The Office of International Affairs has begun to offer new plans and options for international students and students wishing to study abroad. Lehigh has not yet announced a decision on what the fall 2020 semester will look like. (Kate Morrell/B&W Staff)

Lehigh offers alternate plans for international students, study abroad

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The Office of International Affairs is working with partner universities on plans to offer incoming international students Lehigh-specific programming in their host country should they be unable to come to Bethlehem for the fall semester.

The new program, Lehigh in Residence, will allow students to take classes in person at a university that is recognized by Lehigh, with approved courses. The program was devised given the fact that most U.S. consulates around the world are closed due to COVID-19 — and it is uncertain when they will reopen. Cheryl Matherly, the vice president and vice provost of International Affairs, said there will be a potential backlog in processing student visas, meaning that new students may not be able to travel to the U.S. this fall, regardless of the virus situation or Lehigh’s upcoming decision on the semester. 

Matherly anticipates Lehigh will be able to offer additional grants to students studying at the partner university. The Office of International Affairs will also be working with LTS to assist any students without computers or internet at their homes.

Matherly said the number of international undergraduate students committing to Lehigh has been reasonably consistent with previous years. Although it is still early to assess graduate student recruiting, the Office of International Affairs expects a drop in the number of new international graduate students.

“We are very concerned that COVID-19 is making it difficult for international students to travel to the U.S., and that some students will choose to remain closer to home during this period of uncertainty,” Matherly said. “We have tried to help address students’ concerns so that they may make the best choice for them.”

The Study Abroad Office is also working with students to plan for a few different scenarios. Though all study abroad programs for the summer have been canceled, students are still planning for the possibility of travel during the fall.

Katie Radande, director of the Lehigh study abroad program, said students expecting to study abroad are creating two plans.

These students are preparing for their abroad trips while also registering for courses at Lehigh, should travel not be possible. They have secured fall housing on campus, and the Study Abroad Office informed Housing Services that these students may or may not be going abroad.

Radande said the Study Abroad Office is working with about 20 students for the fall, a typical number. Many students are also meeting with advisers to plan for future trips.

“I can see that the interest for participating in study abroad is still there, and I’m really happy to see that actually,” Radande said.

She said the Study Abroad Office is working with different partners around the world to put together a contingency plan of their own. They are considering having students start the fall semester virtually and then travelling to their host country around October — a plan that would give countries some more time to open their borders as well as address issues students may have with getting visas. 

Radande said the office is waiting to see what changes occur over the next few months and will be relying on information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of State.

As for future winter and spring programs, only time will tell. The office will continue planning with students and looking at possible options.

“It’s just so far away, it’s hard to know what may happen,” Radande said. “We don’t know what Lehigh will look like (or) what other countries are going to have in place in terms of travel restrictions. Right now, everything is up in the air, not just with study abroad, but a lot of things.” 

Students have contacted the office with many questions regarding the likelihood of travel, questions Radande said no one has answers to. Some students have indicated that their families are uncomfortable with them traveling in the fall but would still like to look for future opportunities.

Radande said students going on trips in the near future will be briefed on any important changes in their host country. For example, students usually enjoy traveling to other countries while abroad, but independent travel may be restricted.

The type of housing that’s available might also be altered. She said programs that have offered living with families in the past may be moving toward something else to limit the contact that may happen while living with a family.

Just as Lehigh is unsure if students living in the U.S. will be able to travel abroad, the university is uncertain as to whether international students will be able to travel back to America.

Matherly said there are also many questions about visas and financial aid.

“The biggest risk for our new international students is whether they will be able to get a visa to come to study in the U.S. in time for the fall semester,” Matherly said.

Swetha Ramesh, ‘22, a computer science and business major, was planning on going to Japan for the summer to do research through the Iacocca International Internship Program. She was notified of the program’s cancellation around the same time Lehigh moved to online learning.

Ramesh said she was offered three options: she could do an online internship this summer; participate in the Iacocca Global Village, which involves working with a group of international students; or defer her original plan for next summer. Though she chose to defer, she said she might not follow through with it.

Ramesh said, as a rising junior who is also searching for internships, timing is everything, and deferring the trip to summer 2021 means she would have to choose what she thinks is most important.

“Honestly, right now, it’s just a competition between those two things,” Ramesh said. “If I’m able to get an internship by December, I’m going to take that, and I’m not going to take Iacocca,” Ramesh said.

In that case, Ramesh would not get to travel anywhere with Lehigh because studying abroad for a spring or fall semester is not an option for her. She said her degree has many restrictions and required courses on campus.

“I want to be out within the four years, so if I was going to do anything abroad, it was going to be for the summer,” Ramesh said.

On the other hand, her research on campus has allowed her to continue doing Mountaintop research on virtual reality coding, which is why she didn’t choose the virtual internship option for Iacocca this summer, she said.

She even has the VR equipment in her home because she met with someone from LTS when she moved out who gave her the necessary tools. She received an Alienware PC, a desktop, a VR headset, controllers and monitors. 

If she does end up abroad for summer 2021, however, Ramesh said she is not concerned about her health. Ramesh followed Japan closely as it was hit with COVID-19 and felt they did a good job managing it.

“If I’m still going to Japan next year, I have no worries at all,” Ramesh said. “I trust them. I feel like I’d be safe there.”

Radande said the study abroad programs have a comprehensive health insurance plan that students are automatically enrolled in. She said their programs have always had strong emergency and crisis response protocols in place. They partner with a medical and security company called International SOS that provides medical referrals and assists with student illnesses or emergencies abroad.

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