A petition on behalf of the international students of Georgetown was sent to the university’s administration on May 19, urging them to acknowledge and address the unique challenges the international student body faces during the COVID-19 crisis in policies moving forward.
Written by Ashanee Kottage (SFS ‘22) and Felipe Lobo Koerich (SFS ‘21), the petition cites a variety of difficulties international students faced this past semester as the university adjusted to virtual learning, including moving off-campus and out of the country alone, transitioning to online learning with time zone and internet access barriers, and the financial challenges of COVID-19 abroad. A central point of the petition emphasizes the current lack of policy from the university that addresses the challenges faced by international students.
“At the end of the day, we do have specific and unique concerns that would get lost if we hadn’t taken a step like this to make sure they’re heard,” Lobo Koerich said.
The petition centers around four core requests addressing the challenges of the last semester for the international student body. First, the petition asks that international students be included in discussions about plans for the upcoming fall semester and the university’s response to COVID-19. Secondly, it requests that the university allows students to opt into synchronous or asynchronous learning, and adopts universal academic policies to accommodate international students and provide equitable forms of learning.
The petition also asks that the administration enact policies acknowledging logistical obstacles faced by international students, including providing them equal opportunity to return to campus as domestic students, and that they consider the financial situation of international students, proposing the expansion of financial aid and scholarship opportunities for students abroad. International students were eligible to apply for relief funding alongside the rest of the student body.
“We just wanted to make sure that at some level, the administrators making the decisions for the next semester had access to a concrete and explicit list of our concerns and demands,” Lobo Koerich said. “I think in terms of an ideal university response, they would engage more directly with the international student body in some way and include us, and generally students, in discussions about the fall.”
The petition was released for signatures on May 14 and sent to members of the university’s administration five days later. It currently has 310 virtual signatures, including 105 international students, 144 domestic students, and 35 members of Georgetown faculty and staff.
As the university’s response to the pandemic developed, Kottage and Lobo Koerich felt that international students were overlooked in the move-out process. “Definitely as an international student, we did feel a little left out in those instructions because we got the same timeline, we got the same instructions,” Lobo Koerich said, who lives in Campinas, Brazil. “There were no really special guidances for us.”
A specific concern that troubled Kottage was the lack of a universal academic policy, leaving each international student responsible for making their own arrangements with professors. For students like Kottage with a nine-hour and 30 minute time difference, this sometimes meant taking classes from 11 p.m. until the early hours of the morning. “The burden was on us to individually negotiate all those policies with every single professor. And that’s totally fine during a crisis situation, but it’s not if that’s the new normal,” she said.
“There are all these important concerns that affect our lives in very real and tangible ways,” Kottage added. “And things that I thought were normal that we just had to deal with in crisis situations, but we shouldn’t have to deal with in a situation that would’ve been more thought out and planned.”
With these issues in mind, Kottage reached out to Lobo Koerich and together they began to write the petition. While writing, the pair faced the challenge of addressing a large and diverse student body’s concerns and condensing them into a central message.
“We’re not a homogenous group of students with a homogenous set of issues,” Kottage said. “It was a lot of taking into account that everyone has a different situation, but there are some things that just uniquely bind us as people who don’t live in the U.S. or don’t have permanent addresses in the U.S.”
While writing their concerns, Kottage and Lobo Koerich kept the variety of issues existing within the community in mind, “Obviously Ashanee and I do not encompass the entire international student experience, we knew that starting off,” Lobo Koerich said. “We made sure when we released it to tell people to please reach out to us if you have suggestions or comments.”
When the petition was released, the number of signatures exceeded Kottage and Lobo Koerich’s expectations. International students reached out to the pair, thanking them for writing something that represents issues felt by their community. “A lot of people appreciated seeing their concerns put on paper and directly addressed and sent to people who mattered in making the decisions for the fall,” Lobo Koerich said.
Kottage was encouraged by the positive response from many members of the university’s faculty and staff and was confident in their support even if the administration doesn’t respond to all of their needs. “There were a lot of faculty members that were moved by it and a lot of department heads that individually reached out to us and said that they were circulating it within their departments and they were reassuring in that even if the university doesn’t impose any strict policies, they were willing to work with us.”
After its release, the GUSA Senate passed a resolution in support of the petition and the international students at Georgetown during the global crisis. With this resolution from student representatives, as well as support from faculty members and other Georgetown organizations, international students now look to the administration to address their concerns.
Lobo Koerich feels that their requests in the petition are not entirely unrealistic. “Generally keeping international students at the forefront of the minds of the people making the decisions and making sure they’re not an afterthought or forgotten, I think that’s a very realistic result and really what we kind of intended to achieve when we wrote it,” he said.
At the end of the day, international students like Kottage and Lobo Koerich want to be part of the discussion as the university plans for months ahead and a chance to come back to Georgetown.
“For us, coming to Georgetown is a microcosm of coming to America. It is our only access to the country. For us it’s not just about the education, it’s about the people, the culture, the networks, the support system,” said Kottage. “For us, being in the geographic area and engaging in campus life as usual is so, so, so crucial.”
“We just hope that moving forward we will at least be included in the conversation,” she said.