Sohini Bhatia remembers the exact moment she found out that she’d have to leave the U.S. abruptly.
It was 7 PM on a Tuesday evening in early March when Bhatia and her friends were having dinner at the campus dining halls. Their phones buzzed with an e-mail from the administration: They were closing campuses until further notice due to Covid-19.
Bhatia, who is a freshman at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, remembers sitting in stunned silence for a few minutes, while senior year students around her burst into tears as they realized they’d not be attending graduation. It was only later, when she embraced her Dean of Spiritual and Religious Life, Annette M. McDermott, that Bhatia broke down in tears too – realizing that she had to bid hasty goodbyes and leave without knowing when she’d return.
It has been a little over four months since Bhatia moved back to her home in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Each month she hopes to hear when it’s safe for her to come back to the U.S. Meanwhile, the pandemic has accelerated since March, with over 15.3 million confirmed cases worldwide with a looming economic recession in the backdrop, and ongoing protests as racial justice movements rise across the U.S. Since Bhatia left in March, most international flights are no longer operating. Amidst these crises, news broke on July 6 that the U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has released regulations asking international students to leave the country if their campuses weren’t opening for in-person classes in the fall, the regulations also stated that students waiting to come back to the U.S would be denied entry.
The news felt like a sucker punch to the gut for Bhatia.
“All of my friends who are international students were frantically reaching out to one another,” says Bhatia. “The international office has been constantly in touch with us. I risk losing my visa if I decide to stay at home but if I decide to go to school, I stand the risk of having to rush back home in case of an outbreak.”
A week later, the Trump administration agreed to rescind the directive, after MIT and Harvard filed a lawsuit against the immigration authorities and 15 other universities joined the amicus brief in support of them. Though the regulations were reversed, it left behind the hurt, trauma, and panic.
“As an international student, I’ve seen and experienced multiple instances where we are disadvantaged because of our status,” says Bhatia. “We stay away from our families because it’s building our futures. We stay up late nights and our families wake up early in the morning just so we can talk to each other. When I traveled over 6,000 miles, I thought I was going to a place that would appreciate my different views, but now I’m being told that they don’t care for me.”
The moment initiated a bigger conversation for Higher Education in America: What do campuses lose when they lose international students?
One clear loss would be the richness of religiously diverse campuses.
“International students significantly contribute to the religious diversity on campus,” says Rev. Dr. C. Denise Yarbrough, director of religious and spiritual life at the University of Rochester. “We have an interfaith chapel, we have Hillel, Muslim Students Association, we have a large population of Roman Catholic Christians. International students are active members of each of these communities and to lose them would be to lose the flavor and quality of campus life. It’d be a huge loss for our community, not just financially but also socially, and it’s true for every major campus in the country.”
International Students are also eager to participate in formal Interfaith learning opportunities on campus. According to a recent article in the Journal for the Study of Postsecondary and Tertiary Education, first-year International students are more likely than American students to take part in structured interfaith activities—for example, attending services for a religious tradition outside their own, participating in a service project that incorporates an interfaith dialogue or reflection, or living in a religious diversity-themed residence.
“I can’t think of Yale without international students and I can’t think of our chaplaincy without them,” says Sharon Kugler, Yale’s university chaplain. “When I first heard the news, I couldn’t believe it. It felt unconscionable to do that to a group of people who are already apprehensive about their visa status during the pandemic.”
She adds, “There isn’t a group on campus, especially in spiritual and faith communities, that doesn’t have international students in them. They are a seamless part of our community. They are not just a part of our academic programs, but a part of our lives, our conversations; they bring to us the richness of their homes and the depth of their learning circles.”
Others talked about the impact international students have on the sociocultural diversity and worldview perspectives on campus.
“International students bring a unique aspect of the diversity that all of our campuses now want so badly – their perspectives on every issue, the histories of their countries and how that informs their opinion-making, and sometimes also very specific racial/ethnic identities,” says Rev. Alison L. Boden, Dean of Religious Life and the Chapel at Princeton University.
“Roughly 27% of students at Mount Holyoke College are international students,” says Bhatia. “When these students aren’t welcome in the country the school is losing such valuable cultural diversity. As a result of the virus, we’re already forced to remain virtual. On one hand, it’s a comfort to know that regardless of our distance we will be able to maintain our community. On the other, it’s disappointing that a lot of us will be unable to meet in the spaces we held so close to our hearts. The religious and cultural spaces where we formed new friendships and were able to educate other people about our beliefs and traditions.”
Both students and campus administrators believe there is a higher need to recognize the value international students bring to campuses and that this moment has propelled them to revisit and think about their approach towards them.
“I hope it’s even a little bit reassuring to our students that the university is working strenuously to make sure we do everything in our power to help them,” says Rev. Yarbrough. “We know how scary it is for students right now and the lack of in-person communities makes it even harder. But we are thinking of ways to accommodate social distancing and still have in-person classes or some sort of hybrid classes in the future and have spaces for activities so students can come together. It’s the nature of faith communities to build relationships and international students enrich those spaces and bonds.”