Local universities weigh in on new rules regarding international students amid COVID-19

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Changes could soon be coming for international students attending universities here in Northeast Tennessee. According to a news release from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that was released on Monday, new modifications could impact the 2020 Fall semester.

In the release, it is stated that students attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States, meaning if all of their classes are online, they must return home but can still continue their coursework.

The official release also states that the U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States. However, active students currently in the United States enrolled in similar programs must leave the country or transfer to a school with in-person options in order to remain in lawful status.

Students who are attending schools that are still holding in-person classes are bound by existing federal regulations and are allowed to take a maximum of one class or three credit hours online.

These new rules could pose problems for international students, but at this time, local universities and colleges say it should not impact their students. ETSU has 190 international students currently enrolled and officials with the university said they have been updating students every step of the process, including following the release of Monday’s guidelines.

“We’re reaching out to them, updating them with everything that we know at this point so as of now we don’t see any disruption but if we have to move to online fully, that’s when we’d have to work with students more closely because they’d have to exit the country,” said Dean of Honors College at ETSU, Christopher Keller.

Milligan University and Tusculum University officials said this also will not impact their students at this time. “Our international students aren’t really going to be affected by this because we are offering face-to-face classes,” said Tusculum President, Dr. Scott Hummel. Tusculum currently has upwards of 100 international students enrolled.

However, other issues are being posed by the pandemic that is already having an impact on international students and college campuses. “What does and could affect us is those students who are unable to get back into the country because of these issues or because of travel restrictions,” said Lee Harrison, Vice President of Marketing and Enrollment at Milligan University.

The issue isn’t just getting back into the country. Should international students have no other choice than take online classes, according to guidelines, they will be sent home. However, due to on-going travel restrictions, some students are unable to go home at all.

“Right now, the flights aren’t going to my country so if at all I am forced to go home I have no other way to go back home and by the law will be forced to leave the country,” said International Student, Jyoti Ranjan Behera.

Behera has been attending courses at ETSU for 2 years and is originally from India. While he has fears of the potential to be sent home, he said there are a number of other problems for international students right now. For those still in the U.S. taking classes, most were relying on their on-campus jobs to make an income, but due to closures, that’s not happening right now and leading to even more struggles.

Behera also said that the online courses made him feel “robbed” of traditional education. He feels that if he is paying the price for in-person classes, he and other students should be getting the full experience.

While currently, the future of courses in the Fall hangs in the balance, he is hopeful he can continue his education in-person in the upcoming semester. Officials at universities across Northeast Tennessee are determined to help these students in any way they can.

“We want to continue to serve them and help them achieve their goal. Most important to us is helping them attain their degree,” said Harrison.

Milligan University has 60 international students they are currently working with.

Universities and colleges are also seeking guidance on how to help those students who are currently stuck outside the United States.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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