On The Pandemic

On The Pandemic: How COVID-19 affects international graduate students

On The Pandemic

This piece appears as part of our On The Pandemic column, featuring commentary about the COVID-19 pandemic from a diverse set of voices.

When I chose where to pursue my Ph.D. as an international student, Georgetown’s global reputation made it the perfect option. The university has long been praised—and praised itself—for being a global institution, not only due to its top-ranked, prestigious School of Foreign Service, but also due to its multitude of international students and faculty members. The history department, where I knew I would be studying, is very collegial and welcomes global approaches. This complex environment makes the academic experience unique, as hearing perspectives from all over the world is an essential part of the training. The active engagement with international students develops understandings of the field that are not focused on a single narrative or a single nation-state, but rather on the interconnections among different societies. So far, my experience has been everything I had hoped for.

Until the onset of COVID-19, that is. As cases began to rise, I left my tiny apartment in D.C. and returned to Brazil on an expensive set of plane tickets, the prices having spiked from all the canceled flights. While many students shared housing with friends and family members and were able to comfortably lock down in their D.C. apartments, my only option in D.C.’s expensive real estate market was to live in a 300-square-foot studio, where I could not afford to simultaneously stock up on supplies, have space for storage, and take care of my mental health. As an international student, I had doubts about whether I would be able to afford the high medical bills in the United States, in the event I contracted the poorly-understood disease. Given these circumstances, I left the country.

Now, alongside many other students from across the globe, I am unable to return to the States. As per a U.S. government proclamation issued on May 24, I would have to spend 14 days in a second country before entering the U.S., which would be logistically and financially infeasible coming from Brazil. With a currency conversion rate of five Brazilian Real to one U.S. dollar, my family would not be able to support me financially. The pandemic has also suspended many flights, making the 10-hour routes from my city to D.C. more infrequent and expensive. Adding a third country to the itinerary would only complicate this scenario. 

In light of these struggles, the COVID-19 pandemic has made me question the university’s real commitment to the global character it parades around. International graduate students have not been invited to meet with university officials, nor have we been able to understand, through other means, which proposals are being discussed to address our specific concerns as international graduate students. These include making it clear whether we will be able to telework in the coming semester, as many of us will be holding teaching assistantship positions, as well as clarifying if we will be able to meet the requirements for Optional Practical Training (OPT), a program that allows for work experience on a student visa while outside the United States. Moreover, travel plans have also been affected in many departments. In the history department, graduate students conduct archival research in various countries in order to write our dissertation. International graduate students are afraid they may not be able to return to the U.S. in the event they travel for academic purposes. No university statement has clearly addressed international graduate students’ needs.

In addition to those particular challenges, international graduate students share concerns with our broader international community. International students face many challenges related to nationality in their fall semester plans. Concerns include: not being able to travel back to the U.S. due to financial barriers and restrictions on student visa holders, obtaining a student visa while U.S. consulates are closed, teleworking and participating in online classes from abroad. Moreover, foreign students who have stayed in the U.S. over the summer are afraid of leaving the country, as they may not be able to return. International students also have doubts surrounding our ability to maintain good standing if we travel abroad and are unable to return, especially if the pandemic continues with additional waves. 

There is also a lot of uncertainty and contradictory messages coming from departments and university officials as to the possibility graduate student workers, in the event that they are unable to travel to the United States, can be authorized to telework and take online classes from abroad. Because it is unclear whether OPT requirements can be fulfilled online, those interested in the OPT program don’t know if they will be able to work under a hybrid environment. Finally, nearly all international students, undergraduate and graduate alike, have been impacted by travel limitations, as many haven’t been able to have their visas processed due to consular closures globally. 

 Even if we are able to overcome these financial and logistical barriers and return to campus in the fall, international students, like many others, are unsure if the university will be able to guarantee a healthy environment in a nation where COVID-19 cases continue to rise. It is unclear if personal protective equipment and social distancing guidelines will effectively protect students, staff, and faculty members. Many students doubt they will have a fulfilling academic experience—office hours restrictions will heavily limit necessary socialization and collaboration with peers, and in-class discussion will likely be compromised. Given the high-risk environments such as classrooms that constitute a campus, many faculty members have already declared they will not teach in-person classes.

Graduate students also fear not being able to speak in classrooms while masked, which challenges the pedagogical purposes of a seminar. Classes at the graduate level demand intense communication. The seminar format requires all students to express themselves, as they examine dense readings. In my department, in-class discussions often involve at least one entire book per class every week. Wearing a mask or being afraid of the safety of a closed environment are factors that may prevent us from having a productive discussion. Given these constraints, online instruction would be more appropriate than any hybrid or in-person solution.

One could argue that these issues, such as travel restrictions, lie with the federal government rather than the university. However, it is in Georgetown’s hands to ensure that our campus functions in the fall in a way that benefits our community as a whole. The reopening plans the university seems to be making do not take into account the needs of all international students, many of whom are currently stranded outside the U.S., unable to return or to even obtain their documents to study at Georgetown, the self-described global institution. 

Georgetown must act quickly and transparently. Its unclear messages and silence on international student issues have contributed to depression and anxiety among its students. The administration must take steps to live up to its status as one of the best universities in the world—key among them is considering the needs of its international students. Whereas the university has been silent on international student matters, student-led organizations have attempted to support our demands. International students have created a group chat with more than 80 members in which we have shared our concerns, anxieties, and demands in view of Georgetown’s inertia. GAGE, our graduate student union, has reached out to this group to listen and to advocate for us. Some departments, including my own, have also attempted to support international students. The history department has received written concerns from international graduate students, invited a graduate student to be part of a faculty meeting, and expressly told graduate students that our needs will be considered, including those arising from the travel limitations imposed on many of us. But ultimately, the power to decide isn’t with departments or student organizations, but with the university administration. It is time for Georgetown to speak.


Image Credit: Matthew Loffhagen

João Gabriel Rabello Sodré
João Gabriel Rabello Sodré is a Ph.D. student in the history department. He holds an M.A. in Global Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Rabello Sodré is also an attorney in Brazil.

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