Fear of uncertain future haunts Indian students
Tens of thousands of Indian students in the United States found their future in jeopardy on Tuesday after the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency said it will not allow student visas holders to remain in the country if their school goes fully online for the fall.
Many of these students said they planned their careers around their US education and the new rules will either kill future career prospects or force them to attend classes in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. To stay in the US, foreign students must transfer to another school with in-person instruction.
“While the specifics of the directive are yet to come, it is clear that this will uproot students financially and socially from where they are and make people extra cautious about trusting the US as a preferred higher-education destination,” said Sudhanshu Kaushik, executive director at the North American Association of Indian Students (NAAIS), which has over 4,500 student members.
Kaushik, who already paid his deposits for an MBA in a US-based university this year, is now uncertain about whether he can continue in the country himself.
Several institutes are offering a combination of online and in-person classes that can help foreign students stay back. But attending physical classes in the country with 1.4 million coronavirus infections poses a difficult choice between health and future prospects.
“Even if the universities opt for hybrid classes, my daughter will have to put her health at risk to attend them,” says Bijayalaxmi Nanda, a Delhi college teacher whose daughter is a final-year postgraduate student at New York University.
Saksham Arora, a second-year undergraduate student at Dartmouth College who is currently in Delhi on a break, has the same worry. And so does his mother Vibha, a school teacher. “If my son goes back, his health will be at risk,” she said. “Students will have to live in hostels and use mess facilities which are more likely to expose them to the virus.”
A 28-year-old student from Mumbai enrolled at the Parsons School of Design in New York said she made her choice as soon as she heard the options.
“I would rather take this risk and attend classes than leave the country,” she says. “I’m just hoping the institute offers offline classes and makes that possible.”
NO EXIT PLAN
With no clarity yet on how most institutes plan to proceed, students said anxiety about their careers overshadowed their pandemic worries. Aside for fending for themselves in shuttered foreign cities, many said they were unable to visit home and family; others worried about shrinking job prospects.
“The Covid-19 crisis came out of nowhere and we don’t have a fallback option,” says Shilpi Agarwal, whose son completed his undergraduate course in May and is currently waiting for postgraduate admissions in Indiana. “There will be a financial loss for us if he doesn’t get to do his Masters or is forced into a gap year. Every parent has different concerns and for us, we don’t want our son to be forced to give up a year.”
Educationists said students and their families should work closely with universities to formulate a plan.
“Many universities are against this new policy. We are, of course, hoping that with their involvement and the petitions they are signing, amendments will be made,” says Alisha Mashruwala Daswani, CEO and co-founder of OnCourse Vantage, an education consultancy.
In one scenario, colleges could quickly go back to the drawing board and devise plans that implement enough in-person programming to keep international students in a status that complies with the new regulations, says Kimberly Wright Dixit, CEO and co-founder of the education consultancy Red Pen. “In another scenario, colleges will not be able to accommodate the international students, which would create tremendous pressures on them to plan their future and return home in the middle of a pandemic.”
The American education system gets much of its famed vibrancy from the diversity of its ranks of students and faculty. It has routinely wooed students from around the world on the basis of that diversity. Billions of dollars in revenue and tens of thousands of jobs depend on that vibrancy.
Students said if forced out of the country, they will lose key elements of the American education promise — a chance to network, and a chance to work, in that country.
With confusion over work visas for students, residency rules, etc, prospective students had already begun looking away from the US,” says Daswani. “Many began looking to Canada, the UK, Europe. Our advice to students applying now is to try to diversify and keep all options open instead of looking at just one country.”
Vibha Kagzi, founder and CEO of the study-abroad consultancy ReachIvy, calls Monday’s announcement myopic and impulsive.
“The US is one of the world’s most popular study destinations. They attract the smartest students from across the globe. This could have been handled more sensitively,” she says.
“For students, our advice is, retain your admissions, return home if you must, but get your degree. Stay the course as best you can.”