Visa obstacles, the pandemic and degree ambiguities muddy educational futures

Yao Minji
For Chinese students enrolled in universities abroad, the dream of campus life has turned into a nightmare.
Yao Minji

Cindy Jin goes to bed at 7pm and gets up at midnight to attend an online class from Wellesley College in Massachusetts in the US. After class, back to sleep at 3am until it’s time to rise again at 8am and attend an online class from Fudan University held in the conference room of a Shanghai hotel.

“It’s manageable; I still get eight hours of sleep,” the first-year university student told Shanghai Daily after the first week. “But nowadays, I can fall asleep at the drop of a hat.”

The choppy schedule is the least of Jin’s concerns. With a first college semester underway without stepping foot on a campus, she wonders what lies ahead.

“This year has been very strange,” she said. “I understand we are in a strange time, and I’m getting used to it. But I’m still confused and frustrated.”

Among her frustrations is trying getting a US visa. After various attempts, she finally secured a visa appointment at the Chengdu consulate in southwestern China in mid-August. Several days later, the consulate closed, and the appointment evaporated.

Jin then applied for a visa at the US consulate in Shanghai two weeks ago, but it couldn’t be processed because the website wouldn’t allow her to pay.

The Trump administration announced in early July that students studying in the US on F-1 or M-1 visas would not be permitted to stay in or re-enter the country if they were taking only online classes. The directive was then modified to allow visas for schools offering only online courses. Details remain unclear.

Jin wonders if she will need to provide some kind of proof that she’s taking a full curriculum of offline classes, which would be impossible because she can’t choose classes for the second semester until it starts.

“Even if I get a visa appointment now, there are still so many uncertainties,” she said, adding she has recently started to worry about the uncontrolled coronavirus outbreak in the US if she were to go there to study.

There were more than 1 million international students in the US for the 2018-19 academic year, about 30 percent of them from China. Many are unable to return to studies there because of problems with visas and flights, and concerns about personal health.

Many US educational institutions rely on foreign students for income because they pay higher tuition. They are trying to maintain study programs for those stranded in China. Overseas universities with Chinese campuses ask those sister campuses to host students who can’t return.

NYU Shanghai, for one, is hosting more than 3,000 Chinese students from the school’s New York and Abu Dhabi campuses for the fall semester. The school converted seven floors in a nearby building into classrooms and hired an additional 75 faculty members.

China’s education ministry also announced new policies to help these students, including encouraging them to take online courses organized by their universities. Extra student quotas have also been provided for institutions with education links offshore so they can admit some of the overseas students who are remaining in China.

The policies also make it clear that alternative learning program will not affect the authenticity of their college degrees.

Despite all the help, individual students still ponder their futures and the absence of the sort of campus experience they are missing.

It all feels like a movie, and nobody is sure what is going to happen the next day. It is not how I imagined college campus life.

Chloe Chen, a student enrolled in a university on the US West Coast

A Chinese student who wanted to be identified only as Jonathan is enrolled at Creighton University in Nebraska, the US, for a one-year master’s degree program in occupational therapy. As a new student, he faces the same visa difficulties Jin has and worries about how that will affect his degree.

“Internship in a hospital is of utmost importance in my field, and that is exactly why I choose to study at this school,” he said. “But now I can’t go to Nebraska. The school there has rearranged the curriculum and put most theoretical courses in the first semester online so that we can take them remotely. But they are still not sure about the second semester. It depends on how many international students will be able to return.”

To practice as an occupational therapist in the US, Jonathan would need to take a test for a qualification certificate, but now he plans to take it in China and work here instead.

Chloe Chen, who is enrolled in a university on the US West Coast, wants to take a gap year while she ponders her educational future.

Her first year at the university went without a hitch. She secured a visa before the pandemic struck and was able to get a flight in August to the US. Now she is stuck there, searching for a return flight.

“I’m taking remote classes in my dorm room,” she said. “I sit apart from friends when eating in the school canteen. We have had three rounds of virus tests. The street protests here are still going on. It all feels like a movie, and nobody is sure what is going to happen the next day. It is not how I imagined college campus life.”

Jin might tell her that coming home doesn’t guarantee a campus life either. Though she lives in Shanghai, she moved into a local hotel last week with about 200 students from various US institutions to take advantage of a “go local” option.

Though the hotel is near Fudan University, host for their program, Jin and her hotel mates do not have access to the campus.

Most Chinese universities are back in full operation, after adopting strict epidemic controls for off-campus personnel entering the campus.

In the US, these are equally trying times for universities. Leslie Lok, assistant professor of architecture at Cornell University in New York, says the school is now running a hybrid system of in-person and online classes until late November. After that, everything will be shifted online, she said.

The university, cognizant of time differences, has adopted a policy that asks faculty not to require student participation in classes before 8am or after 10:30pm in their home time zones. Some architecture professors, she said, give lessons twice in a day to accommodate different time zones. It has worked out better than expected.

NYU Shanghai and Fudan University haven’t yet responded to Shanghai Daily requests for comment.

Meanwhile, Jin looks at her options. Will she get a US visa? If she does, will she need to travel to the US via a third country because the US still bars people who were on the Chinese mainland 14 days prior to entry? Would she feel safe returning to the US, amid protests and pandemic?

“Well, I still have a roommate,” Jin said, trying to look on the bright side. “We have group chats. I can talk to my Wellesley classmates when doing remote classes, and I get to see my parents whenever I want to. But I hope some normality returns soon.”

(Chen Xuyang contributed to the article.)

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