When the pandemic hit the United States, international students at Portland State University were forced to contend with multiple stressors all at once. Thousands of miles from home, students worried about their families and friends abroad, had flights canceled and suffered financial hardships and homesickness — all while having to keep up with changing immigration policies.
International students poised to graduate experienced a particularly painful Catch-22: They couldn’t maintain their immigration status for more than two months after graduation and yet many also couldn’t return home due to the pandemic and travel restrictions.
“There was a tremendous amount of anxiety,” says Christina Luther, director of International Student and Scholar Services.
Luther says eventually most — if not all — of these students were able to return home. Then came July.
“The month of July was the worst month I've had in my 23 year career, as far as immigration regulations go,” says Luther. July was when the federal government announced a new rule that international students could not maintain their visa status when enrolled in remote courses.
“Initially, we were looking at having to send pretty much all of our students home,” says Luther.
That rule was changed, thanks in part to pushback from colleges and universities like PSU, but a replacement rule meant that new international students were still required to be enrolled in at least one in person or hybrid class. “We scrambled and put together a couple of hybrid classes in collaboration with the Intensive English Language Program,” says Luther.
While many new and continuing international students remain in Portland, others have opted to continue their studies remotely from their home countries. For some that means taking courses in the middle of the night, for others, like a student who lives in the hills of Oman with sketchy wifi, it means traveling to an internet cafe to do school work.
“International students add a richness to PSU that we otherwise wouldn't have,” says Luther. “There are some incredible stories out there of what students are doing to try to keep up.”
This fall, just over 1,000 international students are enrolled at PSU. These students come from a variety of countries, including China, India, Saudia Arabia, Kuwait, Vietnam, South Korea and Oman. They each have a story to tell.
Here are some of their stories:
Shaomeng Zhang enrolled in the graduate teacher education program in PSU’s College of Education last year. She is studying to be a Mandarin language teacher.
“My experience in the pandemic was pretty, actually awful,” she says. “Although my hometown was not close to Wuhan, my family's still affected by this pandemic.”
Zhang’s mom lost her part-time job at the beginning of the outbreak. “My mom was the only financial support I had,” she said.
Without financial support from her mother, Zhang struggles to pay her bills. “I couldn’t fall asleep and always dreamed that I was kicked out of my apartment because I couldn't pay my rent on time; I almost dropped out of school because I couldn't pay my tuition on time.”
Zhang said while she has been able to secure some funds from PSU, she is ineligible for many forms of assistance, including work-study, because she is an international student. She is looking for a part-time job here while her mom tries to get a job in China.
Zhang says that besides the financial struggles, the changing immigration policies have been a big stressor.
“Whenever I received an email from the international students office, I was so anxious,” she says. “Every single time I received some new immigration rules, I was like, ‘Why did you do this to international students?’ I have no clue.”
This summer, Zhang worried that she would be affected by a federal immigration rule change that barred international students from maintaining their visa status while taking remote classes. She was heartened that some of the students in her cohort — she is the only international student in the group — signed a petition to reverse the decision. Thankfully, the decision was reversed.
For now it’s too expensive and too risky for Zhang to visit her family in China, and so she plans to stay in Portland until her program ends in June 2021.
Where will she go after that?
“It totally depends on whether I can find a job here,” she says. “Ideally, I want to find a job here.” Although she has gone through a lot, she still tries to think positively and has hope for the future when everything is back to normal.
Qusay Aqooly is an international student from Iraq working on a PhD in structural engineering. He started at PSU in 2015 and hopes to finish his degree next year.
For Aqooly, the pandemic has been a balancing act. He is keeping tabs on how his home country is faring during the pandemic while managing his day-to-day life as a PhD student, husband and father.
“It’s so, so hard,” he says. “Iraq is one of the worst countries in terms of suffering from the pandemic.” He recently learned that his brother-in-law died from COVID-19 after contracting the virus in a hospital.
“I am a father of two kids, and they have school, and I work as a tutor for them also,” he says. “I live in a small apartment, and it's hard to find a spot so that I can work.”
Fortunately for Aqooly, he finished most of his experimental work before the pandemic hit. He is studying how best to do seismic retrofits to protect steel buildings from earthquake damage and is working on a project to retrofit Portland’s VA hospital.
He spent the summer completing his thesis proposal and has moved onto theoretical work this term, which doesn’t require him to be on campus. However, he says that demand for the software he uses for his theoretical work has gone up due to the pandemic, and he now has to negotiate with other students to find time to use it.
Since Aqooly only received funding for the first five years of his program, starting this fall he isn’t earning any income.
“All the pressure is on my wife to make some money for our life,” he says. He hopes he’ll be able to be a teaching assistant next term to earn some money while he works to finish his degree.
Given the challenges of this year, Aqooly isn’t sure whether he’ll be able to complete his degree in the next year so he’s hoping to get an extension from his sponsor.
“If I can get extra time, that would be something wonderful,“ he says.
Hussain Alsalem, an international student living in Saudi Arabia, first began his studies at PSU in 2006. He studied English for a year and then began to pursue an economics degree.
“Everything was going fine until I had a run-in with the immigration authorities,” says Alsalem. Alsalem says that in 2011 he dropped a course, which meant he was under-enrolled, a violation of his visa. After spending years trying to clear up the situation — including attending 12 immigration hearings — Alsalem decided to go back to Saudi Arabia and reenter the U.S. with a new visa.
“I went home in January 2014. I applied for a visa, which was rejected. I did that five times over the next six years with no success. They never really give you any reason to reject you,” says Alsalem.
Alsalem, who only had 58 credits left to graduate, tried everything he could think of to finish his degree. He couldn’t finish it remotely because of PSU’s residency requirement, and he couldn’t finish the degree at other universities because none of them would accept that many transfer credits.
“It's been really tough,” he says.
Then COVID-19 swept across the globe, forcing universities — including PSU — to offer many, if not all, of their courses remotely.
“I was just sitting one day thinking and it occurred to me that everybody's doing classes remotely now so it wouldn't matter where I was,” he says. “I got into my laptop, I emailed Christina [Luther] . . . I will never forget that exchange.”
Alsalem was able to re-enroll at PSU and completed the summer term with “pretty much straight A’s.” He says he’s doing well this term, too, despite taking courses that begin at midnight and 2:40 am his time. He is now hoping to graduate at the end of winter term, 15 years after he first began at PSU.
“I still, to this day, kind of can't believe that I'm finally doing this,” he says. “It feels incredible. I feel like I'm in a dream."
Siyue Liu is from China and is majoring in finance. She normally goes home to visit her family twice a year.
“At the beginning of the year I planned to go back to China during the Lunar New Year,” she says. “I had told my professors, bought my airplane ticket, had it all planned out.”
Unfortunately, Lunar New Year was right when the pandemic was worsening in China and her flights kept getting canceled and rescheduled until they were canceled for good.
“I didn't go home so I'm so homesick,” she says.
She hasn’t seen her family since last summer. “I want to see them; I can't see them,” says Liu. “My mom texts me everyday just to make sure I'm still alive.”
Fortunately, Liu is set to graduate during winter term and is hoping to return home after she finishes, if not sooner.
“I don't want to wait,” she says.
Despite really missing her family and her friends, Liu says online courses have improved her time management skills, and she is enjoying her classes
“This term I have four classes, and there are three professors; I really like them,” she says. “They gave us a lot of resources.” She says she’s also been happy that she can easily schedule office hours with her professors and quickly get answers to questions from International Student Services via email.
“That is very helpful,” she says.