With uncertainties surrounding visa appointments, experts suggest steps to offer students flexibility.
Nearly 1.1 million international students were enrolled in US universities in 2019-20, making up about 5 percent of all students going in for higher education in the US, according to official data.
For the past many years, Indian students have been the second largest community of foreign students in the US despite the many hurdles legal immigration saw during the Trump era.
But many Indian students who have secured admissions in universities abroad are now left re-planning or re-scheduling their travels amid a deadly second wave of Covid pandemic in India.
While the UK, New Zealand and Australia have temporarily shut their borders to students from India due to the Covid scare, the United States has exempted those with an F1 or a student visa from the travel ban.
While this may serve as a silver lining for many looking ahead to start their academic year in US universities, many others are still left re-planning their travels as family emergencies are forcing them to stay put in India.
“The United States has been one of the most favored destinations for international students to pursue their higher education,” says Atlanta, Georgia, based Pooja Vijaykumar, who has co-published a study on the archaic immigration system in America.
“However, in the last few years we saw a decline in the enrollment of international students due to immigration restrictions and delays under the Trump administration.”
For example, research conducted by Vijaykumar, and Dr. Christopher Cunningham showed 70 percent of the Indian expatriates in the US were seriously interested in emigrating to a more visa-friendly country.
“Uncertainty regarding H-1B visa issues, H4 dependent visa issues and the green card backlog situation which many international students from India rely on acted as a deterrence,” she says.
“Since the beginning of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has only aggravated these issues,” Vijaykumar adds, creating further uncertainty among international students.
In Fall 2020, the Trump administration unsuccessfully tried to bar students from entering and staying in the US if their schools offered only online courses, which contributed to more confusion and chaos.
However, for Fall 2021 semester, the Biden administration has clarified that students from India have been exempted from the travel ban. “This may be a much-needed relief to international students, given the severity of the pandemic situation in India,” Vijaykumar says.
With Indian chapters said to be one of the most active in many renowned US universities, experts are questioning the lack of any substantial help from any of the US based universities for their enrolled students from India.
Sangay Mishra, assistant professor at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, who specializes in immigrant political incorporation, says, “As the Covid 19 situation is worsening in India, the attempts to organize help in the US is happening in multiple sites.”
“Besides the US state agencies there are attempts with the US civil society and Indian diasporic spaces to mobilize for relief and help with certain corporations also coming forward.”
However the silence on the part of higher education institutions cannot go unnoticed, says Mishra noting, “Universities have been relatively silent on this issue and have not taken any leadership.”
“Given the number of students from India who join the US universities every year, there is a direct relationship of these universities with India.”
“Universities can do a lot to help in this situation given their resources, reach and expertise,” says Mishra. But “there is very little that we have seen so far in terms of concrete proposals and initiatives.”
“Given that many of the big universities claim to have a global mission, the emerging situation in India and the global South demands an active response on part of the US universities,” he says.
But what can the universities possibly offer to Indian students caught in the raging pandemic crisis in their home country?
Although the United States Embassy and Consulate General in India have made issuing visas to Indian students a priority, there are still uncertainties surrounding the US consular operations and visa appointments, notes Vijaykumar.
She offers a few practical steps. For example, extending the existing guidance for the year 2021-22, the SEVP (Student and Exchange Visitor Program), will allow issuing of I-20 documents electronically, and enrolled F-1 students can stay outside the US beyond five months.
READ: US restricts travel from India; H-1B, L1 holders most affected (April 30, 2021)
“This will give students some flexibility and time and it is not mandatory for them to travel to the US to attend in-person classes.”
Experts also believe that it is imperative especially in the current situation that universities build a solid communication channel with the international students.
Study abroad counsellors in India, say that the Covid mismanagement in India recently has further forced many students to look at the US as a more suitable option.
Adarsh Khandelwal, co- founder, Collegify, a leading Indian college consulting firm for study abroad says, “US has emerged as the most popular country as a study abroad option for Indian students.”
“The data we collated from across India, shows that this year, despite the pandemic looming large, US universities recorded the highest number of applications in their history of admissions from Indian students.”
While the charm of America as a study destination never dipped, Khandelwal cites a couple of important reasons for a renewed interest.
He says, “Young Indians were quick to notice that unlike India, the medical infrastructure is superior in the US, which was evident with quick vaccinations. Also, Biden’s victory developed a sort of comfort for immigrants.”
In the absence of direct help from the institutions in deciding their future course, Vijay Kumar suggests that students must weigh in the pros and cons given the cost and travel uncertainties and whether they would be happy taking up online classes from India.
Additionally, to lure more international students, the US universities can provide fee incentives or scholarships for students enrolling for online/remote classes from India, she says.
“Also, vaccination on arrival or prior arrival and other documentation requirements must be conveyed to international students, Vijay Kumar says.
“Overall, it is important for universities in the US to build a stronger channel of communication, so that international students can have their concerns and questions addressed.”
Khandelwal feels that the current mismanagement would force the students to look abroad.
“With economy going to be affected, India is likely to fall into a depression period with no jobs and no growth,” he says. “This would force the younger generation to consider moving abroad to study.”
“I would say, anyone who has the affordability would like to consider the option of studying abroad and the US would be one of the top destinations.”
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