Pavithra Rajesh, a Northeastern University sophomore from India, frantically packed her bags and boarded a plane home when the college abruptly shut down in March.
“I’m a very careful planner. ... So, telling me that within three days you have to figure out where you’re going to go, move things into storage, figure out how you’re going to do online classes from a country whose time zone is so different from the one I’m in right now — it was pretty nerve-wracking.”
“I’m a very careful planner,” Rajesh, 18, said. “So, telling me that within three days you have to figure out where you’re going to go, move things into storage, figure out how you’re going to do online classes from a country whose time zone is so different from the one I’m in right now — it was pretty nerve-wracking.”
Back home, Rajesh quarantined herself in her parents’ apartment in the southern city of Bangalore for 14 days. The journalism major and theater minor took her last three weeks of spring courses online. India is 9.5 hours ahead of eastern daylight saving time.
“Every night I was up till almost 3 a.m., 4 a.m.,” she said.
Looking ahead to the fall, Rajesh and her parents worry about her returning to campus in just two months.
“I’d be transiting through three very crowded airports,” she said. “The US right now has quite a lot of cases. It’s pretty vulnerable.”
So are the finances for universities like Northeastern, where more than a third of all students come from abroad — many from India and China — with most paying full freight. Hundreds of thousands of international college students sent home this spring are still stuck there because of travel and visa restrictions. Major colleges in the Boston area, which were already losing enrollment because of the anti-immigrant political environment, are bracing for losing still more students this fall.
The Trump administration had already been tightening travel and visa restrictions on foreign students and workers. Now, both the federal government and the pandemic are preventing international students who aren’t already in the US from returning in time for the fall semester. That’s all leading to a lot of confusion and anxiety for students.
“The pandemic, as well as the political difficulties between China and the United States, has ushered in a period of enormous uncertainty."
“The pandemic, as well as the political difficulties between China and the United States, has ushered in a period of enormous uncertainty,” said Bill Kirby, a history professor who teaches Chinese studies at Harvard University.
Kirby points to a recent study by the Institute of International Education that finds nearly 90% of colleges expect international enrollment to decrease next semester.
“And some 70% anticipate that some international students won’t be able to get to their campuses for in-person classes this fall,” said Kirby, adding that the virus and uncertainty on campuses are damaging the country’s global relationship with China, India and other countries.
“Parents always worry about the health of their children,” Kirby said. “So I wouldn’t be surprised to see at least some pause, even if the world were to open up immediately, about sending students to a place where the public health systems are clearly not as robust as they are in Europe or Japan or Korea.”
If international students take their studies and dollars elsewhere, that would have devastating effects on Boston’s economy.
“We are — particularly in higher education — in a highly globalized and interdependent world. This is the most serious thing that's ever happened [to American higher education] without any question whatsoever."
“We are — particularly in higher education — in a highly globalized and interdependent world. This is the most serious thing that's ever happened [to American higher education] without any question whatsoever,” said Phillip Altbach, founder of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.
“International students spend a lot of money in this area, not only the direct tuition cost for universities but also housing and other expenses that they have around town,” said Altbach.
International students contribute about $4 billion to the state’s economy each year, nearly a tenth of the more than $40 billion they spend in the entire US economy, according to the Association of International Educators. Colleges that are overly dependent on international dollars are going to take a big hit, said Altbach.
“In the Boston area, that includes, of course, Boston University and Northeastern particularly, but also smaller schools like the Berklee College of Music, Emerson [College] to some extent,” he added.
Students and researchers from other countries bring significant brainpower to their work in the US, Altbach said.
"If you look at Silicon Valley or the biotech industry here in Massachusetts, international students, scholars and high-skilled immigrants are a key part of the labor force for these industries, so it's a huge hit and a terrible mistake for the country," he said.
It remains unclear how many international students will want — or be able — to return this fall.
This month, Northeastern announced its Boston campus and dorms will reopen in the fall and students will have the option to take classes in-person, online, or a mixture of both. This summer, the university is surveying thousands of international students about their plans for the fall and developing online platforms for any students who see a delay in returning to Boston.
Sitting in her room in Bangalore, Rajesh says she’s eager to get back in the classroom.
“I don't think anyone can say that online classes will ever match up to the worth of an in-person class,” she said. “For me, doing three weeks of online classes from India was hard for sure. I don't think I could do that same thing for three months.”
Still, she’s skeptical about whether students packed into dorms would be willing to follow social distancing guidelines and wear masks.
“There's so many people, so little residence halls on campus,” she said. “I don’t really know how that is going to play out.”