‘Not surprising’: International graduate students respond to short-lived ICE directive

Aug. 3, 2020, 1:01 p.m.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a policy on July 6 barring international students attending schools operating entirely online from remaining in the United States. The Trump Administration rescinded the policy a little over a week later, after Harvard and MIT filed a lawsuit to block the directive, with the support of hundreds of universities, including Stanford

The rollercoaster of decisions put international students through the wringer that week, and while undergraduate international students received only a few assurances, graduate and medical students received even fewer. The Daily interviewed four of these students for their reactions to the policy.

“Initially I don’t think I took it in,” said Vivian Lou ’19, a Canadian citizen from Vancouver and second-year medical student at Stanford. 

Lou was unsure whether the policy applied to her. However, when her friends began to reach out to her following the ICE decision, Lou realized that the situation could actually impact her.

Lou and other international students began checking with the leadership of Stanford’s medical school to see if they would be willing to develop a hybrid model so that they could remain on campus. However, international students said they didn’t receive any communication from the medical school despite reaching out. 

“It was a little bit disappointing,” Lou said. 

While Stanford Medical School appeared unsupportive, Bechtel International Center, which takes care of international student paperwork, was very responsive and helpful in regards to the ICE policy. Lou appreciated how the Stanford administration was very timely on their updates. The administration contacted international students immediately when the policy was rescinded.

When she heard the news about the overturned policy, Lou said she “felt a great sense of relief,” as “the policy didn’t make sense to begin with,” at least when it came to COVID-19. The policy would have resulted in additional — and unnecessary — travel, thus potentially increasing the spread of coronavirus. 

If the directive hadn’t been reversed, Lou said that she would have gone home to Canada if medical school went fully online. She felt thankful that she “would have the privilege of being able to go home if that was the case.” 

That wasn’t the case for some of her classmates; Lou was worried for her classmates across the world, particularly those from countries in different timezones. 

Compared to international undergraduate students, Lou felt that “other international medical students were a little bit more optimistic — I think that we all just felt worried for each other.” 

Since there are up to 2,000 students in each class cohort of undergraduate students, it would have been more difficult and dangerous for them to go back to campus and take classes in person, compared to the 90 students in each medical student class. Another concern that Lou had for undergraduate students was that some of their classes are mandatory, which would prove to be difficult for people in dramatically different time zones. For medical students, many of their classes are optional, so it wouldn’t be as much of a concern with the policy.

Initially, Lou was happy to pursue her career as a physician in either Canada or the U.S. However, the directive has made her rethink this.

“Given all the increasing changes in U.S. immigration policy, and just everything that’s been happening since the new U.S. government administration, it does make me feel a little bit less like my goal is to eventually be in the United States,” Lou added.

Austin Atsango, from Nairobi, Kenya, is a Ph.D. student in physical chemistry. Reflecting on the ICE directive, he said that “it was not expected at all,” adding that it was “like a rock had been pulled out or something; it was so disruptive.” 

Atsango did have hope that the directive could be “worked around,” since a lot of people need to be on campus for in-person study. However, with his field of study, he didn’t have to be on campus. He began to grow worried as there was a lack of information being sent out to him.

“It was almost impossible to make plans,” and “it was a mess,” Atsango said. He understood that the administration didn’t have all of the information, but wished that Stanford could’ve been more proactive in their response. 

“At some point we were just relying on faith that it would work out [for us to stay],” Atsango recalled. He had kept the news a secret from his parents back home in Kenya. He wanted to wait to tell his parents about it until he was completely sure that the directive would affect him to avoid unnecessary panic, which given the Trump administration’s quick 180, turned out to be the right decision.

“It was a huge relief,” Atsango remembered thinking when he heard the ICE directive had been reversed. Otherwise, he would have tried to stay at Stanford, but would go home if staying was illegal. Since Kenya is ten hours ahead of California time, and Atsango doesn’t have the supplies he needs at home, he expressed his worries about keeping up with his work. 

“I don’t think that it’d have been possible over the long term for me to complete my degree while not in the U.S. and not at Stanford,” he said. “I just don’t know what I would’ve done.” 

Atsango even expressed that he might have had to stop school altogether because of how much trouble the decision would’ve caused him. Despite this, he felt that it would’ve been much worse if he were an undergraduate student. If he wasn’t on campus for the first quarter, he would’ve had to go back home. Plus, if there were an outbreak of COVID-19 on campus, he would have to leave the U.S. in ten days and do online learning from Kenya. 

“It would’ve been a nightmare [if I were an undergraduate],” he added.

Songnan Wang, a second-year M.D. candidate at the School of Medicine, has lived in the U.S. since her junior year of high school and attended John Hopkins University as an undergraduate, though she grew up in Shandong, China. Wang’s gut reaction toward the ICE policy was: “not even surprised at this point.” 

Though there were initial feelings of bitterness, Wang said it was kind of expected since she feels that the “overall climate [toward foreigners in the U.S.] is just not very friendly.” 

“There’s always this idea of otherness,” she added, but it became more evident because of the extraordinary time society is going through. 

It’s all against the backdrop of COVID-19, the health disparities revealed by the virus, as well as the police brutality and anti-racist movements happening. Though she understands the complex factors behind the ICE policy, it’s still “ridiculous” how the fate of international students who worked “very hard for many years” would get “determined by a single class.”

While the directive caused widespread disturbance to international students, she had “a lot of faith in Stanford” to “come up with ways to fulfill the in-person requirement.” 

As a medical student, learning “really does take place through practice, whether it is through dissection or through speaking with patients [in] the wards,” so Wang believes that she would have been fine. 

Thinking about undergraduates, fellow candidates in other departments, and students from other institutions — all of which may be in a “trickier” situation to fulfill in-person requirements — Wang felt privileged to be an international medical student at Stanford who receives protection and support. 

Filip Simeski, who is currently the only Macedonian student at Stanford, is a third-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Hailing from Skopje, Macedonia’s capital, he came to the U.S. in August of 2013 and finished his undergraduate studies at Brown University. 

When Simeski first heard about the ICE directive, he was “shocked, scared and, by extension, stressed out by it.” He also expressed how things worsened as different interpretations from various departments at Stanford, media sources and personal connections added to the confusion. 

While the uncertainty caused emotional strain, the directive’s retraction “brought a little peace of mind,” and can be “best summed up in the tweet by one of his classmates from Brown: ‘Wow… is this what good news feels like?’” 

As a Ph.D. candidate, Simeski is “not required to take any more formal coursework at Stanford,” however, he still registers for research units every quarter and does research to “satisfy the 135-unit requirement for Ph.D. students at Stanford.” 

“No one, however, knew if this counts as an online class or in-person class,” he said, adding that his fellow Ph.D. students in other departments, as well as many masters-level and all undergraduate students, may not be as lucky as him. 

In terms of his thoughts toward Stanford’s response to the ICE directive, he believes that the cause for the University’s slow response was because “the policy was short, lacked details and was a blanket approach to the many different situations in which international students as a population find themselves during this period.” 

He added that the diversity of academic fields and the range of degrees (undergraduate, graduate, doctoral) at Stanford also complicated the University’s response. 

Simeski is hopeful that he and other international students pursuing the “amazing educational opportunities” offered in the U.S. can “graduate with no further bureaucratic obstacles.”

“The melting pot of cultures, the cross-pollination between various backgrounds and complementary experiences are the three factors that make U.S. higher educational institutions so amazing,” Simeski said. “And, that will remain possible, as long as we strive to make everyone welcome here.” 

Contact Vivian Chang at vivianchang2003 ‘at’ gmail.com and Bridget Stuebner at bridget.stuebner ‘at’ gmail.com. 

Vivian Chang is a high school student writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop.Bridget (she/her) is a writer for The Daily’s news, sports, and arts and life sections. Contact her at news 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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