Opinion

Modifications to F-1 visa restriction exemptions for international students should be reconsidered

UW-Madison’s International Student Services is housed in the Red Gym, pictured above.

UW-Madison’s International Student Services is housed in the Red Gym, pictured above.

Image By: James Steakley courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The COVID-19 pandemic has been unprecedented, taking most of the world by storm in mid-March and continuing to maintain a strong grip on the world. It was at this crucial juncture in March that thousands of international students flocked back home, completely in the dark about what their semester would look like after Spring Break.

You see, international undergraduate students study in the United States under the F-1 visa. The visa may be a ticket to a quality education, but also brings with it significant restrictions that students must strictly adhere to. From being able to work only at certain on-campus locations without a need for authorization, to having a limit on the number of hours worked per week and two specific types of internship authorization (one of which has recently been under attack), there are many things to keep in mind.

One such set of regulations is centered around the course load an international student can take in a semester. Students are required to take a minimum of 12 credits per semester i.e. be enrolled full time, unless they need fewer than 12 credits to graduate or can justify the need for a reduced course load. Out of these 12 credits, at least nine must be traditional, in person credits. Such an arrangement is pretty straightforward to adhere to and does not require much thought in a normal situation.

However, we do not currently live in normal times.

The students who had proactively flown back home needed to wait for federal guidance on their status. The fact that they’d left the United States and would be forced to take all courses online — owing to the shift in mode of instruction — had put them in violation of the constricting visa regulations. The only option available at the time was to apply for a “leave of absence”, which would have required students to take a gap semester and likely have needed students to reapply for entry. Such an arrangement could’ve had damaging effects on students’ academic plans and career

I had personally decided against flying back at the time, for multiple reasons but one of them being the potential need to apply for a leave of absence. However, federal guidance soon came in and it was certainly a relief. The decision had been made to relax all restrictions on the number of traditional credits needed, all credits could be taken online and students were allowed to complete the semester from outside the United States — all this as long as they were enrolled full time.

While I was late in making my decision and ended up staying in Madison for another four months, I was happy to have one less thing to worry about. I was able to dedicate time to finishing my semester strong, keeping myself sane in isolation and of course, handling my duties as Opinion Editor.

As an international student grateful to be in such a position, I must use these columns to speak for students like me, at a time like this.

I did fly back to my country of residence not long ago, but I — like most other  international students — find myself once again in a state of limbo. With universities around the country having different plans for a fall reopening, a lot of uncertainty prevails. The Cal State system decided to go completely online, while Yale came up with an unconventional plan for welcoming students back on campus. UW-Madison — like other UW system campuses — has come up with a plan for a smart restart, one of the most comprehensive plans announced thus far. Plans that aimed to alleviate a lot of stress.

However, new guidance from the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) for Fall 2020 has undone the prudent decision-making of the previous semester and exacerbated the difficulties faced by the international student community. New directives dictate that students cannot take an entire online course load like in Spring or Summer. Students studying in institutions that are completely online for fall are particularly affected by this declaration, being forced to leave the country or pursue alternative pathways like transferring to an institution that offers some form of face-to-face instruction, which can be especially difficult during a pandemic and in such short notice. Students facing a hybrid instructional model face more relaxed measures but still need to attend in-person components. All in all, the declaration is brutal.

With the unpredictability of travel restrictions and COVID-19 case spikes, it would be simply impossible for some students to fly back into the United States, while others who may be able to enter would have a harder time returning home and put themselves in greater danger of being sick. The protections one is afforded at home can be pivotal in such circumstances. Such protections can even prove to be life-saving for students potentially at risk of serious illness. Any potential shifts in campus operation would again affect internationals hardest, as they simply cannot travel in short notice. No one in particular can be blamed for that but relaxed regulations would ensure that significantly fewer students find themselves in an isolated campus or a state of limbo. 

But the latest announcements have eliminated any choices that the students or even the universities may have planned to make this semester. Choices that would have kept their best interests in mind. Choices that would enable them to make the most of their education in a safe manner. After all, isn’t that what education is about?

The pandemic calls for a show of humanity and consideration of everyone’s well being. International students arrive in millions to the United States because of the education they’re offered and bring a lot to the table, financially and otherwise. A consideration for their lives during a global pandemic isn’t too much to ask for.

For further updates on campus operations this fall, do check the Smart Restart page and the COVID-19 updates page. International students should also check the ISS website for further guidance. 

Anupras is a Sophomore studying Computer Science. Do you think the recent visa restriction amendments are unfair to students? Send all comments/questions to opinion@dailycardinal.com 

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