Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.
- Mark Twain, "The Innocents Abroad"
You must be the change you want to see in the world.
Beth Vargas, the Executive Director of the Center for International Programs at SUNY New Paltz, was on her way to JFK to pick up some of the 80 new international students arriving from all over the world for the fall semester when she answered her cell phone. Like all the other directors of international programs at the Mid-Hudson Valley colleges I talked to for this blog post—Bard, Vassar, Marist and SUNY—she was excited, more than excited, she was thrilled. Her happiness exploded out of her phone. Overseas students are returning, if not in record numbers, at least they are returning. And American students are studying abroad again also. As a child of refugees, a journalist, and an educator who lived and worked abroad for a decade, I am thrilled, too. I know what it means to have the opportunity to see our own countries from afar, to assess its glories and fault lines with humility, and to engage in conversation and form friendships with people from all over the world.
According to Pew Research Center, the national Covid 2020-2021 academic year fall-off of overseas students was about 15%. Many were stuck here, unable to return home during the worst of the pandemic. The directors, without exception, continuously monitor conflicts, natural disasters, and opportunities for humanitarian assistance to their students and their families once they are here. Pandemic lockdown was no exception. The college becomes in loco parentis, deeply engaged in the well-being and future of their students. "We're a collegial bunch," says Jennifer Murray, Dean of International Studies at Bard College. "We talk to each other all the time, and help each other if there is, for example, an immigration problem with a particular student." Beth Vargas at SUNY New Paltz contacted one of the school's donors, a retired teacher, who agreed to use some scholarship funding to sustain the stranded students. Without any domestic students on campus, those that had part-time jobs had no income.
In 2021, a third of international students in the US were from China. Whether their presence in such numbers will continue uninterrupted is questionable, given the tensions between China and the US, but SUNY New Paltz still has a double diploma bilingual program going with a teacher training university in Chong Qing. It began when China ended its one-child policy and the government realized they'd need more teachers. There are now about 30 Chinese students on the New Paltz campus, most of them living in dorms, and doing well.
Bard College is hosting 37 displaced Afghan undergraduates this term, all evacuated from Kabul, and has committed to providing a full package to each student, including tuition (which is being waived) room & board, books, and a stipend. Thirty-seven more will arrive from the American University in Iraq where they have been studying since their evacuation from Kabul. The Afghans have the benefit of a P1 visa intended for students whose families worked or were associated with the American government. That enables them to work and eases them into permanent residency, if they wish it. Sixty students from Ukraine will also be arriving soon on the Bard campus, all on full scholarship.
Despite the transnational world we live in, a globalized economy, too many war zones, and a climate-struggling planet, borders are still difficult, if not impossible, to cross. Getting to the US for the average overseas student, not on humanitarian parole like the Afghan or Ukrainian students, can be challenging. Requirements include: an interview at a local consulate, proof of ties to the home country, and proof of funds for support and tuition. And though questions must be answered under oath, there has been some fraud, though it is rare, which puts the student at risk of deportation.
Students on the more common F1 visa can only work on campus in low-paying jobs, and often don't have enough funds to sustain themselves. This story began when I recently discovered an overseas student living out of her car, which all the directors found shocking. All wanted to know who the student was, where s/he was going to school, and if they could help. Like American students, self-support while studying is difficult even with some available funding from home.
It is possible, however, to apply for "special situation" permission to work off campus with an F1 visa during the first two semesters, but the overseas student has to ask for it, which might cause personal and/or cultural discomfort.
After graduation, international students can apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT), which allows them to work in their field of study for one year or longer, if they are in a STEM field. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math)
When asked why it is important to have a student abroad program, and overseas students studying here, the directors' answers were almost identical: cross-cultural enrichment, international understanding, and world peace.