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Virginia Universities Reflect on International Education During the Pandemic

People walking on campus
At VCU, international enrollment dropped by nearly 200 students this year as the effects of COVID-19 and immigration policies depressed interest. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/ VPM News)

Universities across Central Virginia say participation in international education dropped during the pandemic. While a dip was expected due to health risks, they say a tense political climate also contributed to the decrease in international students.

At Virginia Commonwealth University, the Global Education office says the international education department enrolled 983 international students for the Fall 2020 semester, a drop from 1,170 last fall. 

For the University of Richmond, the number of international students on campus has gone down by about 11% during the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, UR ranked among the top 10 U.S. universities for international enrollment during the 2019-2020 school year, according to the Institute of International Education.

“Compared to other schools, [11%] is quite an achievement,” said Martha Merritt, UR Dean of International Education. “Many places are down 20%. We did what we could to prepare for what we knew would be an exceptionally difficult semester for international students.”

Maxine Sample, director of international education at Virginia State University, says while international enrollment did drop due to the pandemic, she added that VSU’s numbers have been declining since 2018. The Petersburg HBCU took in 53 international students this fall, down from 88 in the fall of 2018.

“Our students come, they're focused, and they graduate. But part of the challenge is we have not been able to replace them. Our target benchmark is to try to bring in at least 50 new students every year until we get to perhaps 10% of the whole student population,” Sample said.

Study abroad opportunities for domestic students were suspended for the fall of 2019 and spring of 2020 at VCU and VSU. Sample says VSU also had to cancel four faculty-led programs for the spring, which would have enrolled around 40 students abroad.

Though UR did not offer study abroad opportunities for the fall semester, the university will have a “modest” study abroad for the spring. Merritt says UR also offered virtual courses to international students in their home countries and “regional study abroad” opportunities for those who could not travel to the U.S., pairing them with nearby universities instead to take UR courses remotely.

“I think U of R’s willingness to offer students multiple options helped the drop in our international student enrollment be more manageable,” she said.

Merritt says the financial impact of having less international students on campus was felt, but was ultimately manageable. She says the university’s larger focus was on accommodating students and addressing the “learning deficit” caused by limited interaction between international and domestic students.

Likewise, Sample laments the reduced face time between students. She says many international students bring a diligent work ethic to the classroom, since they are on campus for a limited time to focus on their degrees. She says one benefit of international education is this dedication, which can serve as an inspiration to domestic students.

At VCU, the university had to ramp up its efforts to provide international students with cultural experiences. Jill Blondin, executive director of the VCU Global Education Office, says the university offered foreign students Thanksgiving meals and winter care packages.

“We often connect our international students with Richmond families… Obviously, this year, that's not something that's been available to us,” Blondin said. “So in order for the students to experience the holiday, we distributed meals, so they could experience it in a different way and know that we care and support them.”

On top of health concerns brought on by the pandemic, local experts say international education saw a dip in numbers due to political decisions that either blocked foreigners from entering the U.S. or simply discouraged them from coming.

“During the late spring, there was a directive that came from [the Department of Homeland Security] that said that if a student was going to do all of their academic study online, they weren't going to give them a visa,” Sample explained. This proposal would have rescinded an exception made earlier in the pandemic that allowed international students to take a fully online course load due to coronavirus-related health risks.

Following backlash, the directive was eventually taken back, so students that were already in the U.S. could continue taking virtual courses. Newly incoming students, however, are still not permitted to take all their classes online. 

“That presents a challenge for a student who needs certain classes,” Blondin said. Universities have since made accommodations to provide new international students with hybrid course offerings that allow them to get a visa.

Regardless of how specific policies may impact students, Merritt says the general uncertainty surrounding the U.S. immigration system has been “extremely unsettling” to international students, many of whom have opted to look elsewhere for their education.

“That constant unease and the sense that the landscape is shifting under your feet has created a climate of uncertainty that is very damaging to the prospects for the United States to continue drawing in so many international students,” she said.

Sample added that some aspiring VSU international students were deterred from coming to the U.S. because their embassies were closed during the pandemic and they could not get visas.

According to the National Association for Foreign Student Affairs, over 20,000 international students came to Virginia for the 2019-2020 school year, contributing a total of $717.5 million to the state economy. In Richmond, VCU international students brought in $40.8 million, supporting 545 jobs in the local economy.

Nationwide, NAFSA data shows that for the first time in more than 20 years, the economic contributions of international students to the US economy dropped — by 4.4%, or $1.8 billion. NAFSA cites “detrimental regulatory actions and xenophobic rhetoric” and a “lack of a coordinated national pandemic response.”