Incoming International Students Face Difficulties In Light of COVID-19

Admitted students from the class of 2024 are facing unprecedented complications in committing to an institution of higher education in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Incoming international students — who made up 12 percent of enrolled students for the Class of 2023 — face an additional set of challenges due to visa delays and uncertainties surrounding international travel that may prevent them from coming to campus this fall. 

“Normally what happens is students get their admissions decision that they’ve been accepted to Oberlin, and after they submit their deposit and agree to come to Oberlin, that triggers a couple of different things,” said Assistant Dean of Students and Director of the International Students Resource Center Josh Whitson. 

The next steps typically include paying the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System fees; scheduling and participating in a visa interview at a local U.S. embassy; and making travel plans to arrive in time for the fall semester. 

However, this process was curtailed on March 20, when the Department of State suspended all routine visa services across U.S. embassies worldwide, including the issuance of student F-1 visas. 

On April 16, some U.S. embassies began to reopen abroad, though no official statements have been issued by the State Department. According to Whitson, embassies in some cities — including Shanghai, Beijing, Toronto, Mexico City, and Tokyo — are allowing students to schedule their visa appointments while embassies in other cities remain closed. 

“It seems like sporadically the State Department is starting to reopen embassies,” he observed. 

Further, according to Whitson, COVID-19 has decreased wait times for visa processing and appointments.

“You can get an appointment now, I think, in Beijing for a F-1 visa in July,” Whitson added. “It’s not like you can go next week to get your visa, but you’re at least able to schedule at a reasonable time before classes start. The main concern is [that] we can send you the I-20 but if the embassy isn’t open … then you’re in a country that doesn’t have appointments right now. I think for a lot of students, that’s probably a little scary.”

According to Senior Assistant Director of Admissions Sophie Mettler-Grove, who handles international admissions, all international students who were admitted through Early Decision I and II were issued their I-20s in mid-March. I-20s for regular decision admits are currently being processed on a weekly basis. 

One of the major challenges for colleges and universities around the U.S. that are working to admit international students is getting I-20 documents to students via mail. 

“The only other thing that’s outside of the United States’ ability is whether or not the country of the student [applying for a visa] is accepting mail,” Whitson said. “For example, India is not accepting mail from the United States right now. That’s my understanding. So that makes it very difficult to send a student an I-20. The government has given special permission right now that we can sign those digitally and email them.”

If willing and able, international students do have the option to travel to a third country with an open embassy and apply for their visa there, as students are not required to apply for a visa from their home country. 

Fortunately for Oberlin, several international students who have been admitted for the upcoming semester are already in the U.S. completing their high school degrees.  

“For those students, we’re talking about transferring their SEVIS records to Oberlin,” Whitson said. “But they already had visas. So the visa thing isn’t a concern. There are a number of students too that are outside the United States going to high school in their home countries, but they’ve been to the United States before for a summer program that issued an F-1 visa. And as long as that F-1 visa is still valid, they can use it with an I-20 from Oberlin. So they won’t have to go get a new visa.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security have made several concessions for F-1 student visa holders as a result of the pandemic. 

Despite this, uncertainties regarding the feasibility of international travel in the coming months and the closure of U.S. embassies has made yielding admitted international students more challenging than in previous years. However, the Office of Admissions organized yield events specifically for international students to answer their questions and get them excited about the prospect of studying at Oberlin.

Just like domestic admissions, the international admissions team has created more ways for accepted students to connect with Oberlin,” Mettler-Grove wrote in an email to the Review. “We held two accepted student panels, one completely in Mandarin and one in English. We held a virtual meet and greet for accepted students and their families to connect with international professors, students, and alums. And every accepted international student was contacted by an alum and a current student. In many cases, their parents were, too.” 

As of May 4, the number of international students who committed to Oberlin was lower than the numbers from the past two years, but higher than the numbers from every year before 2018. The Office of Admissions is preparing for an increase in both international and domestic melt — students deciding to withdraw or defer their enrollment over the summer. There is also a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the ability of U.S. colleges and universities to recruit international students for the class of 2025 in the same ways that they have in the past. 

Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 recruiting, within the US and globally, is really uncertain right now,” wrote Mettler-Grove. “On the one hand, we have received invitations to annual Fall college fairs abroad but it is hard to imagine schools abroad welcoming foreign visitors or students/families wanting to attend a regional college fair attended by hundreds of people. It is possible that international recruitment will not resume until there is a COVID vaccine.”

Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Manuel Carballo added that the success they saw in virtual programming will set the tone for how they approach future recruitment strategies.

“We will continue to adapt but this is an industry disruption, not one that is unique to Oberlin,” Carballo wrote in an email to the Review. “So far, all indications are that we’ve been able to adjust with All Roads and families have been appreciative of the various opportunities they have had to engage with our community. We will translate that into summer and fall recruitment.”

There are also plans in the works to help international students transition into the Oberlin community remotely if they are unable to attend in-person orientation and classes in the fall. According to Mettler-Grove, these plans include an online pre-orientation that could begin as early as late-May and would involve more than two months of community building combined with instructional information about completing pre-arrival forms, preparing for their visa interviews, packing tips, course selection, and more.