An empty campus at San Francisco State University on Wednesday, Mar. 11, 2020. Beth LaBerge/KQED
An empty campus at San Francisco State University on Wednesday, Mar. 11, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Cal State International Students Face Stark Decisions Due to COVID-19, Immigration Uncertainty

Cal State International Students Face Stark Decisions Due to COVID-19, Immigration Uncertainty

Sora Matsushita had no idea just how big of an impact COVID-19 would have on everyday life. The 23-year-old international student from Japan, now a senior at San Francisco State University, believed stay-at-home orders issued in early March would essentially constitute an early Spring Break, and that the virus would be under control by April – he and his friends even nicknamed the shutdown ‘corona-cation.'

“Initially, when I heard that the school is going fully online, me and my friends kind of thought of it lightly, sort of like a vacation,” Matsushita said. But what first seemed like a joke has resulted in grim realities and difficult choices.

In addition to the COVID-19-related health concerns all students face, international students in California are grappling with continuing to pay full tuition for online-only learning that was supposed to be a rich, in-person cultural experience – on top of worries about whether they would be allowed to return to the United States if they left for their home counties due to confusing guidance from the Trump administration.

The California State University system typically enrolls about 4,000 new international students annually across 23 campuses, constituting about 3% of the student population. However, due to the coronavirus, the CSU system has seen an 11% decrease in the total international student population and a 40% decrease in new international students in its Fall 2020 census. That's despite a surge in overall enrollment during the pandemic.

The lack of outreach CSUs were able to do because of shelter-at-home orders as well as visa closures in April directly impacted the number of admitted students for the fall semester, according to a spokesperson from CSU.

Nationwide, most international students come from countries in Asia, and these students contribute a large amount of money to the U.S. economy. According to a report conducted last November by NAFSA, a nonprofit association of international educators, international students contributed a total of $41 billion to America’s economy in the 2018-2019 academic school year. In California, international students contributed $6.8 billion to the state’s economy, the report said, a figure which includes students from CSU campuses and the UC system.

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Those who attend San Jose State University – which admits the most international students of any CSU – contribute $148.2 million to the economy and support 852 jobs, according to the NAFSA report. International students who attend SFSU contribute $75.1 million to the economy and support 430 jobs. And Cal State East Bay’s international students contribute $40.5 million to the economy and support 234 jobs.

CSU officials have been trying to preserve their current numbers. Dr. Leo Van Cleve, who oversees international programs across Cal State universities, explained that if the number of total international students at a CSU declines in a given year, that decline will continue to impact that university for at least four years.

“For that reason, we would like to maintain our international enrollment so that when we are able to reopen campuses, we have not lost that element of our students,” Van Cleve said.

But the pandemic has impacted recruitment efforts and increased bureaucratic roadblocks.

Since shelter-in-place orders are forcing many people to work from home, international programs are unable to do their usual outreach. Despite trying various online methods, the program struggled to spread information about their study abroad programs because there were no in-person meetings.

Another reason why the number of international students has declined is due to limitations in visa sections in U.S. consulates worldwide since April. For international students, obtaining a visa is the first priority for studying abroad. Typically, students have to apply for a student visa, schedule an interview with the consulate and if they are approved then they have to gather the appropriate documents and prepare to come into the country.

But since the consulates were closed during the time of admittance, students were unable to obtain a valid visa because the process can take months to complete.

“Consulates began reopening in June and July, but it may not have been enough time for students to get their visas," Van Cleve said.

The impact of the 11% decrease in international students goes beyond money. “They add to the diversity of the campus, the exchange of differing perspectives which benefit fellow students and the entire university community," Van Cleve wrote in an email.

A Deportation Threat, Rescinded

Van Cleve also mentioned that the Trump administration's rash decision to deport international students due to all virtual classes caused confusion and fear among students.

The Trump administration issued guidance in July that threatened to deport international students to their home countries if they were unable to take at least one in-person class due to the pandemic. Soon after, big institutions like Harvard and MIT filed a lawsuit, resulting in the initial guidance being rescinded before the lawsuit moved forward.

Despite the guidance being rescinded, the initial threat created a lot of concern among international students, who feared they might not be able to re-enter the country for school if the guidance were to have been approved.

Om Dhankara is an international student from Gujarat, India studying at SFSU. (Courtesy of Om Dhankara)

And some students are faced with a stark decision to stay or return to their home country to care for family members.

Om Dhankara, originally from Gujarat, India, came to the Bay Area at the end of last year. Before COVID-19, the 19-year-old was looking forward to the next four years experiencing a new campus. He decided to go to the Cal State University with the fifth-highest acceptance rate of international students: San Francisco State University.

He began his studies at SFSU in January and was only able to experience in-person instruction for a month and a half. In that short amount of time, Dhankara saw the culture and diversity that makes up San Francisco and made connections with professors and students.

"I was really excited to have those classes as this was like a new thing for me to learn. I was meeting new people, new professors, and new culture and everything," Dhankara said.

Dhankara feels grateful that he was able to arrive at SFSU before the pandemic hit, but now he is faced with a difficult decision: whether to stay, social distancing in the Bay Area with five of his roommates, or return to India to take care of his father, who's battling the coronavirus.

"It's not good for me right now, to stay here, but I can't do anything right now," he said.

Dhankara plans on staying at SFSU until 2024, and as soon as a vaccine for the virus comes out, he plans on visiting his family in India.

Another student, Chayanee Jantaradaval, originally from Thailand, is in her last year at San Francisco State studying international business. Jantaradaval came to the Bay Area in 2017. Luckily, she was able to have a typical college experience for most of her undergraduate career – but Jantaradaval never expected to finish her last year at SFSU online.

“We're staying in San Francisco, paying San Francisco prices, but we're not getting the San Francisco experience that we looked forward to, coming as an international student,” said Jantaradaval.

She said that she pays about $25,000 per semester. That includes per-unit class fees and off-campus living, food and transportation expenses. Despite the cost, Jantaradaval decided to persevere and complete her education during the pandemic. She's on-track to graduate in the spring.

Sora Matsushita – who returned back to Japan on Oct. 21 – made the decision to head home after confirming he could watch his SF State courses' online lectures at a time convenient for him.

“It's a shame that I have to learn this way because I feel like I could be learning much more in person,” said Matsushita, who is studying behavioral economics. He decided to continue his studies in Japan while taking care of his mother, who currently lives alone.

"I didn't want her to go out and expose herself," he said of his mother, who is at high risk for COVID-19. He plans to come back to San Francisco in January to finish his last semester.

Although the pandemic continues to keep people grappling with uncertainty, international students remain hopeful that after they graduate they will be able to get a job in the US. Upon graduating, international students are allowed to stay in the country for 90 days to find a job that will sponsor their visa.

"You need to be hired within the first three months, and that opportunity is definitely one of the reasons that I chose to even come to the United States," Jantaradaval said. She still hopes to secure a job in real estate, despite the struggles the coronavirus has posed.

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