International students preparing to attend U.S. colleges and universities this fall are navigating a complicated web of travel guidelines, embassy closures, visa processing delays, and vaccination requirements—leaving some wondering whether they will make it to campus in time.
As of fall 2020, the total number of international students studying at U.S. institutions had fallen by 16 percent, with an especially sharp 43 percent drop in new enrollments. More than 40,000 international students had deferred their enrollment to a future term, in hopes that the pandemic would ease and travel would resume.
Travel bans lifted, but visa delays persist
On May 27, the U.S. State Department issued a key travel clarification, stating that students living one of 33 countries subject to travel bans—including China, India, Brazil, Iran, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the 26 European countries that make up the Schengen area—will qualify for a “national interest” exception, allowing them to travel to the United States.
However, some consulates remain closed, and others are experiencing significant visa processing delays. While those delays should not affect students who acquired visas prior to the pandemic—the most common student visa is generally issued for five years—there is a backlog of students admitted last fall, on top of this year’s new students, CalMatters notes.
Speaking at the recent NAFSA: Association of International Educators annual meeting, Kathryn Strong, visa policy analyst for the State Department, told attendees that the department is prioritizing student visas but still is not operating at full capacity. “We’ve been told that once a consulate is up and fully operational, it’ll be several months before they work through the backlog,” Sarah Spreitzer, government relations director at the American Council on Education, told EdSurge.
According to Inside Higher Ed, 160 of the 223 consulate posts that process student and scholar visas are offering some routine appointments; the remaining 63 are closed except for emergency services. In China—the largest source of international students at U.S. colleges—the State Department resumed processing student visas last month for the first time in a year. The Los Angeles Times reports that officials expect to process around 2,000 applications per day. Just 943 visas were provided to students from China last year, down from an average of 90,000 annually, according to Gaurav Khanna, an assistant professor at UC San Diego.
Immunization requirements a hurdle for some
Some international students also are having difficulty fulfilling vaccination requirements. More than 400 U.S. colleges and universities have announced that they will require students to be vaccinated. Students living in certain regions continue to have limited access to WHO-approved vaccinations—or may face the prospect of re-vaccination if they have already been immunized with a non-WHO-approved vaccine.
The New York Times recently highlighted these complexities, noting that students in Russia may have already received the Sputnik V vaccine, which is manufactured there but is not one of the eight WHO-approved vaccines. In India—which, in a typical year, sends around 200,000 students to U.S. colleges and universities—students are grappling not only with the aftermath of a severe COVID-19 outbreak but also with a vaccine shortage. Just 3 percent of India’s population is fully vaccinated.
Some U.S. colleges and universities have said they will offer vaccination clinics for international students, sparking questions about the need for quarantines and routine testing until students are fully vaccinated. Others, like California State University, have said they will accept any vaccine, provided that it was authorized by the regulatory agency in the student’s country of origin.
“There’s just a lot of anxiety and concern from our students about whether they’re going to be able to return in the fall,” Dulce Dorado, director of the International Students & Programs Office At UC San Diego, told the LA Times. “But we’re doing everything we can to advocate for them. …Their contributions are evident in practically every sector of our society and bring us discoveries, innovation, artistic creativity, and economic vibrancy.”