Roham Razaghi is a fourth year PhD student at Johns Hopkins University. He is from Iran and concerned about the future of international students here in the U.S
Shrey Aggarwal boarded a crowded flight June 23 to India. For weeks, he’d been exchanging emails with the Indian embassy in hopes of returning home to New Delhi for the summer, and he finally succeeded.
But now the University of Maryland student worries he won’t be able to return to College Park for his fall semester.
The physics undergraduate is among thousands of international students whose future plans were in jeopardy this week after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said they would not be able to remain in the country if they took online classes this fall.
As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the federal agency had waived requirements dictating that international students could only take one online class per semester. But, on Monday, it reversed course.
The decision, which has since been challenged in federal court, has left international students attending Maryland universities scrambling to make sure their schedules include in-person courses.
“Now I have to go to the class and expose myself to other people,” Aggarwal said.
The new rule also left institutions already struggling to plan a semester amid a global pandemic with fresh questions about a large cohort of their students. And the loss of tuition revenue from international students could be a devastating blow on top of financial problems caused by coronavirus.
But some confusion still shrouds the policy. The guidance from ICE states that students must be taking the “minimum number” of online courses to keep their visa status.
Sheela Murthy, founder and president of the Murthy Law Firm, an Owings Mills-based immigration firm, said she’s concerned that only taking one in-person class won’t be enough for international students.
“They’re saying ‘We need you to do as many in-person classes as you can in order to maintain your F-1 status as a full time student or vocational student in the United States,” said Murthy, who also sits on the boards of trustees at Maryland Institute College of Art and Stevenson University. “But they haven’t said how many classes or how many credits hours that should equate to.
“They’re trying to scare people.”
ICE officials declined to comment Wednesday, citing the pending litigation.
Aggarwal, 21, isn’t sure his schedule will pass muster, but he’s hopeful that the lab courses he’s signed up for will be held in person so he’s able to return to the United States using his student visa. He won’t know until July 15, when the university finalizes its class schedule.
”It was just out of the blue,” he said of the ICE announcement. “I did not think that they would do such a thing.”
The ICE announcement is even more confusing for Ph.D. students like Roham Razaghi, who is no longer taking formal classes at Johns Hopkins University but working in a lab to complete biomedical engineering research.
He’s been able to access his lab during the pandemic but has completed much of his work from his home in Baltimore’s Patterson Park neighborhood. He’s hopeful he’ll be able to stay in the country based on his lab work, but worries he may have to sign up for a formal in-person class.
”I feel sort of numb,” Razaghi said. “It’s been a dream to come here and be given the opportunities that I couldn’t be offered back home ... But now I feel like it’s unclear to me that I can pursue that dream.”
Razaghi is among nearly 5,000 international students at Hopkins. The University System of Maryland, which includes about a dozen campuses in the state, has nearly 4,000 foreign undergraduates and more than 5,000 foreign graduate students.
Maryland schools, most of which are planning a combination of online and in-person classes for the fall, have spoken out against the policy, and some insinuated that they’ll offer special in-person coursework for international students to keep them in the states.
In an email sent to the University of Maryland’s student body, President Darryll Pines said he’d “direct colleges and schools to seek academic solutions that ensure more in-person instruction, including the use of independent research, discipline seminar courses and other courses that offer in-person instruction to our international students.”
As questions abound, some professors have stepped up to reassure students.
“Anyone at University of Maryland needing an in person class, I AM AVAILABLE to do an independent study,” tweeted Dana R. Fisher, a University of Maryland sociology professor, Monday evening.
Fisher said she’s hopeful she won’t have to offer the independent studies at all. But she said her door is open to international students who need her help — and want to learn about her research on American democracy. And she’s heard from plenty of students who are interested.
“We have so much anxiety in the world right now, and I wanted to make sure that the students had some certainty even as the university was trying to figure out how to respond,” she said.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic upended life in the United States, Audrey Widodo, a University of Maryland student from Jakarta, Indonesia, was planning on pursuing two majors. But with Monday’s announcement, she’s decided to abandon her major in information sciences so she can graduate earlier with a degree in journalism.
The announcement left her feeling frustrated and unwanted, and she’s worried she wouldn’t be able to return to the U.S. if she were to leave for her winter break. So she’s hoping to graduate in December.
“It feels like a personal attack on us, because all we’ve done in this country is spend our time and our money and spend our efforts,” said Widodo, 21.
At the moment, Widodo said it looks like she’ll be able to stay in her College Park apartment to take her classes this fall. After a number of frantic emails to professors, she discovered that her video journalism class would be held in person.
But, she’s still rushing to prepare to leave the country — just in case. She called the University of Maryland’s Health Center and set up an appointment for the health screening she’d need to return to Indonesia. She called her apartment’s leasing office to figure out what it would take to break her lease. (The answer? Two months’ rent.)
She’s trying to figure out how she’d sell her car, and what she’d do with the Shiba Inu puppy she got back in March.
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And if there’s a spike of coronavirus cases on campus or in Maryland, the university could move all of its classes online. That could force international students like Widodo to return to their home countries, although the current guidance from ICE is unclear.
“I know what it feels like to have the pandemic actually hit home,” said Widodo, who tested positive in June but was asymptomatic before testing negative 14 days later. “I’m really scared because if anything happens in the fall, like if it spikes up again, and I’m still here, then suddenly they’re asking us to go home.”
For Razaghi, who is from Iran, the past few years already have been challenging as a result of other immigration policies, including the Trump administration’s travel ban and sanctions against his home country.
“The end of this month becomes eight years that I’m in the U.S. and I haven’t visited my family,” Razaghi said. “It feels like a large prison right now.”
Razaghi, who arrived in the U.S. as an 18-year-old for his undergraduate studies in California, is hoping to build a life in America. And he’s worried that when Hopkins transitions to online-only courses after Thanksgiving, he could be forced to leave.