Due to COVID-19 embassy closures, incoming international freshmen are struggling to obtain visas while also grappling with the possibility of beginning college completely remotely. Despite the Trump administration’s decision to rescind its plan to strip visas from international students taking online courses, Stanford frosh still face the logistical challenges of physically getting to campus.
“I don’t know what my schedule’s going to look like, I can’t get plane tickets — I don’t know if I’m going to go,” said Elena Recaldini ’24, an international student from Japan.
A stalled visa process
Many U.S. embassies abroad have suspended or reduced operations due to the rapid spread of COVID-19, preventing international freshmen from securing an appointment for an in-person interview necessary for an F-1 visa. An F-1 visa is typically issued to international students enrolling at accredited institutions of higher education and allows them to “travel to a U.S. port-of-entry” and request permission to enter the country, according to the U.S. Department of State.
When asked about challenges experienced by international frosh, University spokesperson E.J. Miranda pointed to Stanford’s actions challenging the federal rule as well as updates for international students on F-1 visas released on Monday. He did not comment on issues faced specifically by international frosh.
Bechtel International Center did not respond to multiple requests for comment. In an email on Wednesday afternoon, Vice Provost for Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole and Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Sarah Church wrote that additional information for international students will be issued “in the coming days.”
Incoming international students across the globe are struggling to attend interviews at local U.S. embassies as COVID-19 continues to threaten public health. By the time Regular Decision results were released on May 1, many of these embassies were closed or had reduced operations.
Students broadly reported difficulties scheduling a visa appointment, even in countries like South Korea that have gotten the virus relatively under control. South Korean student Eu Jin Jung ’24 said he has not been able to go through the interview process at the U.S. Embassy as of Wednesday.
On Thursday, the U.S. Embassy in Seoul announced that they were resuming “certain nonimmigrant visa services,” including interviews for F visa applicants. However, they warned that applicants may experience “increased wait times due to substantial backlogs,” as the Embassy has been closed since March.
Eju Ro ’24, another student from South Korea, said she had run into similar challenges. In addition to issues obtaining a visa, Ro worries about the health risks of traveling to and living in California, where COVID-19 cases have been on the rise.
Even if she were to travel to Stanford, Ro described the situation as “bad” — “It won’t be a normal fall quarter either way,” Ro said.
She said she was also unsure about what kind of protection she would get in case she caught the virus on campus. For now, she will likely begin her frosh year in South Korea.
The I-20 (the Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status issued by Stanford) poses an additional challenge — because Stanford decided to resume classes one week early, I-20 forms had to be changed.
“It was originally supposed to be Sept. 21 and that’s the I-20 document that I got sent from Stanford,” shared Recaldini. With the new start date on Sept. 14, Recaldini had to wait for another I-20 form from Stanford.
Senan Khawaja ’24 from Pakistan said that visa interview appointments had similarly come to a halt in his country. He had a September visa interview appointment that was pushed back due to the COVID-19 crisis. Khawaja later wrote in a statement to The Daily that his chances of attending Stanford fall quarter “seem pretty bleak.”
However, he finds it “very reassuring” that there is still the possibility of attending Stanford during winter and spring quarters.
On Monday, when the federal immigration regulation was still in place, Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Postdoctoral Affairs Stacey Bent, Brubaker-Cole, and Church wrote that international undergraduates would be eligible to live on campus for three consecutive quarters.
However, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne’s message on Tuesday leaves unclear whether international students will still be eligible for these quarters of on-campus housing, given the federal government’s reversal on the immigration directive.
Gayatridevi Kamat Tarcar ’24 from Goa, India, would need to go to the U.S. Embassy in the coronavirus-stricken Mumbai for her interview. To get to her appointment, Kamat Tarcar would have to travel for over 11 hours each way and stop at multiple virus checkpoints at the borders.
“It’s quite a health risk to even go there,” Kamat Tarcar said.
Even if she successfully attained her F-1 visa, traveling to Stanford during the current global pandemic would be difficult.
“I have to get through like maybe four airports to get there,” Kamat Tarcar said. “It’s Goa to Doha to Los Angeles to San Francisco.”
Concerns about an online frosh year
International students are looking to the University for more specific guidelines about the upcoming year to resolve some uncertainty as they approach September.
Time differences are a critical concern for many international students. Lack of live participation in classes or the ability to take seminars with required attendance poses additional challenges for academic planning and exploration.
Jung said it would be difficult to take classes from South Korea, which is 16 hours ahead of California.
“For the classes where you can’t have recorded sessions, how are we going to deal with the time difference?” Jung said. “For test taking, exams, how’s that going to be accommodated?”
Ro is concerned about challenges of experiencing college remotely, while her American peers get to arrive at Stanford.
“To what extent will I be missing out on things that domestic students that go won’t be missing out on?” Ro asked.
Stanford doesn’t yet have a fleshed-out plan to support these concerns and build community remotely, but the students recognized that these multifaceted issues might be beyond Stanford’s reach.
“It’s definitely out of control for them,” Kamat Tarcar said.
Ro understands that the situation is “just so fluid” which makes it difficult for the University to make announcements for the future.
“I think everyone’s trying their best right now, which is really appreciated,” Jung said. “I guess we’re just all waiting on how everything unfolds.”