By DONOVAN HARRELL
The pandemic has created numerous stressful situations for Pitt’s international students and scholars and the staff who work with them, as they adapt to constantly evolving federal guidance and unprecedented uncertainty.
But thanks to the flexibility of Pitt staff, innovative programs and solutions were created to cope with these issues, said Belkys Torres, executive director of global engagement at the University Center for International Studies.
One of these programs, Pitt On Location, was launched in early July as an interdepartmental collaboration through University Center for International Studies, the Office of International Services and the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid.
The program was created this summer to help meet the needs of international students who wouldn't be able to make it to campus for various reasons. Students will take courses taught by faculty near their homes through Pitt’s study abroad program partners.
Five different cities are participating in Pitt on Location this fall, including Seoul, South Korea; Beijing, Chengdu and Shanghai in China; and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.
She praised Pitt on Location and Flex@Pitt for helping accommodate international students dealing with several visa and travel-related issues.
“Because (the study abroad office) wasn't sending anybody anywhere, they were able to step up and innovate to create this program where Pitt is the one that's coming to you instead,” Torres said.
The root cause of the stressors for international students, scholars and Pitt staff is the evolving guidance from the federal government.
In March, when the pandemic began forcing institutions and countries to shutter their doors, “things started going haywire,” said Delo Blough, director of the Office of International Studies.
“I think we're all the same way when things start going haywire,” Blough said. “You want to be around the people that love you, and so a lot of students were scrambling to get back home at that time.”
OIS staff began encouraging students to remain in the U.S. because they were concerned about borders suddenly closing and what might happen if students were to leave and be stuck abroad.
Embassies started closing around the world during the summer and have only recently begun opening, Blough said.
Students who needed visas, including incoming international students and some continuing students, weren’t able to get them issued.
It was especially stressful for students, scholars and staff in July. In March, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement relaxed a rule that prevented students with F-1 and M-1 visas from taking multiple online classes.
ICE walked back that decision in July, saying that international students may not stay in the U.S. if their courses are entirely online.
This created a new set of hurdles for students, staff and faculty, Blough said.
“That was a problem because most of our students and many of our students who stayed in the U.S. are now unable to get flights back home,” Blough said. “So that created havoc and mayhem.”
Kyoungah Lee, the international programming coordinator and advisor in the Office of Student Affairs, said some international students from Asia also feared facing incidents of xenophobia
Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a lawsuit against ICE and its updated guidance, and other universities, including Pitt, supported the lawsuit.
Later that month, ICE rescinded the guidance after significant backlash. Things have since calmed down to more manageable levels, Blough said, adding that more international students are coming in than she anticipated now that they’re finally able to get their visas.
According to Blough, roughly 1,100 international undergraduate and graduate students have been admitted and paid their deposits so far. However, 200 or so graduate students have deferred to the spring and summer 2021 semesters. Around 40 undergraduates have done the same.
Torres said there are about 100 incoming international students who were already in U.S. high schools, another 100 or so students stayed in their home country and are enrolling in Pitt on Location, and another 100 students who are abroad but enrolled using Flex@Pitt.
Blough said the office won’t have a complete picture of international student enrollment until the end of the add-drop period on Sept. 4
The workload for staff changed “exponentially” over those months, Blough said. Staff, who normally didn’t have to keep a constant eye on international student documentation, had to keep updating, sending and resending documentation to international students and the government whenever a change in the University or federal government occurred.
Some international students, especially those from China, have been struggling since January when the COVID-19 spread throughout their home country, infecting their friends and families
“That's when the anxiety really started for a lot of them,” Blough said.
OIS typically has a team of five, including student specialists and advisors, handling documentation for the students, and Blough said she had to step in and assist with the workload more than usual.
OIS staff had to change and reissue roughly 700 documents that international students use to request visas from embassies four different times in some cases. This was because of the shifting federal guidance and the University changing the class start date from Aug. 24 to Aug. 19.
“That absolutely has never happened in the past,” Blough said. “You might get a handful of students who need something reissued for one reason or another, but to reissue hundreds of documents three or four times was a nightmare.”
This summer has been tough on staff, Blough said, but the knowledge that the situation was temporary and much more difficult for students kept things in perspective.
“It helps to keep that in mind when I'm feeling stressed,” Blough said. “It's so much less than what I know students are feeling.”
Torres also praised OIS for its flexibility and ability to quickly identify student needs and adjust accordingly. And thanks to programs like Pitt on Location and Flex@Pitt, the University is in a better position to meet student needs.
OIS began running forums where students can ask questions in a group setting, whether they be about enrollment issues, Flex @Pitt, Pitt on Location and other issues.
Pitt also has created an International Access Task Center that curates the information students abroad would need. This is particularly useful for students studying in China who may face software and internet restrictions, Torres said.
She said that the hard work from Pitt staff and University leadership’s dedication to international students helped make a huge impact on these students as they deal with this tumultuous time.
“The takeaway here is that Pitt is an institution with units and leaders who are not afraid to be creative or innovative, who are not afraid to take risks in service of our student population, and who's always been a leader, quite frankly, in global education nationally,” Torres said. “I think this particular effort just shows that we continue to be trendsetters in that regard.”
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com or 412-383-9905.
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