrictions once their visas are issued through the National Interest Exception. This eliminates the need for students traveling from certain countries to quarantine for 14 days in a third country as a workaround to travel restrictions. 

Some students say that politics are to blame for the excessive restrictions on international students entering the country. 

Aldhaheri said that since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the U.S. Embassy has been requiring student visa applicants to fill out more forms in an effort to collect more information about them, which has made the already difficult process “a lot harder.”

Dennis added that in recent years, immigration policies have become increasingly more strict.

“A lot of trust in the U.S. immigration system has been lost in recent years,” Dennis wrote. “I hope that the U.S. can prioritize rebuilding that trust with international students who are such a valuable part of our community.”

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