April 15, 2021

Where are all the International Students?

An uncovered arm receives a medical shot from a practitioner.

As schools prepare for a “full” reopening in the Fall, there is a tremendous amount to consider. Whether testing will continue, instruction format, travel to campus, athletics, and residency are not only philosophical questions “based on the science” but also come with great financial implications.

The most recent headlines from Rutgers, Nova Southeastern University, Cornell University and others is that they will require proof of vaccination from students and faculty to return. This is yet another example of a hurdle within the institutions but for those coming to campus. And while most students will likely be able to get an appointment at the closest mass vaccination site by summer, the same is likely not true for international students.


Where are international students in the conversation?
Are they first in our minds?
Why does it seem like they are an afterthought?
Why is the responsibility delegating to a singular unit across campus?


While there are a great number of issues we could focus on in which international students - among other groups - are put at a disadvantage, the issue of vaccines is a timely one. It helps the majority while creating additional barriers for others.


First is the issue of different vaccines being available in different countries. 


In the United States we currently have two approved vaccines - Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna. This is after a slowdown on the issuing of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine due to reports of blood clots in patients. Across the globe other vaccines including the Oxford AstraZeneca are leading the way. Like many of us have done, we would expect that students pursue the first vaccine they have access to for their own health and protection against the virus. However, doing so may still prevent international students from being able to return to their campuses without being vaccinated upon arrival if the vaccine they receive is not on the list of approved vaccines for the United States at that time. Similar to when travel restrictions to and from the US were implemented early on in the pandemic, these quick decisions can put international students at a disadvantage as they scramble to adapt their plans to the current conditions.


This new mandate is just another example of the additional strain placed upon international students. 


Recently The Chronicle of HIgher Education highlighted the lived experiences of students who have been stranded in the US without the ability to travel home to see family. Conversely, it also highlighted the experiences of those working to sign onto their classes 12 hours ahead or several hours behind due to time differences. These realities have smashed the myths of the aura of international students as privileged “rich” kids. Further exacerbating their experience is the rising violence we have seen against international populations, particularly Asian and Pacific Islanders. This is not surprising and could have been predicated by anyone following the early coverage of the “China-virus.” Early on we did keep student needs in mind but more particularly with regards to their access to technology and shelter. We have to think back and reflect on where did international students come into our work? And why was protecting them from the harassment they would soon face not also a priority?


The decision to require vaccination is certainly one made with sound judgement, as colleges already require a number of immunizations and vaccinations. But if this is a priority for re-population of our campuses then supporting international students who are eager to return to their way of learning on campus, should also be a priority.


So what do we do about it? We listen, and learn. And then we adapt our mindset to student-forward first.


Too often we rely on the “data’ to guide decisions on the masses. If less than 10 percent of your campus population is international, should we make decisions only based on the 90 percent of domestic students? Or rather, should we develop our programs and processes that certainly serve the majority but equally spend time hearing the voices of the 10 percent to prepare to meet their needs? Ignoring the 10 percent is what has led to the trouble for institutions, such as the unrest we have seen over the past five years, culminating in the unrest of the summer of 2020 against racial discrimination and violence.


GAISA’s research is an example of a students-first mindset. We place the voice of the 10 percent first. Our first report will be based on the experiences of our internationals student panel - experiences of students into and through the COVID-19 pandemic to understand what has been helpful for them, where have their plans changed, and where are they separately in need of resources. This report is a starting point to launch us to action. You will see us spend the coming months opening a conversation across institutions, engaging with international students, and utilizing tool kits, based on the data, to refine our work.


We encourage you to do the same on your campuses and in your community. Begin with those we need to hear from most - international students, first-generation students, and other groups who will have the greatest challenge to a full reintegration into our campuses. By hearing their voices first, we serve all by starting with equity.

Kelly Golden

About the author: Kelly Golden, Ph.D., currently serves as the Associate Dean of Student Affairs and Enrollment Regis College in Weston, Massachusetts. She has over 12 years of experience across areas in higher education and  always seeking ways to eliminate barriers for students throughout their lifecycle. Kelly is a member of the GAISA executive team.