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A file photo of students and pedestrians at Harvard University. (Reuters)
A file photo of students and pedestrians at Harvard University. (Reuters)

New US visa rule puts students in a corner

  • The move mounts pressure on universities to open their campuses even as fears grow that the virus is increasingly affecting young adults
  • US has told India it will try and mitigate the impact of the new rules

The moment Chirag Sharma saw the news on his phone that the US would expel foreign students whose schools or courses offer online-only classes, he fired off a mail to his adviser at American University’s Kogod School of Business in Washington DC.

He requested to be transferred to the online-plus-physical class format for the next semester that starts in August. “My school has a hybrid model and I had selected online classes to protect myself from the virus. But if that means I will have to return, then it’s best I do my classes in-person," said Sharma, 22, who has taken a 15 lakh loan for the two-year course in accounting and taxation. “I hope there’s still space for me to be accommodated in the physical classes. I have heard if cases continue to rise, all classes will go online. I’m worried and confused."

As students across the world contemplate what their fall semester will look like, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency on 6 July limited the options for international students. Over 250,000 Indian students will now have to decide whether they will attend in-person classes in the middle of a pandemic or study online from their home country. Students who have enrolled in universities that have already decided to go entirely online won’t be allowed to enter the US or face being expelled if they are already there.

“Active students currently in the US enrolled in such programs must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status," states a release from ICE’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program. “If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings."

The move mounts pressure on universities to open their campuses even as fears grow that the virus is increasingly affecting young adults.

Sumeet Jain, co-founder of Yocket, a platform that guides students who want to study abroad, believes most universities will now consider opening campuses. Even institutions that once said they would go completely online will now have to consider a hybrid or on-campus model to retain students. “I don’t see any university being able to take the big blow of not having international students on campus because that would mean hurting revenues," he said.

“If there’s a hybrid model, students who are currently doing courses online from India may be able to go back. But again, we have to wait and see how they flesh out the rules."

Close to 23% of colleges plan to offer a hybrid model, and they include Yale, Stanford, Georgetown and Northwestern. The ICE guidance has given them a short deadline of 1 August to come out with their plans. Indian students at institutions like Harvard, where the coursework has shifted completely online, are shocked at the decision.

“I have no idea what I’m supposed to do now. I can’t tell my parents how stressed I am because they will get worried. I have taken a 50 lakh loan for this—what if I get deported and put my parents at risk?" said a 27-year-old Harvard student who declined to be identified.

Ishani Singh, 25, who is pursuing master’s degree in publishing in print and digital media from New York University, is waiting for more information from her university. “There was mention of a hybrid model but it’s subject to change, depending on the situation. It’s very unfair to put us through this. We are at risk of losing our education and the opportunity to work there," said Singh, who flew back to Delhi in March.

Sunita Gandhi, founder of learning platform Global Classroom, calls the ICE decision “retrograde". Her daughter is a senior at Denver University on a full scholarship. “All her classes have been held online and she has received her next semester plans as well. What if her university decides to stay online? She will not be able to get a scholarship at short notice at a university that offers physical classes, and her course choices may not be available there," she says. “This is unnecessary confusion and uncertainty at such a difficult time."

Meanwhile, the US has told India it will try and mitigate the impact of the new rules.

Mint has learnt that the matter came up for discussion during foreign office consultations between India and the US on Tuesday. The online meeting took place between foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla and US under secretary of state for political affairs David Hale.

Elizabeth Roche contributed to the report.

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