International students facing unique challenges here and at home


The University Center for International Studies, the Office of International Services and the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid are coordinating to help meet the unique needs of international students who face numerous hurdles to return to Pitt this fall.

Belkys Torres, executive director of global engagement for the University Center for International Studies (UCIS), is one of several UCIS employees spread throughout the various working groups within the three University task forces looking for strategies to assist international students and scholars with their needs.

So far, these students have needed extensive financial assistance to help deal with the many disruptions the COVID-19 pandemic has created in housing, travel and visa systems and more. This spurred the creation of the International Student Emergency Assistance fund, where international students can request up to $1,500 for emergency medical, food, utility and housing expenses.

This fund has been particularly useful, Torres said, and was created after international undergraduate and graduate students began struggling financially because they either decided or were forced to stay in the United States amid the pandemic.

Many of these students had no intention of staying in the U.S. over the summer, and, in some cases, had internships or jobs waiting for them back home, Torres said.

Incoming and returning international students, especially Chinese students, also are facing issues with travel bans and extensive visa processing delays, she said. Some students are wary of committing to Pitt since there’s a chance they may not be able to get to campus.

“It’s still very much uncertain when consulates will open up in some countries,” Nathan Urban, vice provost for Graduate Studies, said. “We’re beginning to hear now about consulates opening and beginning to schedule appointments for visas for students who would want to come to the U.S. in the fall. It’s really unclear how quickly that is going to progress in countries like China and India where (Pitt gets) a lot of our international students.”

Even if they can make it to the U.S., they will be required to self-quarantine for 14 days, which creates even more difficulties.

The Office of International Services handles issues related to immigration, while the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid works with incoming student populations.

So far, these offices have used several engagement strategies, including webinars and surveys, to help Pitt’s international community, Torres said. Another successful strategy has been utilizing social media platforms like WeChat for recruiting and to communicate with students and their families.

The Office of International Services has focused on international students’ health, safety and security through surveys and regular email communication.

Representatives from these offices and the Offices of the Provost and Student Affairs also meet weekly to decide how to financially support the international students.

Torres said she and the other offices primarily rely on federal guidance from the U.S. Department of State, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Bureau of Cultural Affairs and Exchange.

International students and their families are still waiting to see how Pitt decides to resume this fall before they make final decisions about attending.

So far, the Office of the Provost has indicated that enrollment and retention numbers for international students are positive.

Provost Ann Cudd said that the working groups are still in the process of gathering options for enrollment accommodations, but a website will be created to help international students and their families.

Torres said the University is exploring “all kinds of creative and innovative approaches to ensure that students can remain engaged academically and outside the classroom, regardless of whether they are physically on campus or participating remotely.”

This could take the form of “hybrid and flexible instructional models” that allow for student engagement on and off the campus. Outside of the classroom, there are some talks of creating a virtual experience for Pitt events and traditions.

“We want to be sure that students feel engaged and a part of our community regardless of the way in which they are participating ... So there’s a lot of exciting things going on,” she said.

The pandemic has revealed how committed Pitt is to its international community, Torres said,

“We are an institution that relies heavily on our international intellectual community to thrive, and we recognize that … now more than ever,” Torres said.

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-383-9905.


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