The State Department’s national interest exemption will enable international students with visas to return to campus in the fall, but students without visas will continue to face entry barriers.
The national interest exemption is for students coming from countries with COVID-19-related travel bans including China, South Africa, Brazil, Iran, Ireland, U.K. and Schengen region of Europe.
Cheryl Matherly, vice president and vice provost for International Affairs, said while this news is positive, the situation presents difficulties for incoming freshmen and sophomores who were not on campus last semester, as these students may not have visas.
As of April 26, 50 percent of the world’s consulates were closed or only offering emergency services. Of the open consulates, Matherly said students are seeing wait times ranging from one to 200 days for visas. This, along with COVID-19 travel restrictions, has made it difficult for international students to travel to the U.S.
Matherly said many students are looking for alternative ways to get visas by going through a third country, even if consulates in their home countries are closed.
Kelly Sun, ‘24, is one of 37 first-year Chinese students enrolled in the Lehigh in Residence program in Shanghai.
Sun said while booking plane tickets and making appointments is challenging, she is doing whatever possible to make it to campus next semester.
“If I am unable to get a visa appointment in Shanghai, I will go to Dubai to get an appointment,” Sun said.
According to responses to a Lehigh location survey, 61 freshmen, 113 upperclassmen and 81 graduate students studied out of the country this past semester. Of the one million international students studying at American universities, Matherly said roughly one third of those students come from China.
For incoming freshmen from China, Matherly said Lehigh will once again be offering the Lehigh in Residence program in Shanghai. Lehigh developed a core of 14 courses that would be applicable to students, regardless of major, and hired faculty in Shanghai to teach these courses.
Matherly said Chinese upperclassmen, who require more specialized courses and major-specific classes, will either study remotely or have the chance to go abroad in their home country.
“We’re doing whatever we can do to help people stay on track to graduation so that they are not penalized by something that isn’t their fault,” Matherly said.
Taking classes remotely has posed difficulties for Chinese students, who have had to adapt to a 12-hour time difference.
Scott Chu, ‘24, who is enrolled in remote Lehigh courses and the Lehigh in Residence program, has struggled with time zone issues.
“I have to keep myself awake to take a math exam at 4 a.m.,” Chu said.
While time differences are difficult to navigate, Matherly said some international students have told her “it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be.” She said they reported how accommodating professors have been.
A student enrolled in a 2 a.m. calculus class told Matherly he was moved when his professor set up office hours on a Sunday night out of convenience for the students in China.
“This was a little gesture, but it made a huge difference,” Matherly said. “I will never say that taking calc 3 at two in the morning is a pleasant experience, but it is also easier to do when you know that people are trying to do right by you.”
Chinese students are also facing challenges regarding the COVID-19 vaccination. The university announced it will be requiring U.S.-authorized, FDA approved vaccinations for all students participating in on-campus activities.
Though China’s vaccine is not approved by the FDA, many Chinese students are still planning to receive it.
“After I am fully vaccinated, I do not plan to get another shot in the United States,” Chu said.
Matherly said Lehigh joined a group of Pennsylvania schools to send a letter to the state’s congressional delegation asking for help taking action with department, state and homeland security regarding a number of immigration delays.
“As we continue to watch COVID rates around the globe go up and down, we’re going to see places open and close, and we’re gonna see times shorten and lengthen,” Matherly said. “We’re going to try to be as flexible, as accommodating, as we possibly can be because we’re dealing with things that are out of our control.”