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Smith Plaza stands vacant on April 15, 2020 in Albuquerque, NM. The University of New Mexico has recently restricted public access to campus in response to COVID-19.

International students face uncertainty returning to UNM for fall classes

Visa restrictions, travel bans and internet access abroad among challenges

Just a year ago, the University of New Mexico’s Global Education Office (GEO) reported that international students comprised 5.2% of the total University population. With the hardships brought by the pandemic, those numbers could significantly descend.

“Being away from one’s family and home was also challenging during such a pandemic, especially when you belong to a community where everyone is trying to adapt to these new realities,” said Ghada Zribi, a Tunisian international student.

Currently, international students are facing three major barriers to their education unrelated to UNM policies.

First, many embassies worldwide are closed and not giving visas. Second, there are countries and regions in which people currently cannot travel to the U.S. if they were present there in the last 14 days, such as China, Iran, the European Schengen area, the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and Brazil. Third, there are online restrictions that vary by country that will make remote education a challenge.

Due to COVID-19, universities all over the U.S. either ended their 2020 spring semester early or changed their in-person classes to an online setting.

Usually, international students have great limitations when it comes to online classes in order to maintain status. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security states that F-1 visa holders can count one online or distance education course (equivalent to three credits) toward a full-course of study per academic term. Meanwhile, M-1 visa holders and English language program students may not count online or distance education courses toward a full course of study.

Homeland Security bent their rules toward these limitations for the spring and summer semester of 2020, but nothing has been declared about the upcoming fall semester. Because of this, international students risk losing their college education in the U.S.

“It’s a big problem for international students, because they don’t know if they’re going to be able to continue or start their program in the fall, but we’re encouraging people to keep trying,” Linda Melville, UNM’s director of international student and scholar services, said.

In addition, as of March 20, the U.S. has suspended visa services.

“We have three choices. One is to keep trying to come for the fall semester. Two is to plan to do fall semester entirely in online classes. And three, we may need to defer (their) admission to a future semester,” Melville said.

Chinese international students may also face additional challenges.

On May 29, President Donald Trump issued a presidential proclamation aimed at restricting the entry of graduate students and researchers from China. According to GEO, China is among the top five countries represented at UNM.

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“The policies are affecting many Chinese students and applicants,” Zhuoer Zheng, a Chinese undergraduate international student, said. “Probably many students will choose another country to study if they want to study abroad.” Zhuoer Zheng said, a Chinese undergraduate international student.

The pandemic has also thrust some international students at UNM into a climate of fear, racial profiling and xenophobia.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, racists have used the pandemic as a way to bolster xenophobic behavior, with most of the victims being from Asian backgrounds. There are confirmed incidents of this nature at UNM.

“My friend suffered racism. He is also a Chinese student and lived in Lobo Village before,” Zheng said. “Someone covered my friend's room door in plastic and posted a sign that said ‘Caution, Keep Out, Quarantine’ … As a GEO student employee and his friend, I felt sad, ashamed and angry about that and decided to help him to report to UNMPD, GEO and President. The housing department helped him move to a new dormitory.”

No one has been identified for the attack on the student.

“I may not be the victim of such incidents during the pandemic, but it was certainly painful and unfortunate to see yet another person feel comfortable blaming international students for a global pandemic and legitimatizing racism and racial profiling,” Zribi said. “Unfortunately, this is the reality of living in the U.S. as an international student. I hope someday we will feel comfortable bringing everyone to the table and discussing our collective roles and responsibilities to fight hate crimes and racism.”

Although the future for international students remains uncertain, GEO has provided resources to help international students face the challenges of COVID-19 including online orientation, food bank resources and connecting students with communities who can offer them temporary housing. GEO also made sure that international students were identified for preferential permission to stay in the dorms for the remainder of the spring semester.

The GEO emergency fund is also available for international students with urgent financial concerns, such as food insecurities or tuition bills.

“(GEO is) representing international students’ interests. We advocate for them,” Melville said.

Melville said GEO is currently closed and most likely will remain closed until the middle of July.

Annya Loya is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at or on Twitter @annyaloya


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