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Utah's International Students Navigate Changing Visa Rules For Online Courses

Harriet Cornachione
Utah State University

As Utah universities develop reopening plans that address COVID-19 concerns, changes to exemptions for online class enrollment for international students in Fall semester were announced by ICE this week. The new rules are an added challenge for the schools and add uncertainty for the students.

“There is no shortage of talent back home. There is definitely a shortage of opportunity in the art. Opportunities in college for the arts and very slim. It's not their focus back home. That's why I came here,"said Joy Asiado, an international student from the Philippines who just completed her first year at Brigham Young University in Provo.

She said the process to obtain her student visa was challenging and expensive. Loans from a benefactor made it possible.

“And the education BYU offered, I'm really grateful for it. And I think I think the training I get in my art is really, really good here like the people here impress me and they're just so talented and the professors are really passionate about what they do," Asiado said.

Most of Asiado’s classes will be offered face-to-face this fall, so she may not be impacted by the modified F-1 visa requirements. But she is concerned about what will happen when BYU, like many universities in the state, transitions all course work online after the Thanksgiving holiday.

“It's just that the new guidelines of ICE also says that at any point that the school transitions online because of like an outbreak, we still have to go home so it's just there's no certainty for us right now," she said It feels like feels very unwelcoming and tense. Without, without giving us any reasons, sort of, you know, it sort of terrifies us and it makes it really anxious.”

Kevin Richards, an attorney and member manager for Richards & Richards, an Ogden law firm that provides immigration counsel, explains how F-1 student visa’s work.

“The F-1 visa’s for an in-residency or a student applying and then attending regular classes," he said. "So, if a person is basically (only taking) online classes, they really don't qualify for an F-1 visa. If they do have online classes, there still has to be a percentage that they take that is as an in-person class. Now, the issue that arises is that the colleges aren't opening up for in classroom work, because of COVID, whether that's really going to apply or not. Because they don't really have an option at that point.”

To obtain an F-1 visa Richards said the student has to apply and be accepted at a university, passing all entrance exams including a proficiency test in English language. The final step includes an interview at their local US embassy where students must show sufficient financial resources. Once here the university files a form I-20 that verifies the student attends and completes courses that meet the visa requirement. Typically, that is a maximum of one, three credit online course.

Richards said the universities typically advise international students through these processes and help them ensure they maintain good standing in student visa requirements. As immigration counsel, his office primarily works with persons seeking to immigrate or seeking citizenship.

“The biggest thing that these students need to do is they need to know what the terms and what's expected of them concerning their F-1 visa and they have to maintain contact with their ombudsman and be in status with their things because as long as they're in status, then there's always possibilities,” Richards said. 

Any future path to citizenship requires that an international student remain in compliance at all times with their student visa. He said that it can be hard right now to keep abreast of requirements for visas and immigration in general due to the recent state of flux in the government regulations.

In March, ICE exempted students from the rule, allowing students to complete all online spring classes, remaining in residence in the US and still be in compliance with student visa restrictions. Monday that ruling was changed again.

Renato Romero is a graduate student from Brazil, working on his MBA at Weber State University. He said WSU officials have been very welcoming and provided guidance to walk smoothly through what can be a very painful application process. He thinks the new ruling offers flexibility to adapt to WSU plans for hybrid fall classes but is concerned about the longer-term changes that may come if WSU changes plans in response to the spread of coronavirus.

“The plan of Weber State University [is] to resume in person, on-campus structure for 2020 in the fall semester with additional online instructional options as well," Romero said. "I'm very confident they're working on it. We don't know where this thing is going. So, I'm just afraid of short-term decisions, that's the only fear I have. Because I understand this policy this flexibility it for this semester, but I don't know how it's clear for the spring semester for some winter semesters, because we can have a second wave, everybody saying, second wave, but we don't know how big that wave is going to be.”

Despite the uncertainty, Romero is optimistic about the future. He believes it is very important for everyone to recognize the value of diversity, especially in these critical times.

“If you look back in real world history, the world was marked up when important times during wars and pandemics and things like that," he said. "So every time after times like these, the world changes a lot, because it’s times that challenge your capacity for capacity to adapt to new situations to innovate, to think outside the box to emerge, new leadership, and, you know, life giving a new direction. So, it's very important to think about the diversity, to see the things with abundance mentality. When you see things with abundance mentality, so we can see the limitless opportunities, limitless results."

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