Heralding the near-closure of a time we all want to put behind us, institutions are pressing forward with positive messaging, suggestions or requirements for vaccinations, and a much-anticipated return to in-person courses and student life experience. Personally, I have frequent fantasies of burning a mask or two in my fire pit one night.
Looking ahead, we are encouraged by the chance to meet in person once again, to run exciting orientation programs and to see campus bustling with life. Students are excited for anything remotely similar to a “normal” college experience. This fall will be fun, new, refreshing and comforting. Yet for many it will also be terrifying, fraught with homesickness, PTSD and health concerns. While looking ahead to our brighter future, we must also keep in mind the mental health concerns disproportionately faced by this population. Last year, the American College Health Association identified international students as a “particularly vulnerable” group deserving significant attention and resources (Nott, 2020). We simply cannot forge ahead without properly planning for and supporting the mental health needs of this group.
But that’s assuming they actually make it here. Every day, we hear from students who are struggling to make their plans work to study with us in Fall of 2021. Clamoring to get a visa appointment: many are either traveling outside their home country in order to apply at another embassy, or simply resigned that they will not make it to the U.S. this fall. U.S. embassies and consulates remain backlogged and understaffed. They struggle to get a flight here: international travel is difficult. Flights are cancelled. There are simply no flights available on some days from some major global sites. This situation was simply unfathomable prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Struggling to get transportation from the airport. As a rural institution, we depend on a mix of public bus and private (chartered) airport shuttles to bring most international students to campus. What happens when the public busses only run on limited days of the week? We have students who cannot use our scheduled shuttles due to limited flight availability, and cannot use the bus due to the fact it does not run every day now. We are reduced to helping arrange a private car to pick them up at the airport, at great expense to either the student or the institution.
Meanwhile, everyone knows budgets are tight. Pressure is increasing on all of us to reduce budget expenditures and be mindful of costs. If we must accommodate extra days in orientation due to students arriving who need required vaccinations, who pays for their meals? Who takes care of them, checks them in, and helps them out until orientation begins? Ultimately, all of these questions point back to resources in staffing and budget. But the bigger picture here is that while in the U.S. we may be convinced to be nearly closing the door on the pandemic, internationally we are very far away from this reality. As a global society, we should realize that the pandemic in fact, is nowhere near over. Already there are calls for booster vaccines and in all likelihood, this will be a trend continued for years, or perhaps lifetimes.
Our advising has shifted. Every piece of advice offered to any international traveler now comes with the caveat of, “but, this could change.” Making your visa appointment? But know that the consulate could close without advance notice. Purchasing your flight with transit through Frankfurt. Check out what the transit requirements are for Germany. But remember, this can change. Traveling to an unrestricted country? Have fun, but remember, there’s always a chance that new travel restrictions or border closures could happen at any moment. This could change. We plan to have you move into your fall housing when you arrive, without quarantine. But remember, this could change based on new university guidance. International Student & Scholar Services offices are weary of the shifting sands beneath our feet and wary of offering any advice for fear it will likely change in a week. Our students are hopeful, trying, pushing forward and yet also tired. The pandemic surely does not feel like it is over yet. We are all anxious for a “return to normal” although increasingly many are questioning what that normal will be. Within the world of international student support, we are simply not there yet. But hopefully, it’s looming just around the corner.
Jennifer Figueroa works as the Director of International Student Services at Bucknell University, in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. She’s made her career working with international students and immigrants and loves travel, food and languages. In her free time she enjoys hiking and time with her daughter.