Bohan Zhang had planned to start his sophomore year in Blacksburg.
Instead, the 20-year-old computer science student will be on a flight to Beijing next week, thanks to a new federal rule that will restrict international students’ ability to take online courses.
International students nationwide, including nearly 4,000 who study at Virginia Tech, could be deported if universities are forced to revert to online-only classes in the fall semester because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The new policy, quietly published Monday by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has sent ripples of fear and uncertainty through the academic community.
While Tech and some other Virginia universities have pledged to provide a mix of online and in-person classes for the fall, the rule makes it clear that if a college switches to all-online classes midway through the semester, international students “must leave the country or take alternative steps to maintain their non-immigrant status such as transfer to a school with in-person instruction.”
Zhang had hoped to take all his Tech classes online from his off-campus home in Blacksburg, fearing that in-person classes would put him at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.
Initially, he had rebuffed calls from his parents to leave the U.S. and its growing virus caseload, in part because of the cost of an airplane ticket — which he said had ballooned from about $1,000 last year to $7,000 this month.
“I didn’t want to go back to China, like, one year” after starting at Tech, Zhang said. “Because of ICE, I had to go back.”
Tech officials remain confident that international students can remain in Blacksburg and be in compliance. The university says it’s working closely with students and helping them navigate course requirements, per their visas. Tech plans to release a list Monday of which classes will be online, in-person or both.
“We are committed to our international students and their important role in Virginia Tech’s unique educational experience and growth as a global land-grant university,” President Tim Sands said in a statement Tuesday.
But uncertainty remains around whether an outbreak or resurgence in COVID-19 cases could void the university’s plan to hold in-person classes.
“Personally, I’m doubtful that happens, if cases keep going up in Southwest Virginia,” said Ryan King, a graduate student who co-authored an op-ed in this newspaper on Thursday against the federal policy. “I think that the big fear, say the time comes, ... the university says it’s in the best public health interest that we all go online. … It’s just a really bad situation.”
King says the policy is not just a university issue. If students are forced to leave the U.S., the exodus would have a detrimental effect on the local economy. More broadly, he said the rule follows a long line of policies that create an unwelcome atmosphere for immigrants and international scholars.
“It’s an attack on the international community, period, whether they’re in school or not,” King said. He noted that international graduate students contribute to research at Tech, and that Tech’s two faculty scientists leading the university’s COVID-19 testing plan are foreign-born.
“I very much support the stand that we try to avoid doing things that are really going to undercut our research in the U.S.,” Michael Friedlander, Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology, said in an interview Thursday. “It would be a terrible loss for our country if suddenly we lost all of our international students.”
Jianuo Huang, who graduated from Tech in the spring and is the outgoing president of the Virginia Tech Association of Chinese Students and Scholars, said he was shocked by the policy.
Roughly 7% of undergraduates at Tech are international students, a majority from China. King said as many as 1 in 3 graduate students are foreign-born.
Already, several students, like Zhang, are planning to go home or halt their studies.
“A lot of students are saying, I might just go back to China and take it online, or take a gap year,” Huang said. He noted many students in Blacksburg find themselves in a difficult position, because it is hard to travel to China and may prove harder still to ever return to the U.S.
Many colleges see the policy as a way to put financial pressure on them to reopen with in-person classes.
International students pay more in tuition than domestic students, and contribute significantly to universities’ budgets.
The regulation came out on Monday, the same day Harvard University announced it would hold all online classes for the fall.
“The order came down without notice — its cruelty surpassed only by its recklessness,” Harvard University President Larry Bacow said in a statement Wednesday announcing that the school would sue the administration. “It appears that it was designed purposefully to place pressure on colleges and universities to open their on-campus classrooms for in-person instruction this fall, without regard to concerns for the health and safety of students, instructors, and others.”
Dozens of universities have filed amicus briefs in the federal lawsuit brought by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
An ICE spokeswoman said in an email Friday the agency could not discuss the policy because of pending litigation.
Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said Tuesday on CNN that the change provided more flexibility than pre-pandemic regulations that required international students take no more than one course online.
“If they’re not going to be a student or they’re going to be 100% online, then they don’t have a basis to be here,” he said. “They should go home, and then they can return when the school opens.”
On Thursday, Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner joined Democratic colleagues in calling for the rule to be rescinded.
“We call out this policy for what it is: a cruel, senseless, and xenophobic attempt to use noncitizens as political pawns in order to financially coerce colleges and universities to reopen campuses this fall, despite what is best for public health,” members of Congress wrote in a letter to the agency.
Rep. Ben Cline, R-Botetourt and Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, whose districts encompass Tech, Radford University, Liberty University and Washington and Lee University, among others, could not be reached for comment through spokesmen.
For now, Zhang plans to take Tech classes online, at night from Beijing. He considers himself among the lucky students who was able to get an airline ticket home. But it remains an open question whether a January or February resurgence of COVID-19 would hinder his ability to reenter the U.S.
“Since I got a ticket ... it will be fine,” he said. “I’m just really worried about next year.”