A new directive announced by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) on Monday that strips international students studying remotely of their legal immigration status prompted panic and feelings of uncertainty amongst Bowdoin’s international student community.
“Nonimmigrant F-1 and M-1 students attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States,” the announcement from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reads.
With Bowdoin’s decision to continue remote learning for the majority of the student body this fall, this new policy means that sophomore, junior and senior international students at Bowdoin will lose their F-1 student visas and need to re-apply for legal immigration status when colleges reopen for in-person classes. Those who are still in the United States will be asked to transfer to other schools with in-person instruction or self-deport back to their home country.
As long as incoming first-year international students are able to participate in their first-year seminar in person, though, they should still be able to satisfy the requirements of their F-1 visa. A rule ordinarily prohibits students on F-1 visas from taking more than one course or three credit hours online in any given semester, but the new policy makes an exception for students attending schools operating under a hybrid model.
“F-1 students attending schools adopting a hybrid model … will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online,” the announcement from ICE reads. “These schools must certify to SEVP, through the Form I-20, ‘Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status,’ certifying that the program is not entirely online.”
This means that, if, for any reason, first-year seminars were not able to continue operating in person, first-year students with F-1 visas could potentially have to return to their home countries as well.
President Rose reacted to the decision in an email addressed to the campus community, saying it is tied “to the [Trump] administration’s longstanding and ongoing assault on immigrants and immigration.”
Rose said that the College is in the process of consulting its legal counsel, as well as the Maine first congressional delegation, on how to best support international students at risk of deportation.
The news animated group chats and social media conversations as international students, many of them still in the United States, desperately looked for information about their status as legal residents of their adopted country.
In the weeks since the College’s original announcement of a remote fall semester, the Bowdoin International Students Association (ISA) circulated a petition demanding more assistance and drafted a letter to the Bowdoin administration requesting that the College provide a specific plan to protect international students in the fall.
“The signatories of the letter would like to convey the disappointment that we, as international students, are feeling in regard to the administrations’ seeming lack of consideration about the international student population in making the plan for the fall semester,” the letter stated.
Caroline Poole ’22, who is from Canada and is currently living in Brunswick, said that, for international students, a lot more is at risk than simply a lost semester.
“I’m feeling really scared, I have no idea what to do. I have been thinking over plans for weeks; [originally] we were in the same difficult position as other students, but now our immigration history, our future in the U.S., our job prospects, our degrees, our lives are on the line,” Poole said in a phone interview with the Orient.
“I have dreamed of studying in the United States since Grade 9, and the idea of tossing it away sucks. And I am really tired of being optimistic and hoping things will get better because they haven’t. I don’t know who is going to be our advocate anymore,” she added.
For many international students, this news comes as yet another immigration-related obstacle created by COVID-19.
Raima Chakrabarti ’22 left the United States in mid-March, after the College shifted to a remote model. Originally from India, she has lived in Thailand for the majority of her life due to her parents’ work. However, given the new travel restrictions enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic and her status as a non-Thai citizen, she has not been allowed back into the country and instead has been living with her aunt in India.
In a phone interview with the Orient, Chakrabarti expressed her disappointment with how the Bowdoin administration has handled the concerns of international students.
“We were just an afterthought. You could tell that they didn’t consider international student presence on campus when they were creating these plans, and they didn’t give us clear answers [in the town hall] either,” said Chakrabarti.
In order to be allowed back into Thailand, Chakrabarti is considering enrolling in a university in Thailand this fall. This would be in addition to attending Bowdoin remotely, as she is anxious about the uncertainty of taking a leave of absence and not being guaranteed readmission for the semester she would like.
Nirhan Nurjadin ’21 is in a similar state of limbo. Originally from Malaysia, he has been unable to return home to his parents who live and work in Indonesia because of travel restrictions. He is currently on campus in Brunswick and waiting for further guidance from the College before planning his next move.
“This is a terrible situation [the government] is putting us in, and it’s so sad to see our education be used as a political tool by the government to force the country to reopen,” he wrote in an email to the Orient. “I just hope the school finds a way to provide everyone with a fair education.”
With over 1 million international students attending U.S. colleges and universities, other institutions reacted to the news as well. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced plans to file a lawsuit challenging the federal government’s decision.
Bowdoin will host a virtual town hall for international students and members of the administration to discuss the policy change this morning.